The Power of Comfort Food

So, having had a bit of a down day, I let myself indulge in one of my favorite foods: biscuits and gravy. Oh, not the kind my mother used to make… I don’t have her talent. But I have found, through trial and error, a sorta reasonable kind of okay facsimile using very specific store-bought brands. As a great man once said, “That’ll do, pig.  That’ll do.”

We’ve all been there. When you’re feeling down and less than ecstatic about a current life situation, there’s just something about consoling yourself with an entire tub of ice cream or a slice … okay, maybe several slices … no, wait, several varieties of chocolate cake.

Comfort foods offer a pick-me-up in bad situations. There’s something about even just smelling your favorite dish that brings you a sense of well-being. The aroma of warm cookies, cinnamon donuts, or fresh-baked bread – they’ll all do it. Right!? That’s what I’m talking about.

So why do our favorite comfort foods have such a profound impact on our mood? Well, there is a certain sentimental value in comfort food.

As it turns out, there’s a lot of psychology at play when we’re enjoying comfort food that’s “just like mom used to make.” Indeed, you could say the best chef on Earth is the person who cooked for you when you were a young child. And no, they didn’t just cook, they cooked with love. The most impressive 3-star Michelin chef will never beat your grandmother’s vegetable soup because in that soup is the deep love a professional chef can never have for you. Unless, that 3-star Michelin chef is in love with you … and well, can I just say, I wish!  Comfort food possesses an inherent and very powerful ability to transport us to simpler times (you know, before bills and job insecurity and the stresses of adult life). It transports us to a time when all we had to worry about was how many legs do caterpillars have and where do clouds come from.

Answers:  16 (usually) and …

Clouds forms as a result of air cooling to a temperature at which water vapor turns into liquid water. In turn, this is a result of air rising because the higher we go into the atmosphere, the colder the temperature becomes because during the day the sun heats it.

But where were we again? That’s right, the highs of food! Not clouds! I think most of us know and believe in that feeling of ummm … comfort … that comfort foods give us.

Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Well, actually, I wouldn’t say that my favorite comfort food is reminiscent of childhood necessarily. Hell, my parents couldn’t cook to save their lives!” First of all, I am so, so sorry. Secondly, hold your horses – there’s more to comfort foods than just who cooked them.

One important factor to consider when questioning our fairly unanimous love of comfort food, is simply the fat, sugar, and/or salt content in said comfort food. Though I’ve always considered it to be a sick, cosmic joke, our bodies LOVE those highly palatable foods that last a moment on the lips and a lifetime on the hips. Foods high in fat, sugar, and salt are particularly good at activating the brain’s reward system – producing pleasant feelings and reducing stress. Like I said, a sick, cosmic joke.

Was it too much to ask to be naturally addicted to celery and kale? Yeah, I know. Blech.

But the greatest tool in a comfort food’s arsenal of persuasion?

The. Void.

You know what I’m talking about. We’ve all had things go horribly horribly devastatingly awfully utterly embarrassingly wrong in our lives, and nothing fills the resulting crater-sized void in our hearts quite like comfort food. Having a bad day? Open a bag of chips. Going through a breakup? Order an extra-large four-cheese pizza and eat it in one sitting while watching The Notebook through a waterfall of tears. Is it an unhealthy coping mechanism? Absolutely. But does it work? Hell yeah.

At the end of the day, I feel like there are worse ways to cope than with the occasional dinner consisting of cheesecake and Cheez-Its. Key word being occasional. Should we all make a conscious effort to work through our problems so that we don’t feel the need to overindulge in unhealthy foods to cope with life? Yes. I’m sure we should.

At the same time, I also think that sometimes we should just be allowed to have our moment and enjoy some self-care in the form of a sorta reasonable kind of okay facsimile of Mom’s signature biscuits and gravy.

Hey, don’t judge me!

3 thoughts on “The Power of Comfort Food

  1. You got me thinking about comfort food. I can think of many items (ice cream, cookies, cheesecake, carrot cake, apple pie, chocolate – there’s a theme here… – spaghetti, lasagna, PBJ sandwiches – extra chunky, thanks) that are comforting because of chemistry. Sugar, fat, and carbs FOR THE WIN! There’s a small bundle of cells at the base of my brain stem that has a direct ancestry right back to the first lizard that crawled out onto land and it RULES!

    But I’m not sure I can come up with anything that I associate with “mom” and all of that. What comes to mind are things like grilled cheese, stew, and chili – but those are things that I made for my kids when I was doing the single dad thing. So I guess it qualifies under the “family” and “love” categories, but sort of in reverse.

    Now I’m hungry. THANKS! How late do Grubhub, Doordash, UberEats, and Postmates deliver from Cheesecake Factory?

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