Kale might be having its heyday lately, but I have yet to meet anyone who actually reaches for a plate of the vegetable du jour when they’re having a serious case of the doldrums. And I don’t know about you, but I usually find myself craving for a grilled cheese sandwich (stuffed with slices of sharp cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese, fried in a generous helping of butter, and then drizzled with spoonfuls of honey, please) after a particularly long and stressful work day (or after a heated argument with a significant other).
After the first few bites, I can usually feel my mood lift. Such is the nature of comfort food. It varies from person to person, but the general effect is pretty much the same. But is that helping of salted caramel ice cream/chocolate pudding/French fries/(insert your comfort food of choice) really responsible for lifting you out of the dumps? Or is there something else at play here?
Let’s examine both sides of the argument, shall we?
The Placebo Effect: Comfort Food is a Sham
Some nutritionists and researchers have theorized that negative moods generally dissipate over time, whether you stuff your face with spoonfuls of macaroni and cheese or not. Psychiatrists from the University of Minnesota even conducted an experiment with three groups of people to prove it. All the research participants were made to watch video clips that were compiled to elicit feelings of anger or sadness, and were then split into three groups. The researchers gave comfort food to one group, neutral food (described as “food that the participants still enjoyed but didn’t find particularly comforting”) to another group, while the last group was given no food at all (oh, the horror). After a brief interval of time, they were all given questionnaires to gauge their moods. Surprisingly, all the participants reported feeling better, regardless of which group they were part of.
Some psychologists, on the other hand, claim that comfort food works by jogging your memory and bringing you back to happier times. For instance, if you lived for birthday parties as a child, you might crave for birthday cake (or for sweet spaghetti with sliced hotdogs) while dealing with a crisis. Adults who were rewarded with packets of JellyAce for good behavior as children are also likely to reach for a pack long after they’ve moved out of the family home. Or if you were particularly close to your grandma, it might be the thought of her slow-cooked beef nilaga that pulls at your heartstrings. This also explains why different people find different kinds of food comforting*.
*Gender apparently also plays a role in determining the kind of food that you long for. Women have been known to favor sweet treats like chocolate or cake (guys with PMS-y girlfriends might want to take note), while men hanker for savory fare like towering burgers or plates of sizzling sisig.
Brain Chemistry and Evolution: Comfort Food is Legit.
Apparently, there’s a reason why you won’t find kale on most people’s comfort food lists, and we have our prehistoric ancestors to thank for that. Given that our Neanderthal forebears were often on the run from carnivores and from the constant threat of starvation out in the wild, our bodies eventually evolved to have a special liking for fat.
Another angle also reveals that comfort food triggers the brain to generate certain feel-good hormones. Salty food like French fries and potato chips stimulate the production of oxytocin, the hormone that’s responsible for that warm, fluffy feeling you get from hugging or being hugged (or of being attached to someone). Sugary, starchy desserts like cakes and pastries prompt the release of serotonin, which increases the body’s sense of comfort and security (much like how mood-regulating prescriptions like Prozac work).
It’s true that the passage of time does help alleviate negative moods, and that you can do other things to distract your mind such as go for a run, listen to music, or talk to a friend. However, there’s no discounting the level of comfort, imagined or otherwise, that a lovingly-prepared plate of food can bring during one’s darkest moments.
Besides, it’s far more comforting to cry into a bucket of caramel popcorn than on a treadmill at the gym.