Does Comfort Food Really Help You Feel Better?

Jan 20, 2018 at 10:00 a.m. ET
Image: IgorGolovnov/Getty Images

Can the food you eat actually have an effect on your mood? What about comfort food? You know what we're talking about here — Mom's chicken soup, a heaping bowl of ice cream or mashed potatoes and gravy. Food impacts our lives in more ways than one, but is there really anything to the notion that comfort foods happy us up? Let's find out.

What are comfort foods?

When you say "comfort food," this can mean different things to different people. Often, comfort foods are firmly tied to nostalgia and can be traced back to childhood. For some, they're hearty, home-cooked foods, and for others, they're sweets or other snacks. Many times, these foods are loaded with carbs, sugar or fat, so they're not always the healthiest choices, but if you think they make you feel better, then it seems like a good idea to go ahead and dig in.

Do these foods really make you feel better, though?

Thankfully, there have been research studies on the very topic of comfort foods and mood. A study out of the University of Minnesota, for example, found that while people may be driven to comfort food in hopes it will improve their mood, these particular foods don't seem to make a difference when compared to other options.

Additionally, while comfort foods, especially those of the sugary sort, can trigger the release of dopamine (the brain's pleasure hormone), this mood boost does not last according to Rachel Kelly, author of The Happiness Diet: Good Mood Food. "The immediate high we feel when eating sugary things might help to relieve anxiety temporarily, but we soon experience a crash as our blood-sugar levels drop suddenly," Kelly tells SheKnows.

She also notes there are differences between comfort eating and eating for hunger, as comfort eating usually comes on suddenly and often involves specific cravings for sugar or carbs. Physical hunger, instead, comes on gradually and doesn't feel as urgent, and when you eat for hunger, you eat until you are full and feel satisfied.

"By contrast, with comfort eating, you don’t respond to normal feelings of fullness, but keep on eating and often feel guilty afterwards," Kelly explains. She says this is another solid reason comfort eating generally does not improve our mood long-term and can leave us feeling pretty crummy when all is said and done.

Give your comfort food a health boost

Instead of diving in to your old-favorite dishes or snacks (that you have to admit probably aren't all that great for you) when you're feeling blue, you can instead make some swaps so it doesn't take such a toll on your mood (and your health).

  • Zucchini, kale, parsnip or sweet potato chips instead of regular chips (but consume them in moderation, as they contain high levels of fat)
  • Cauliflower rice for white rice
  • Zucchini or butternut squash noodles or buckwheat noodles instead of pasta
  • Coconut cream instead of regular cream
  • Coconut flour, quinoa flour, gram flour made from chickpeas, spelt flour or buckwheat flour instead of white flour in baking
  • Coconut sugar or maple syrup instead of refined sugar
  • Dark chocolate or homemade cacao-rich chocolates instead of milk or white chocolate
  • Cacao, dates, flaxseed, ground almonds, desiccated coconut or almond butter for flavor and consistency in baking
  • Unsweetened natural yogurt or coconut yogurt with added fruit instead of store-bought fruit yogurts or low-fat desserts
  • Unsalted butter or coconut oil rather than vegetable oil when baking cakes

So, while comfort foods may make you feel better in the short-term, it's been found that they really don't make much of a difference psychologically and may actually make you feel worse. Eat comfort foods in moderation if you can't quell the cravings, and make quality substitutions when digging around for your favorite foods — you might just find yourself feeling better about the food choices you're making, which is a win-win.

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