Why We Love Comfort Food + 3 Steps to Cut the Cravings

Mac & cheese
Rice pudding
Cream of chicken soup
Cookies
Asian noodles

What is it about certain foods that calm you under stress? That call your name when you’re feeling down? That make you feel better like nothing else can?

Is it possible to feel better without them?

For me, it’s always something creamy – pudding, ice cream, fettuccine alfredo. You might prefer chips & onion dip, or go for a bagel with melted cheese.

Looked at rationally, through my “professional” lens, most people I ask come up with some form of starchy carb, often accompanied by dairy. Inevitably, it’s something from the naughty list.

In times of strife, we don’t tend to crave the healthy choices. Nope. We want the sweet, fatty, starchy, salty, oily stuff that we so piously avoid on the good days.

“Bad” as they are, those choices make nutritional sense.

When you’re in stress mode, the hormonal cascade acts to draw more glucose into your blood. It’s the fuel necessary for you to flee from or fight with the tiger at hand. The liver will access that energy by tapping your small storage reserves, then by converting fat & protein to make more.

This is great if you’re dealing with a short-term situation (or going for a fat-burning power walk). Your body will rebalance in the hours following the episode.

But when the stress continues all day – when the tigers keep showing up in the form of traffic jams, computer glitches, unruly kids, etc. – the recovery doesn’t happen. Your body continues to use and need glucose to drive you through the ongoing crises, shunting this key nutrient away from your brain & nervous system. Read: your ability to think straight and stay emotionally calm goes out the window.

Step in the cravings:

The (starchy, refined) carbs are the quickest route to more glucose.

You want dairy because it’s full of the calcium to nourish & calm your nerves. Plus, when it’s main protein (casein) is broken down, it creates opiate-like compounds that keep you happy & ease your pain, just like endorphins during exercise. (There’s a reason your grandmother gave you warm milk before bed.) Cheese, with its relatively high protein content, is the biggest source of these casomorphins – a fact which makes cheese highly addictive.

Salt, sugar and fat stimulate the brain to release dopamine and other pleasure chemicals in the brain, making you feel better.

Unfortunately, sweet & salty also stimulate the adrenal glands, keeping them pumping out the stress hormones, which can set up a vicious cycle. Coffee, and anything you’ve got an underlying allergy to, also perpetuate the drama in the same way.

Beyond the nutrient factors, and possibly more influential in your choices, you quite likely have an emotional association to the comfort food of choice.

My mother’s a big one for offering snack to a child who’s out of sorts. (This is something I notice more from how she treats her grandchildren than from any conscious recollection from my own childhood.) She’s working from the innocent premise that the moodiness stems from low blood sugar. But even in the face of a child who’s hurt or needing emotional solace she’s not equipped to offer, out come the cookies.

It’s a case of the spoonful of sugar replacing the necessary medicine.

A client once told me how she can easily eat a large bag of chips in lieu of supper when she’s upset. I delved deeper into her story: it turns out that the only time she got anything resembling positive attention from a violent, alcoholic father, it was when he was on an upswing, and he’d bring home chips to have a party. There would be a brief window of laughter and hugs. For her, chips = love.

That’s powerful stuff.

I could ask you similar questions about your own cravings. Maybe not such an extreme case, but I’ve no doubt that you have an emotional connection, a fond memory of a loved one or a special time in your life, linked to what you want in times of strife.

Which becomes the key to moving past the craving for that food.

Before I go there, let me step back into the nutrition piece.

Reason #742 of why it’s important to be well nourished on a regular basis: Eating a solid breakfast and well-balanced meals throughout the day lays the foundation on which you build your health.

When you’re well fed – when your reserves are stocked up – you’re prepared to deal with a crisis if and when it comes up. And this can be anything: a car accident, a sick child or parent, a break-up, losing your job, getting a new job, a move, a death,…

In the midst of the turmoil, if you fall off the good eating wagon, for various understandable reasons, it won’t harm your in the long run, and you’ll recover more quickly.

You can nourish yourself in a similar way on an emotional level. Doing the inner work beforehand prepares you for the acute times as they happen…and they will happen.

It’s a 3-Step Process:

1. Get relaxed and tap into the person or memory that’s connected with the food.

What did/does this person mean to you?

What was she/he providing along with the food?

Hot buttered toast brings me back to my grandparents’ kitchen with the smell of fresh-baked bread coming out of the oven. This was a place where I felt appreciated and understood.

Or, What did the food convey that they could not?

Again, my mother’s cookies and ice cream replace the warm hug and words of encouragement a child needs after a disappointment or a fall.

2. Think of the last time you craved that food.

What was happening? How were you feeling?

What did you need, deep down?

How are those needs met by the feelings you associate with the comfort food?

Rather than pop some bread into the toaster, I might ask myself in what way do I need to be appreciated or understood in this current situation. Do I need loving arms and encouragement rather than a cookie.

3. Fill the void by fulfilling the underlying need.

Get help if you need it.

Talk to a friend.

Call the person in question, even if just to connect.

Who else do you know who can provide what’s missing?

How can YOU be the one to give you what you need?

That said, sometimes, a cookie’s just a cookie, and it’s ok to simply want it.

What do you crave when you’re upset? What do you think it’s doing for you emotionally? When you share in the comments, you open the possibilities for others.

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19 thoughts on “Why We Love Comfort Food + 3 Steps to Cut the Cravings

  1. what a lovely way to assess our emotional cravings for food, cathy! my italian grandmother, who lived right next door, would always serve me pasta with butter (when she was creating what was probably the most fantastic red sauce i could ever have experienced!). it was so very very comforting to me – warm and safe in my grandma’s bright kitchen, watching with fascination as the hot noodles melted the creamy butter in my bowl. i miss those days, and i miss the many rich recipes that passed away along with that sweet little lady with the broken english who loved me so much.

  2. Wow – this is brilliant – just loved the mix of nutritional information which you offered with compassion and the emotional side of the triggers that go with the choices we make. As someone who is recovering from emotional eating, I thank you. It makes such sense. Now to build my own awareness.

  3. When I’m upset, I tend not to eat. Or eat very small amounts.

    But…. I crave lots of comfort food when I’m PMS-ing. I alternate between sugar and salt.

    Thanks to you, I checked out the book The Hormone Cure. I’m now trying Chaste Tree Berry supplements. I look forward to seeing what happens in approximately 1-2 weeks! 🙂

  4. I really like how you dive into the deeper needs that want to be met when we crave food for comfort. Physical cravings and emotional cravings can often feel the same. I love the questions you bring up to get to the root cause and really fulfill the need that craves to be met. When I am in emotional craving it is usually something like lightly salted popcorn. One thing I try to keep in mind is what you mentioned about how it can create an endless cycle once we burn through it.

  5. Great points Cathy, very good points indeed. Personally I believe all my cravings are divine, instructive and necessary including those for certain foods. I rarely question or deny them. I have one rule, I won’t put garbage in my body. I eat very consciously and very nutrient rich. I do the same with indulging, only the best quality natural ingredient ice cream, the best quality of whatever it is that I crave. This mindset change was a game changer for me and turns indulging into an exercise of nourishment and love, which I also believe sends the right messages to my body supporting that trusting relationship between us. Beautiful stuff here.

    • Yes! That’s what I strive to live and to teach. Even starting with the very basic: if it’s not delicious, don’t eat it.

  6. A comprehensive explanation of why we crave comfort foods. Iwas thnking about this yesterday and it actually made me quite sad, thinking how we struggle with life’s challenges, and resolve it through food – indeed it is celebrated as there is a word for it – comfort food. #3 resonated – get to the underlying problem. I cant think of a comfort food, it doesn’t do it for me, but my mum’s homecooking can’t be beaten 🙂

  7. I would have to say ice cream, frozen yogurt or sorbet do it for me. I love anything cold/sweet as dessert. That being said, I think sugar is the toughest for me. I am better off not touching the sweets because once I start, it’s hard to stop.

  8. That’s a great question: “How can YOU be the one to give you what you need?” I know I love comfort food when I’m feeling worn out and beaten up by the world. It’s an emotional hug for me, a way of saying, just step back, take a break, and come back refreshed and stronger.

    You made some wonderful points about already being on a good nutrition plan so that if we do want comfort food, our bodies are already strong and able to recover more quickly. Stress is definitely a factor in how often I want comfort food. The less stress, the more I want to eat whole foods. The more stress, I want something easy and comforting.

    So one of the things I can do when I find myself in that place is realize I can get myself out of that craving by stepping back and realizing what is causing it to begin with and reconnect to comfort in a different way. Good food for thought.

    • What I’ve come to notice, Lois, is that the more I do the work, and the more I focus daily on the nourishing, whole foods, I’ve actually started to crave the better variations. Sweet potatoes, for example, give me that creamy texture & sweetness, without the dairy & sugar.

  9. My comfort foods…green smoothie…I know it doesn’t sound like a comfort food but it really is for me. The other one (from my childhood) is cinnamon toast. You know…toast with butter and then sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top…with the crusts cut off. The adult shortcut for that for me is gluten free toast with butter and don’t worry about the cinnamon and sugar.

    Your suggestions for diving into the deeper issues are so simple and doable for folks who feel the need to figure out some whys around their comfort choices.

  10. Lots of great suggestions here, Cathy, thank you. My grandmother was a loving presence in my childhood and whenever I need a hug I cook something that brings me back to her kitchen. Most of her cooking was pretty healthy (Mediterranean background where processed “food” was not even considered food) but oh how we loved our pasta. I’m so glad we can honor those foods and that they still have a place at the table.

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