Why do we seek comfort in food? Because it is delicious, of course.
But there are also scientific explanations to the question of why food sometimes fills us, not only the stomach, but also the spirit.
In some languages this phenomenon has even been named. In English they speak of “comfort food”, which could be translated into Spanish as “comfort food”.
It is something that can change depending on cultural, family or generational factors.
But what exactly are we talking about when we talk about comfort food?
Imagine a small pile of freshly cooked rice, top it with some spiced chicken with ginger, garlic and chili sauce, and you’ve come to the place where food writer Jenny Linford is happiest.
It is a dish of chicken with rice from Hainan, an island in southern China. For Linford, who lived in Singapore as a child, it brings back memories of large family gatherings where good food abounded.
“We’re talking about a kind of wellbeing from food,” says Lindford, who has written several books on food, including one that reviews the favorite cookbooks of 70 famous chefs from around the world.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “comfort food” as “food that provides comfort or a feeling of well-being, usually high in carbohydrates and sugar, and associated with childhood or home cooking“.
But Linford believes that the concept of comfort food is not universal.
“I lived in Italy as a child. My Italian friends have just told me: ‘Look, food is always comfort and pleasure, and it is always cheerful,'” she says.
For her, the idea of comfort food is actually something “very nuanced.”
Fats, carbohydrates, sugar and evolution
But regardless of whether the concept is universal, the foods we usually turn to when seeking comfort or an injection of happiness through the gut seem to show something in common: they are rich in carbohydrates, fats and sugars.
Lukas Van Oudenhove is a psychiatrist at the University of Leuven, in Belgium, where he studies the relationship between our gut and our brain. Ensures that evolution has a lotcho to do with our obsession with high-fat foods.
“In the past, food, and above all, food rich in fats and sugars was scarce. And that is why evolution designed us in such a way that people find strong motivation to eat that,” he explains.
Van Oudenhove wanted to study whether fats have a effect on our emotions, despite the fact that we do not notice their taste and many times we are not even aware that we are ingesting them.
“In our research we put a tube that fed patients through the nose directly into their stomach, which allowed us to supply them with fat and water without them knowing what they were getting,” he says.
His team found that fats they attenuated the sadness of the subjects in whom this emotion was induced.
“Although we used small doses, it especially stimulated the cells of the stomach and small intestine. And those cells exist mainly to produce different types of hormones that regulate whether we feel hungry or satiated. This happens mostly in a small region of the brain called the hypothalamus “says Van Oudenhove.
Food is a good source of energy and the remedy for malnutrition. Therefore, when we eat our brain releases chemicals that generate positive feelings, an evolutionary mechanism that pushes us to search for food and eat again and again.
A similar process is the one that explains our fondness for carbohydrates and sugary foods.
Our primitive brain
Dr. Shira Gabriel, from the State University of New York at Buffalo, also studies the connection between food and our emotions.
He believes that our ties to specific foods are related to positive experiences we had.
“Since that is what you ate then, you associate them with feelings of being cared for by others. These associations are strong,” Gabriel says.
Our brain uses those “positive associations” to improve our mood.
“By eating these foods, I am able to activate these associations and they bring a burst of positive feelings and a sense of acceptance.”
We may not realize it, as these connections are often unconscious. “Our primitive brain does that for us,” says Gabriel.
But why do we feel better if we are not always aware of those connections to childhood memories?
Gabriel responds: “Because when we eat them as children and feel those favorable emotions, we encode all that information together. When you figure a memory in your mind, not only do you save a small part, like those macaroni and cheese, but you store everything that you I hung around while you ate those mac and cheese. ”
“When you eat that food, it is not just the memory that is activated, but also the emotions you felt, like feeling cared for, loved, safe and well.”
Research has shown that people who had conflicting relationships with their parents or really negative emotions as children tend not to benefit in the same way from comfort food, but according to Dr. Gabriel, they too will be inclined to eat it.
Can comfort food be harmful?
“Absolutely,” Gabriel responds. “Unfortunately, people are inclined to comfort food, even when it does not provide positive effects.”
Aside from the health effects commonly associated with foods high in fat or sugar, such as obesity, diabetes, and other illnesses, there is the guilt we often feel when we can’t help but eat things we shouldn’t eat. sometimes even without being hungry.
Gabriel’s experiments have shown that not everyone feels good after eating comfort food and there are even those who feel anguish and strong regrets.
What’s wrong with me? Why am I such a glutton? We ask ourselves many times. But Dr. Gabriel says it is important to keep in mind that this is nothing more than the result of “our mind taking care of us in a really nice way.”
Studies indicate that women are more prone to these feelings of guilt than men.
A 2005 Cornell University study of 300 individuals found that men tended to view comfort food as a reward, while women saw her as a leave to take.
Van Oudenhove cautions that the effects of comfort food are short-lived and that relying heavily on them can end up making us unhappy by causing mood disorders or depression.
Scientists have only just begun to connect the dots. One of the theories that has caught the attention of many lately is one that links obesity to inflammation.
“There is abundant evidence and interest in the connection between inflammation in the body and low-level inflammation in the brain, which is believed to be an important mechanism in disorders such as depression.”
Are there alternative options?
The lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic may have caused us to turn to our comfort food more often, and some may be concerned about this. But Dr. Gabriel remembers that we can seek comfort and satisfaction in many other things, such as looking at photographs or reading books.
But if food is your thing, then Dr. Van Oudenhove suggests leaning towards meals rich in fiber.
The reason is that fiber feeds the three million bacteria in our large intestines, which in turn produce metabolites They can not only reduce inflammation, but also interact in various ways with the brain.
Van Oudenhove published a study on this recently. It found that, after a week, the volunteers who were given pills containing these metabolites showed a higher tolerance to stress than those who had only received a placebo.
“So that shows that these specific metabolites seem to play a role in regulating stress and, probably, emotions in general,” says the psychiatrist.
The fibers that can trigger this response are found in whole grains such as wheat and oats, in legumes such as chickpeas, lentils and beans, as well as in root vegetables.
So if you have to eat comfort food, you can do so at least knowing what science advises.
Atime you can receive notifications from BBC Mundo. Download the new version of our app and activate them so you don’t miss our best content.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.