Mental Health, nutrition

Is Comfort Food Good or Bad? The Importance of Food You Enjoy

My dear readers,

Christmas is just around the corner and I can feel my excitement really setting in. Christmas comes with many delights. For children, the promise of Father Christmas arriving, and for adults, the chance to celebrate love, family and friendships. The holiday is also often accompanied by fantastic food and dessert delights. The beautiful roast dinners, the mince pies, the drinking, the brandy butter and so much more. However, Christmas and the food associated wasn’t always such an exciting thing for me, and I know it can be a very difficult prospect for other people who struggle with their relationship with food. I used to dread the food during this time. I was afraid of over-eating and was particularly afraid of sugar. I shied away from the pudding and opted for an orange instead. I used to leave half my plate full, despite a deep hunger to eat more. I loved Christmas food, but I feared it.

With this post, I wanted to explore the importance of eating food you enjoy. I feel that Christmas and more generally the winter season is often associated with eating comfort foods. Foods that bring you joy, warm you from the inside and often are a bit of a treat. For years I completely believed that comfort foods were dangerous and bad, but there is a place for them, especially during Christmas.

Comfort Food from the beginning

When discussing the importance of comfort food, it is crucial to start at the beginning. When a baby is born, its first relationship with food and feeding begins in the mother’s arms. The birth is stressful for the new-born baby, but research has shown that skin-to-skin contact straight afterwards significantly reduces cortisol levels and helps to stabilize the baby’s physiology[1]. Skin-to-skin contact provides the baby with warmth and immediate access to breast milk, allowing them to begin receiving the nutritional support they need. From a very early age we can begin to learn that food is equal to love, warmth, comfort and safety.

The Impact of Evolution

Food is equal to safety for every person at every age. In times of food scarcity, it is important to eat nutrient and energy dense foods. Research has suggested that high energy foods, such as fatty foods, would have been essential in environments where food was limited and/or unreliable and that the pleasure and joy associated with eating those foods was important in prompting acquisition of those foods[2]. While for many people today food is in abundance and easily accessible, it is possible that the naturally rewarding properties of certain foods remains and serves as an important relief of stress. A number of studies have shown that stress levels and cortisol levels (the stress hormone) decrease after eating comfort food [3][4][5][6][7] showing a psychological benefit to eating food you enjoy.

I would like to make a disclaimer here that the comfort foods mainly discussed among studies are those that are usually high in calorific value, usually fatty or sugary. Comfort foods differ for different people, and while certain foods will provide comfort for one person, they may not provide the same relief for another. Comfort food can also be foods associated with positive emotions, not necessarily the highly calorific.

The Relevance of Social Living and Culture

Food can provide an important sense of social belonging[8][9] and plays a large part in social life. Comfort food has been noted to be a social surrogate, in that it can help to relieve loneliness and it can serve as a reminder of absent others. Comfort foods may resemble relationships with family members or bring to mind happy past memories. Food has also been termed a “social vehicle” in that it allows to people to make social connections through meeting for foods or sharing foods[10]. Food also assumes religious and cultural significance, with many celebrations accompanied by traditional foods. Such foods can provide a closeness with one’s beliefs or with a closeness to other people whether in their presence or not.

It is important to consider here that comfort eating is not necessarily a healthy behaviour especially when comfort food is one’s only solace however suggested in a recent paper, the understanding of comfort food as “healthy” or “unhealthy” should be situational[11]. There is no real definition for comfort food as what it is changes from person to person and from situation to situation. For some people it provides comfort through the engagement with positive emotions and for some people it provides its comfort through diminishing the negative, however for everyone, comfort food has its place. It is clear that for everyone, it can provide a sense of unity and belonging as well as a very real reduction in stress. As well stated by Troisi et al (2015) comfort food can not only fill the stomach, it can also fill the heart.

If you feel scared of certain foods this Christmas, or at any time of the year, just remember that food is not just important for its physiological value. It has social and psychological value too. Food is as much about the taste, the smell, the social, the traditional and the joy as it is about what it does for our bodies.

I wish you all a very wonderful Christmas holiday for those that celebrate it, and a happy Hanukkah for those celebrating it currently.

Remember, eating food can be for the body, but eating foods that you love and enjoy is for you.

Recommended Book: Feel the Fear and Eat it Anyway by Eve Simmons and Laura Dennison


References

[1] Susan M. Ludington-Hoe, ‘Skin-to-Skin Contact: A Comforting Place With Comfort Food’, MCN. The American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing, 40.6 (2015), 359–66

[2] N. Weltens, D. Zhao, and L. Van Oudenhove, ‘Where Is the Comfort in Comfort Foods? Mechanisms Linking Fat Signaling, Reward, and Emotion’, Neurogastroenterology and Motility: The Official Journal of the European Gastrointestinal Motility Society, 26.3 (2014), 303–15

[3] Rebecca R. Klatzkin and others, ‘Negative Affect Is Associated with Increased Stress-Eating for Women with High Perceived Life Stress’, Physiology & Behavior, 210 (2019), 112639

[4] A. Janet Tomiyama, Mary F. Dallman, and Elissa S. Epel, ‘Comfort Food Is Comforting to Those Most Stressed: Evidence of the Chronic Stress Response Network in High Stress Women’, Psychoneuroendocrinology, 36.10 (2011), 1513–19

[5] Yvonne M. Ulrich-Lai and others, ‘Stress Exposure, Food Intake and Emotional State’, Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 18.4 (2015), 381–99

[6] Tatjana van Strien and others, ‘Is Comfort Food Actually Comforting for Emotional Eaters? A (Moderated) Mediation Analysis’, Physiology & Behavior, 211 (2019), 112671

[7] Ann E. Egan and others, ‘Palatable Food Reduces Anxiety-like Behaviors and HPA Axis Responses to Stress in Female Rats in an Estrous-Cycle Specific Manner’, Hormones and Behavior, 115 (2019), 104557

[8] Jordan D. Troisi and Shira Gabriel, ‘Chicken Soup Really Is Good for the Soul: “Comfort Food” Fulfills the Need to Belong’, Psychological Science, 22.6 (2011), 747–53

[9] Jordan D. Troisi and others, ‘Threatened Belonging and Preference for Comfort Food among the Securely Attached’, Appetite, 90 (2015), 58–64

[10] Paul Rozin, ‘The Meaning of Food in Our Lives: A Cross-Cultural Perspective on Eating and Well-Being’, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 37 Suppl 2 (2005), S107-112

[11] Meagan T. Soffin and W. Robert Batsell, ‘Towards a Situational Taxonomy of Comfort Foods: A Retrospective Analysis’, Appetite, 137 (2019), 152–62

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