Anyone that has tried dieting before will know that there is so much more to food than straight up nutrition. A diet can easily go well… until there is a special event, a night out, a night in or even a time when you just need a little bit of comforting. Vice’s Munchies recently published an article explaining how even while people’s lives are falling apart around them in the war-torn Gaza strip, hot sauce sales and the demand for spicy pepper is consistently on the rise. This Middle Eastern culinary staple not only provides comfort but it is also intrinsically entwined with the Palestinian sense of identity and interlaced with feelings of nostalgia and pride.
I’m a big foodie. Which is why when I’m having a bad day, I come home, order myself some Pho and crispy spring rolls, stick Legally Blonde on and follow it all up with a tub of Ben n Jerry’s cookie dough (yes, an entire tub). Somehow, my favourite foods have the power to turn an irritatingly gloomy day into a time in which I can sadistically enjoy my misery, to revel in it all, thanks to the help of some tasty treats. Of course, comfort eating can be dangerous – studies have proven that emotional eating can lead to obesity. So why do we reach for food when we’re feeling low?
The Oxford Dictionary added the word ‘comfort food’ in 1997, thus sealing it in time – but the action itself is timeless. Food has always provided us with psychological support when we need looking after and according to the experts, the link between eating and feeling better makes sense. When we are young, our caregivers feed us comfort foods when we need them most and a 2011 study found that people with stronger emotional relationships with others, find comfort foods more satisfying. Not only do they psychologically link us to feeling safe and looked after on a subconscious level but they also have the power to make us feel nostalgic.
When I’m feeling hungover or poorly, I desperately crave a bottle of Lucozade (it’s what my mum used to give me as a sick child). But much like the smell of an old perfume, the taste of certain foods can take us instantly back to certain times in our life (for good or for bad) - a glass of red wine after a stressful day at work could transport you back to your Spanish holiday last summer while the meal you had on the day something traumatic happened might still make you feel nauseous years later. What we eat and drink becomes part of our history and thus part of who we are. You might make your stew the way your mum makes it, the same way her mum made it – it’s part of your identity, something that you can be proud of and something that will provide your whole family with comfort on a cold winter’s day.
But it’s not just the psychology of food but also the physiology of it that provides a comfort. Certain foods might actually be able to numb our sadness. It’s no coincidence that the foods we crave when we’re feeling low are often stodgy – I’m looking at you chocolate, chips and crisps. Many of these kinds of foods are full of fatty acids and a study that appears in the Journal of Clinical Investigation wanted to discover more. They got participants to listen to sad music and infused half of them with a saline solution and the other half with fatty acids. Participants had no idea which they’d received but those with the fatty acids reported feeling half as sad as the others.
But of course, the instant hit of dopamine from those five creme eggs you scoffed (okay, I scoffed) can quickly fade away to leave you feeling worse, and the vicious cycle spins around. New research is exploring the relationship between our brains and our gut and experts are even advising that a change in diet can treat and ease symptoms of mental health conditions. A systematic review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests a high intake of fruit, veggies, fish and whole grains is associated with a reduced risk of depression. Nutritionists are now saying it’s no coincidence that the rise in mental health problems over the past 50 years positively correlates to the rise in processed foods.
And while some studies say we get an instant hit from eating fatty foods, others disagree. A study published in the journal of Health Psychology used upsetting movie scenes to put participants in a bad mood and then served each one either a previously indicated comfort food, a granola bar or nothing at all. The study did find a mood improvement when participants ate their favourite snack. But also when they ate the granola bar – and also when they ate nothing at all, proving that people are resilient whether they’re jacked up on a pack of Maryland cookies or not. So maybe comfort eating really is just an excuse to eat delicious food. And hey, who cares? If I can turn my sad day around my indulging in my favourite foods every now and then, I’m pretty comfortable as a comfort eater.