At one time or another, most of us have had food cravings. And often, the preferred choice is “comfort food.” When people eat, they frequently feel better. Yet there’s a big difference between tapping into a food’s inherently calming properties and using food as an emotional anesthesia. That kind of eating may buy you a temporary sense of calm, but it’s usually a quick fix that wears off fast. And where does it often leave people?
Comfort foods work on a purely, and usually deliciously, psychological level. Eating comfort foods from our past works by rekindling happy memories of those times. The same holds true for food that reminds us of someone we loved. Different comfort foods can appeal to different genders. A Cornell University study discovered that women prefer sweet foods such as ice cream, but men go for savory items like soups and steak.
While comfort food may make us feel good at the moment, and may indeed be delicious, psychiatrist Robert Gould suggests that people tend to eat based upon emotion and don’t understand why they think they’re hungry. Think about that. Gould thinks people should ask themselves why they crave a particular food before they eat it and to assess honestly whether or not they are really hungry in a clinical sense. The study also found that men tend to use comfort foods as a reward, while women often feel guilty after indulging.
Regular comfort eating as a response to stress — especially chronic stress — is considered an unhealthy behavior akin to smoking cigarettes. Why? Because comfort foods are often low on nutrition. One 2007 study found that when given both grapes and hot buttered, salty popcorn to eat while watching a sad movie, participants ate far more popcorn.
While foods that produce physical happiness affect our physiology, comfort foods provide happiness on a psychological level. When you’re down in the dumps, however, you probably won’t care about the distinction, as long as you feel better.
People often conflate happiness with comfort. In the case of comfort food, people may be misusing food to soothe themselves to unhealthy results.
If you’re nodding your head in agreement and believe your food cravings may not be in your better, long-term health interests, here are three ways to rethink food cravings and defaults to comfort food:
- Experiment to find new favorites. Consider the possibility that you haven’t yet found your favorite comfort food. Think about choices you never would have thought of years ago. You’re never done learning how to savor nutritious food in new ways.
- Wait. If you’re really craving some comfort food, try waiting 15 minutes before you reach for the chips. It will give you time to evaluate whether you really want it and the craving may subside.
- Find a new comfort. If you’re eating because you’re bored find another way to amuse yourself so you’re not always reaching for food. Try going for a swim, or even a walk. Exercise is a natural mood enhancer. If you’re feeling sad or anxious, try short bursts of any type of activity.