Comfort Food Cravings

“If hunger is not the problem, then eating is not the solution.” ~ Author Unknown

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 particularΒ 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

67 thoughts on “Comfort Food Cravings

  1. I have the feeling that I’m re exploring day dreaming to songs as a comfort’s better than eating too much …but then again, anything however “good” it is…turns to not so good when over done πŸ˜‰

  2. When you are tired as well, it’s easier to go for comfort food than to cook a healthy dish. But recently, I’ve managed to jump on the carrot and humous instead of chips. I recommend to everyone as a new comfort food !! πŸ™‚

    • True, Gin. Quite often when one is tired, resistance levels diminish and we can get lax. Your hummus and carrots alternative are good choices. I suspect a number of readers may be on a similar trajectory or perhaps, giving healthy foods more serious consideration.

      • Well….like I told my doctor a few years ago…. 5000 calories of carrots is still 5000 calories. πŸ™‚ And yes, there is some healthy foods being consumed. I love my vegies. I have not yet succumbed to dipping them in chocolate. πŸ˜‰

  3. I have find myself mindlessly eating at various times. It’s definitely a great idea to stop, wait 15 minutes and, hopefully, make a good choice!

    • I’m thinking many of us eat mindlessly, Dale. I’ve always admired those who live monastic lifestyles and truly chew and savor every bite of (sometimes simple) foods they eat. Many of us are scarfers (a word a nephew uses; I don’t even know if it’s a word). I think the 15 minute challenge works for many people — it just requires a bit of focus and discipline. Once practiced a few (maybe more) times, it becomes a new habit.

  4. Important post as we, as a nation, continue to bulk up. Particularly disturbing to read of the health implications of obesity on our small children. High blood pressure and cholesterol in grade schoolers. Very concerning.

    • Very concerning, indeed, Barbara. What I find encouraging is that greater public and private awareness is being created around the benefits of healthy/healthier lifestyle choices. Beating the risks and costs drum for so long, seems to have fallen on deaf ears for many.

      Yet as I so often come full circle to with many of my posts — it is an individual choice.

  5. I admit when I seek comfort food I am definitely not hungry. Fortunately, I don’t stifle my emotions with food routinely. I also turn to certain foods during seasons…soup during the fall and winter. Also, when I’m around my siblings I find more enjoyment eating the foods of our past.

    • And I suspect we’d agree, Suzi, that those seasonal favorites (especially if they are “comfort foods”) if made healthy, are not part of this problem.

      I am well aware of what often gets prepared wen siblings gather… some of mom’s or grandmom’s specialties. And in occasional cases, those foods become allowable indulgences. πŸ™‚

    • I could share a long story about my first, breakfast food truck experience when I lived in San Diego. It’s an amazing burrito story. But I’ll refrain. They make healthy burrito’s don’t they? Somewhere? πŸ™‚

  6. I have suppressed my cravings of comfort foods by replacing them with something nutritious. So instead of eating cake, pie or donuts late into the evenings, I have found two slices of wheat toast with honey satisfies my sweet tooth.

    However my craving occurs between 9 and 11 pm, so I usually venture to the local Denny’s where I include a t cup of hot tea and for the next couple of hours I’m wide awake typing or reading.

  7. I definitely relate to point 2 – “wait”. Many times I’ve had a craving for a packet of crisps (=potato chips) after I’ve finished lunch at work, but I know that if I just go back to my desk I will have forgotten all about the crisps after a couple of minutes.

  8. Fascinating post ~ and it is a bit strange to how my moods can vary a bit depending on what I am eating (and craving). When I am back in the States, I get to indulge myself with foods I normally do not get in Asia (and also tend to gain 5lbs while I am here as well)…but one thing does remain constant: exercise ~ it simply reduces cravings for the trashy food I loved as a kid!

    • I guess some might like clarification as to what constitutes “trashy food.” πŸ™‚ I know that (yes, in moments of weakness or simply, being unaware) I fall for what might still be considered trashy. My ‘go to’ snack at the moment is roasted seaweed. And there are far too many healthy veggies beckoning me to ingest them. Absolutely to your exercise reference, Randy. It’s essential and at the very least, neutralizing.

  9. I guess I’m one of those rare individuals who go the opposite direction and tend to fast rather than reach for the comfort foods in times of crisis! Then again, I’ve never considered myself normal! πŸ˜‰

  10. What if you just love the taste of food??? What if you love delicious tasting things? I get such joy from looking at beautiful food/drink, making it and tasting it. If it’s not good, I won’t eat it but there is usually a party going on on my tongue! πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    • I know those parties on the tongue! It’s often where some (many?) of us lapse. Eating can be and often is a gustatory delight. It’s when what we eat compromises our physical wellness. In the end, of course, it’s an individual’s right to choose what they ingest. But if someone is living with a known health risk, food ought to be a prudent consideration. Truthfully, I love food too. I’ve just morphed into one of those dreaded nutritional label readers, sadly, out of necessity. 😦

  11. I love food but unfortunately my struggles with Gluten and lactose don’t allow me much freedom πŸ˜‰ Which, to be honest, I learnt to see as a good thing. Great post Eric!

    • There are times, Andre, as you have come to learn/know, where dietary limitations or restrictions are an unanticipated blessing in disguise. In your case, awareness allows you to make choices that align with a healthy lifestyle. Here’s to all of the good foods you can still eat!

      • Cheers to that Eric! Unfortunately I had to change due to Acne Inversa, that at the young age of 29 almost flipped my life upside down. Most docs I went to here in Germany didn’t know what it was. Took me months of reading through forums to understand my triggers. Been stable ever since I went Gluten free. If people would know what certain foods can do to our bodies…

      • I know how frustrating an unknown medical diagnosis can be. You are fortunate that they were able to finally isolate the condition. Good on you for creating time (and the understandable need) to research it yourself. To your point, Andre, processed foods – with so many additives – can be problematic if not dangerous. Stable, I suspect, is good place to be now. Congrats!

  12. Eric I have found the research articles on dopamine release and intake of foods high in fat, salt and sugar fascinating. What are your thoughts on the bio chemistry aspect and the food industry’s use of the information?

    • I feel a bit baited. πŸ™‚ I could go on for hours about both their impact on our minds and bodies and the food industry’s huge efforts to mask the risks and harm. It’s the facts behind processed/refined sugar that frighten me most. Once one learns what sugar does to us, physiologically, people will rethink their naivete about its rampant addition to so much of what is sold in stores.

      Here’s a film to watch out for. Dr. Lustig’s breakthrough work shakes the foundations of the modern obesity and junk food scare.

      People are increasingly becoming wiser and less willing to let grocers and producers make available what they think is good for us. It’s not.

      Okay, off my soapbox before I really let loose. πŸ™‚

  13. Wow, you caught me at a bad time, Eric, as I’m currently eating after my dinner while I’m checking your blog but I couldn’t resist my mother’s spiced mushrooms! Haha! But good thing, you reminded me about exercise as a better alternative to getting back to my routine as I still need to prep my mind and my materials up for another week of teaching.

    P.S. I always love your articles. They’re very well researched and grounded. Keep the fires blazing! πŸ˜€

    • Well then, perhaps you might consider reading these blog posts before you indulge in your mother’s spiced mushrooms! Consider the exercise whip cracked at this end. πŸ™‚

      Kidding aside, Reggie, thank you for your kind comment. I’ll do my best to keep the blogging flames fanned.

  14. To prove a point to my (obese) friend I got her to wash her mouth with Listerine when she though she was hungry between meals. If she still ate, it wasn’t about the taste/hunger, which was a sign for her. If she could wait, then she find the will power to abstain.

    • A unique and plausible technique. To which I would add to the consideration mix, strategies mentioned in two earlier comments: 1) “If you don’t but it… you won’t eat it.” and; 2) Drink water instead. Often when we think we’re hungry, it’s truly about thirst.

      How thoughtful of you to refrain from suggesting a bar of soap. πŸ™‚

  15. I agree finding new comfort foods. Ok, I like a slice of gourmet dessert (of any kind except for over sugary squares or deep fried desserts. Nope.). But a comfort food, the test for me, is when I’m sick or I’ve vacationed away from home for several weeks: I like making a Chinese steamed meat dish or savoury steamed custard. It is something I grew up as a child…here in Canada. And yes, it’s healthy Asian. I know I can never go wrong here. I always feel rebalanced, realigned, healthier ..I can’t even explain this one!!

    Other comfort foods have become different ethnic oriented and evolved over the years…peameal bacon sandwich (Toronto based. I live in prairies now.) thin flatbread with zaatar spice from my favourite Middle Eastern bakery that I bike to, etc.

  16. When the urge for comfort food strikes, and it does, having a healthy choice makes a considerable difference. I don’t believe it needs an explanation. πŸ™‚

    And… the fact that you bicycle to your favorite ME bakery earns you extra points! Kudos all around, Jean.

  17. Very nice article Eric, I like your idea of finding new comforts – I think it’s relevant to other areas of our lives too (like when we shop to make ourselves happier). I wonder if we would benefit from training our resilience a little bit more, by making some sort of exercises that would help us go through discomfort. Have you heard of any? Could you give us some advice here?

  18. I suspect if you asked these questions of ten people, you’d likely get ten different replies. I think what works for each individual is going to be unique to them, as they know best their own triggers and how to manage impulses or cravings. I’m unsure this qualifies as “advice,” but I believe focused awareness on why we are drawn to unhealthy comfort food, coupled with conscious choosing can go quite a ways to address this.

    Or another way of answering your question (which I’m not sure I did at all), is to turn it back to you and ask, What would you do to limit or redirect (for example) your shopping impulses? Perhaps your answer to that might yield some insight into “resiliency training” possibilities. πŸ™‚

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