After a tough day at the office or a rough evening with misbehaving kids, few things are more soothing than a bite of pizza, or a taste of milk chocolate or cake.
Comfort foods have the power to take us away from our woes, at least for a little while. While the definition of a "comfort food" is highly subjective, it typically includes fare such as:
- Fast foods of all types
- Chicken soup
- Macaroni and cheese
- Mashed potatoes
- Desserts of all types
- Ice cream
The power of comfort foods rests partly in how they taste, and partly with emotions they trigger, says Sarah Muntel, a registered dietician and bariatric coordinator at Community Bariatrics North in Indianapolis.
"They taste great, and when you eat them you feel good -- for a while," she says.
Boost for body and mind
People often reach for comfort foods to make themselves feel better. Mashed potatoes may remind you of dinner at Grandma's, while pizza helps you recall a Friday-night ritual with Mom and Dad, Muntel says.
"Comfort foods take you back to a happy place," she says.
The body itself also gets a lift from comfort foods.
"These high-carbohydrate foods can really make you feel good chemically," Muntel says. "When your body eats high carbohydrates -- like a big bowl of spaghetti -- your serotonin levels increase.
Serotonin is the so-called “feel good” hormone that minimizes stress and boosts mood. "This is almost like medicating with food," Muntel says.
However -- as with many things that promise instant happiness -- indulging in comfort foods ultimately can leave us worse off than before. To illustrate, think of how you feel after eating a big bowl of ice cream.
"The sugar in the ice cream increases your serotonin, so you are on a 'sugar high,'" Muntel says. "For those 30 minutes after your ice cream, things are looking pretty good.
The problem is that an hour later, "you don't feel very good and you are regretting eating the ice cream altogether," she adds.
Some studies suggest that the effect of comfort foods may be even more fleeting than previously thought. In 2014, researchers at the University of Minnesota released the findings of two experiments that found no evidence that eating "comfort foods" actually boosts people's moods.
It's worth noting that other studies have indeed found links between eating foods such as chicken soup and a subsequently improved mood.
Avoid the comfort-food trap
Even if comfort foods can lift your spirits, most of these high-sugar or high-fat foods raise long-term health concerns. So, anyone hoping to lose weight or keep their arteries clear should look to alternative ways to lift their mood.
Muntel suggests the following:
1. Turn to your passions at times of stress. Muntel urges you to think about your passions, and to turn to those when you are in a funk. "There are many things that can give you the boost you need that aren't food," she says. "If you love to paint, work on a water color after a stressful day at work instead of hitting the drive-thru."
2. Distract yourself. Instead of rushing out to get a slice of pizza, pause for a moment. "Wait 10 to15 minutes and see how you are feeling," Muntel says. "At this point, you are feeding a feeling, not hunger. Sometimes just waiting a few minutes can make all the difference in the world.
3. Be patient. Realized that you will make mistakes -- and that's OK. "If you have a bad day and eat something you shouldn't, forgive yourself and start over," Muntel says. The biggest mistake is getting so discouraged that you simply throw in the towel and eat even more of a food you should avoid, she says.