Life Style

The Psychology Behind Comfort Food


“Mom I am having a bad time at my workplace, I am not able to adapt to the situation here, I used to like food served at my workplace but right now I am craving the homely rajma chawal made with your hands” Comfort food is all about comfort, and they hold a special place in our heart. It is about the emotional connection that we share with the food. Food will nourish our body but comfort food can nourish our soul.

The collegiate dictionary defines comfort food as “food prepared in a traditional style with a generally nostalgic or sentimental appeal”; while Oxford defines it as “foods that make you feel better, generally because they contain too much sugar or because they remind you of home”.

Evolutionary Basis 

Our ancestors lived in a time when food was solely for survival, not luxury. They faced limited availability of food and had scarce access to resources high in sugar and fat, which provide high energy. This scarcity made such foods highly preferred among humans.

Biological Basis

Food items high in sugar, salt, and fat can stimulate the release of feel-good chemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins. These neurotransmitters can relieve pain, enhance mood, and activate the reward and motivation cycle. Even thoughts related to your favourite food items can give you a similar chemical spike. 

There are food items that have anti-inflammatory effects and carry antioxidants, such functional foods can help us cope with stress, but the truth is that these food items such as green leaves, nuts, and fatty fish will have a difficult time entering the list of comfort foods. Sometimes, you might be wondering why you can eat 2 big bowls of noodles in a go but, even half a bowl of rice can make your stomach feel satiated. 

A study found that when a human brain is under stress it will decrease the production of the hormone that can send a fullness signal to the brain that is leptin while at the same time, it increases the level of ghrelin which enhances the feeling of hunger. 

Psychological Basis

Comfort food has the power to activate the reward centre in the brain. Some food items are linked to the best days and important people in our lives. Do you remember the journey to the tuition class when you and your friends used to savour the icy-cold chocolate bar all the way? That plate of dahi puri and the friend who never refused to have it. Do you remember the hostel days and the pack of Maggie that never disappointed your night cravings?

Taste is capable of evoking memories and emotions connected to it. Eating is a wonderful bonding activity in relationships, often helping people connect with their soul mates or discover new tastes together. Memory of taste is very much related to memory of smell or olfactory memory. The brain region involved in olfaction has a direct connection to the amygdala and hippocampus, which are related to the processing of emotion and memory respectively.

The phenomenon where certain scents, tastes, or sounds take us back to our memories is called as Proust effect. This is named after the French novelist Marcel Proust who dedicated a novel to the connection between his life and memories. The name of the novel is “In Search Of Lost Time”  (“À la recherche du temps perdu”) and later psychologists and neuroscientists tried to build a deeper understanding of this phenomenon. Food can also remind you about the worst days and the wrong people whom you met in your life.

Cultural Basis

Close your eyes and take a bite of the samosa. Does this remind you of the good old childhood days when your mother used to make hot samosas for Diwali? Your comfort food will be mostly related to your upbringing and cultural practices. Rasam rice will have very little chance of being the comfort food of a Punjabi guy. 

Many of our favourite food recipes are followed for generations and hold a special space in our rich traditions. Meals prepared for special events and shared between beloved ones hold a special place in our hearts. The smell of plum cake will remind you about Christmas time while the sight of payasam (kheer) might remind you about your birthday. 

Emotional Eating V/S Craving for Comfort Food 

Physical hunger is different from emotional. Emotional hunger approaches you suddenly and will be not at all related to the last intake while physical hunger develops gradually and is related to the last food intake. When we eat by our emotions, it is called emotional eating. 

Emotional eating is not considered an eating disorder but people who show too much emotional eating may develop a disordered eating style. Eating your comfort food is not always emotional eating because when you are craving rice and curd at 1 pm that is your lunch time and if you only eat the quantity that your body needs then this is different. 

Comfort food can bring smiles and satisfaction on a gloomy day. It can bring back treasured memories and can remind you about your loved ones. The relationship between human beings and food is not just about survival or health, it’s a huge tell stuffed with emotions and memories. You should take a slice of pizza if that can turn you positive but this should not turn into a routine because this is not the only way to treat stress and most of us have unhealthy food items on the list of comfort foods. Try to find better alternatives for your comfort food or try to convert the recipe into a healthier one.

References +
  • Smell and memory – The Proust Phenomenon. (2024, January 22). BPS.
  • Lawson, C. (2024, April 16). Comfort food: unraveling the emotional ties to our meals. CHEF iQ.
  • Pereira, J. M., Melo, R. G., De Souza Medeiros, J., De Medeiros, A. C. Q., & De Araújo Lopes, F. (2024). Comfort food concepts and contexts in which they are used: A scoping review protocol. PloS One, 19(4), e0299991.
  • Rd, C. W. (2022, September 15). Emotional eating: What you should know. Healthline.
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