Is It Worth Eating Comfort Food?

By Laura High and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
December 08, 2022
Is It Worth Eating Comfort Food?

Soothing yourself with “comfort food” is an old idea, but these days, given the obesity epidemic in America, it may not be worth the indulgence.

Who hasn’t soothed themselves with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s or an extra-large helping of gooey mac and cheese after a particularly hard day — or week? We’ve all heard about, and certainly many of us have practiced, self-soothing with “comfort food.”

But does eating food that’s satisfying because it’s sugary, fatty, or salty (bad for you) really affect your mood? Or are we just obsessed with food and will use any excuse to overindulge in things we know aren’t good for us?

Given the world’s current obesity epidemic, knowing what triggers some people to overindulge would be quite useful, and it’s an active area of research. More study is needed to fully understand eating patterns, but there is much research about what causes us to comfort ourselves with food, and why, for some people, it goes beyond an occasional indulgence.


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Is eating comfort food an obsession or addiction?

Our drive to find and consume food developed when we had to forage and hunt to survive — when food was sometimes scarce.

Now, for many of us, the temptation to feed is everywhere. We eat for pleasure, not hunger, most of the time.

If indulging in your “forbidden food” of choice is an occasional thing, it’s probably relatively harmless. For some people, however, eating comfort food goes beyond the occasional indulgence, and specific conditions may underlie their eating behaviors, which could be defined as an addiction.

Food addiction can lead to obesity and the many health-related problems that come with it. Research shows a correlation between eating “highly palatable food” and the release of dopamine — the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. It isn’t surprising that sometimes people turn to food to feel better.

For some people, however, the response to dopamine is muted because they have fewer than normal dopamine receptors in their brain. Researchers think this may cause these people to indulge in more of certain foods to try to get the same feeling most of us do from a smaller portion.

When you repeatedly engage in an activity that causes the release of dopamine, like smoking a cigarette or eating a candy bar, your brain recognizes that the level of dopamine is too high and will start to reduce the number of dopamine receptors in an effort to maintain your body’s balance. This gradual decrease in responsiveness, or tolerance, results in needing more and more of a substance, in this case food, to achieve the same effect.

Some people eat in binges and feel that they can’t control them. To qualify as having a disorder, your binges must come at least once a week for 3 months.

What you can do

It’s no wonder that most people will reach for potato chips or ice cream over an apple. Our bodies have reactions to junk food that are different from how they would react to anything found in nature.

Research has shown that carbohydratessugar, and even salt promote addictive behaviors in some people, combined with stress or strong emotions.

The definition of “comfort food” varies from person to person. For some, food cravings are real, and it takes time, no small amount of willpower, and likely professional help to get past them.

But you can redefine what foods are emotionally rewarding. It’s important to understand your triggers if you’re someone who struggles with binging or addiction. With self-awareness, you can monitor and minimize situations that are likely to prompt overeating.

If you resist cravings long enough, you can teach yourself that healthy food makes you feel better (and possibly lose unneeded weight), and that can be a powerful motivator.

Keeping healthy snacks at home or in your purse or car can help. Choose minimally processed foods that have nutritional value as well as fiber to keep you full. Low-fat yogurt or a stick of string cheese coupled with a handful of nuts or a piece of fruit is a great snack.

If you tend to pick up a bucket of deep fried chicken and mashed potatoes for a quick meal after a long day at work, consider making a meal in your slow cooker instead. That way you can put dinner together ahead of time and have control over the ingredients. You can find countless recipes online for healthful, make-ahead, one-dish meals.

What motivates you to choose a piece of fruit over a bowl of ice cream is unique to you. But the more you choose something healthy over comfort food, the easier it will become. Eventually, it won’t be something you’ll even have to think about.


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December 08, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN