The Science of Comfort Food

You know that can’t-stop-thinking-about-chocolate-peanut-butter-ice-cream-and-will-die-if-I-don’t-get-some-right-now feeling? That’s what we call a craving.Contrary to hunger, which is usually more of a generic feeling (anything will satisfy), cravings tend to be specific and are often centered around high fat, sugary or salty foods, says Cynthia Bulik, Ph.D., Director of the University of North Carolina Eating Disorders Program and author of “Crave.”Cravings are not only dangerous to our waistlines, they can actually hinder our ability to perform common tasks, like work or driving. Seriously! A study by researchers at Flinders University in Australia concluded that cravings can cause small reductions in cognitive resources. These reductions can lower “optimal task performance” in everyday situations. In other words, cravings could prevent you from firing on all cylinders.But why do they appear out of the blue to taunt us? It’s a complicated question, with a number of possible answers:1. Addiction chemicals are surging in the brain. Once you feel the sensation of a craving, these chemicals (like the neurotransmitter dopamine) could already be in overdrive, says Susan Roberts, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and nutrition at Tufts University.In a recent study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, women who tended to be compulsive eaters had more activity in parts of the brain associated with addiction when viewing or tasting chocolate milkshakes. “The MRIs showed that more blood was rushing to these brain regions (indicating that neurotransmitters are surging) during the anticipation or craving period,” says Ashley Gearhardt, lead study author and clinical psychology doctoral student at Yale University.THE STUDY, EXPLAINED: Food Can Be Addictive2. Low blood sugar causes a vicious cycle. When you skip meals or snacks (and don’t stick to a consistent healthy eating routine during the day), your blood sugar can drop or spike dramatically, says Susan Albers, Psy.D., psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic and author of “50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food.” This can lead to moodiness, which then causes you to feel the need to eat for comfort or to quell your emotions.3. Habits reinforce cravings. If you eat a bowl of chips in front of the TV every night, your body will remind you (via a craving) that it’s time for chips once the sun goes down, says Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, and YouBeauty Psychology Advisor. Your body doesn’t need it, but it expects it. 4. Cortisol regulation. Increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol could be responsible for your urges because they lead to cravings for salty, fatty and sweet foods. In caveman times, this link led people to eat foods that would help them survive when food was scarce or to sustain them until the stressful event was over, says Albers.Today, that bodily impulse is no longer a benefit and could be detrimental to your health. When we are tempted to stress eat or have a craving, it’s often just a response to this ancient biological signal.RELATED RESEARCH: Comfort Food Reduces Loneliness5. You simply want what you can’t have. Cravings frequently come on when you know you’re unable to obtain something. “Smokers typically experience a craving for a cigarette when they’re stuck in a situation where they can’t smoke,” says Markman. The same concept might apply to food. If you go on a diet that limits certain foods, there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself craving the no-nos at the get-go.The happy news—regardless of the reason for your sudden craving—is that there are scientifically-proven ways to manage them. “A common myth is that once a craving sets in, you have to answer and it’s completely out of your control,” says Albers. Newsflash: You have the choice and you are in charge! Try one of these methods:

  • Engage your mind. Just deciding that you’re going to resist the potato chip bag every night while sitting on the couch probably won’t be effective. “Willpower isn’t very reliable,” says Markman. Instead, do an activity (like knitting or Sudoku) that involves using your brain. This distraction will help you shift the focus away from the food. “Cravings are held in the short-term memory, which is small, so you can push them out by thinking of something more complicated,” agrees Roberts.
  • Get down(ward dog). A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that regular yoga practice was associated with more mindful eating. “Yoga makes you more aware of your body and hunger cues, which increases the likelihood that you’ll stop and think before you give in to your craving,” says Albers. Plus, a quick turn upside down to get into this classic yogi pose gets blood flowing to the brain to make you feel more energized and invigorates the whole body (which may help if fatigue is the underlying craving cause). A double whammy!
  • Drink black tea. This specific type of tea can help decrease your cortisol levels, says Albers. A study from University College London found that people who drank black tea daily had lower cortisol levels in their blood and felt more relaxed after a stressful event, compared to those who consumed a placebo beverage.  
  • Take a walk around the block. A quick 15-minute bout of brisk walking reduced chocolate cravings for participants in a recent study from the University of Exeter in the UK. “The exercise appears to be more than just a distraction and may have some sort of neurological effect on cravings,” says Adrian Taylor, Ph.D., study co-author and professor of Exercise and Health Psychology.
  • Just breathe. It may sound simple, but taking three to five deep breathes once a craving strikes can help you make a more thoughtful decision, says celebrity dietician Ashley Koff, R.D., who recommends this technique to her clients. The response to cravings is often immediate consumption so a quick breathing break might do the trick.

Final Food for Thought: “Will This Bring Me Pleasure or Comfort?”That’s the question to ask yourself before you give into any so-called comfort food cravings. Comfort implies a long term, sustainable good feeling. If you eat a casserole dish-sized portion of mac and cheese, are you really going to feel comfort in the end? Probably not.“We often mix up these two words,” says Albers, who compares this confusion to shoes. “A stunning pair of 4-inch heels will give you instant pleasure, but for real comfort, you’ll need to put on your trusty sneakers.” Stick to something that you know will make you feel better the next day (like a long hot bath before bed) rather than wolfing down candy bars.

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