Why do we crave comfort food?

Comfort foods are a source of consolation for many of us when we’re under stress. But why are they so appealing?

Many individuals rely on comfort foods when they’re depressed, anxious, or simply in need of a little mood boost. Comfort foods can evoke coziness and comfort as they are frequently linked to carefree memories. But why do we keep having cravings for certain foods? And do they genuinely provide us comfort?

According to Charles Spence    an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford and a prolific writer on the psychology of comfort food, these foods are unconsciously and consciously associated with joyful and pleasant experiences.

“It is a food that someone was given when they were looked after as a child, for example, and is something that, as adults, people reach for when they feel emotionally threatened,” Spence stated to Live Science.

He stated that comfort meals are typically easy to prepare, frequently connected to a previous celebration, and often heavy in sugars or carbs, meaning they are almost always high in calories, in a 2017 study that was published in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science.

According to research, eating particular meals “rewards” people’s brains. A study from 2020 in the journal Physiology & Behavior claims that there are “hedonic hotspots” in the brain, which are specific subregions that heighten the pleasurable sensation or “liking” of pleasant tastes, such as carbohydrates, fats, and salts. This may cause a dopamine spike, which increases the desire to look for and eat delicious food rewards.

As a result, people’s brains may encourage them to seek out and eat specific meals.

But why are comfort foods often considered to be unhealthy? And why is it that when you’re trying to feel better, you rarely find yourself craving a salad or a stalk of celery?

As the previously mentioned research pointed out, dopamine is a crucial brain chemical that greatly influences mood as well as motivation and reward-seeking tendencies. Several studies have discovered that some meals, sometimes known as “hyper-palatable” foods, can trigger strong pleasurable emotions. The brain thus motivates us to chase these objects again and again.

Hyper-palatable meals are sweet, salty, or rich in flavor and are often simple to digest, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Beyond dopamine, hyperpalatable meals have been shown to increase the release of insulin, cortisol (stress hormone), and leptin (hunger hormone). Cravings for specific foods or flavors might result from an increase in these hormones.

Leafy greens, for example, are abundant in vitamins, minerals, and fiber but low in sugar and salt. Because they don’t include any of these ingredients, people’s brains aren’t often wired to seek healthy meals like they are wired to crave pizza or doughnuts.


Studies suggest that comfort meals are not always successful in reaching this aim: to feel satisfied or reduce stress.

According to OnePoll research from 2020, two-thirds of American adults ate foods they liked as kids, whether intentionally or accidentally, to help them deal with the pandemic’s effects and the following lockdowns. However, fewer than half (41%) surveyed claimed to turn to comfort food to “bring happiness.”

Furthermore, in a 2022 survey conducted on 2,000 individuals in the United Kingdom on behalf of the grocery store Aldi, one in four respondents acknowledged consuming comfort food at least five times a week, despite the fact that more than half (56%) said that doing so made them feel worse. According to the same survey, 57% of participants admitted to feeling guilty after consuming their favorite comfort foods.

These studies seem to indicate that comfort foods work well for short-term dopamine surges. Still, over time, they frequently elicit regret and guilt, maybe because the consumers are aware of the poor nutritional value of these meals.

However, some studies have shown that comfort foods might help us feel calmer and more at ease, although not more so than other foods. Although comfort foods can instantly improve one’s mood, a 2014 study reported in the journal Health Psychology discovered that any food can have the same effect whether or not a person has been seeking it. According to the study, people could be attributing mood benefits to comfort food that they would experience with other foods as well.



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