Why We Crave Comfort Foods

Chunky Monkey Muffins from Primal Cravings

We all have them – ”comfort” foods that feel like more than just food. Far beyond the random edibles of our day, these are imbued with the likes of positive memories, celebratory identities, nurturing associations. They’re the feel-good recipes or psychological standbys that satiate us on a deeper level. Irrational as it might sound (but isn’t really), food is more than function. It’s more than taste or even nutrition (gasp!). Food, specifically our personal list of comforting favorites (resulting from cultural and emotional experience), has the power to shift our mood as well as our physiology.

When we go Primal, we end up rethinking our relationship with these old standbys. In some cases, we cherish the memory but let them go for the sake of health goals. We might experiment with adapting them, or we might simply reserve the right to enjoy them in their original forms on special occasions. However we re-envision our favorites post-Primal, I’d suggest we don’t need to throw out the concept of comfort food itself. Though the actual preferences are personal, the impact of comfort food as a whole is real – and measurable. Research has shown that eating – or even writing about – comfort food actually blunts negative emotions like loneliness. As with any phenomenon, the more we understand it, the better able we are to use it for good in our lives and health.

The Emotional Reasoning

For all of us, I think, food becomes imbricated with emotional associations, which evolve in layers of our upbringing, experience, and exposure. Were we given a particular food as a reward growing up? Were our favorites part of holidays or other celebrations? Maybe our mother made a certain food when we were feeling down. Perhaps our deepest, if not most numerous, associations come from childhood, but others come to us in salient points of adulthood. Think back to the last really good meal you had – the kind that leaves you calculating when you can go back for more. The best meals, of course, involve more than the food. It’s the company, the environs, the mood, the conversation, the occasion. The happier the event, the more convivial the atmosphere, the more intimate the friends or family, the richer the experience and more positive the memories.

The Physiological Reasoning

Fat and carbohydrates figure in prominently with the most cited comfort foods. Carbs can temporarily boost serotonin levels, which can leave us constantly running back for another neurochemical fix. Our favorite – fat – figures into the picture as well (although more favorably). Research shows, for example, that even when sensory experience is extracted, food (in this case, fat) soothes. When a group of study subjects viewed a sad movie or listened to sad music, subjects who received an injection of saturated fat were less affected emotionally (and showed less activity in brain regions associated with negative thoughts) than those who received saline shots.

The Social Reasoning

On the subject of loneliness… There’s something Primally human – and social – about the idea of comfort in food, in fact. For tens if not hundreds of thousands of millennia, we’ve bonded over food. Offering food as a gift or show of hospitality was critical to social bonding. It encouraged peace. It built alliances. In terms of our identification with common comfort foods, food psychology expert Brian Wansink and his team note (PDF) how social learning is critical “in teaching animals how to select food with needed nutrients and how to avoid ingesting toxins.” Comfort foods feel so universal because they are (within cultures anyway). We’re wired to eat what those around us show us is desirable because our evolutionary hardwiring tells us it must be safe and nutritious.

On an interesting gender note, Brian Wansink and team have also shown men and women gravitate toward different foods for comfort – men more toward meals and women toward snacks. Still, I know plenty of women who crave hearty, meaty foods and men who have a sweet tooth. For me, it’s an eclectic kind of smorgasbord – spaghetti sauce with sausage and a hint of clove, being one. I still make the recipe from time to time but substitute something Primal for the pasta (e.g. spaghetti squash or mushroom and peppers). It’s a family recipe of sorts, and I try to relish the memories as much as the food on the few occasions I dig out the recipe.

So, if we accept that the penchant for comfort food is innate, what do we do about the non-Primal nature of many old favorites? How do we allow for the “comfort” instinct in our Primal living – even harness it for a richer enjoyment of food and life?

Use the 80/20 Principle.

If you crave your non-Primal comfort foods seldom enough and can recover easily enough from them that they won’t derail your Primal plan, consider them fair game for the occasional 80/20 application.

Adapt the ones you can’t – or just don’t want – to live without.

Some of us, as much as we miss the original versions of our favorites just find they aren’t worth the side effects or backsliding. Take heart in the fact that it doesn’t have to be an all or nothing situation. Primal adaptations (I know a great book to help you out here.) are practical and totally legal options. In time, you’ll likely find that you enjoy the PB versions even more.

Experiment to find new favorites.

Consider the possibility that you haven’t yet found your favorite comfort food. Some of the foods I enjoy the most today are choices I never would’ve thought of years ago. You’re never done learning how to savor food (or life) in new ways.

Make new “comforting” memories.

When we accept that comfort food isn’t just about the food itself, we can recreate the other elements that feed into those soothing associations. Does a certain meal make us feel taken care of because we cherish the memory of a parent making it for us or perhaps with us? Do we associate a food with contentment or security because it was a grandparent’s recipe, and we relished those visits or holidays? We can obviously celebrate those memories for what they meant to us. In practical terms, however, we can also lay down new neural pathways for comfort and pleasure. All it takes is a little effort, a good recipe, and some repetition. Suddenly, you find yourself craving broiled shrimp on a bad day at the office.

Flesh out the experience.

The dining experience, that is. Beyond the food itself there’s what typically goes with it in the memories that play in our heads. We may not be able to transport our grandparents back to our kitchens, but we can enjoy a family photo night and a Primal adaptation of one of their recipes. We may not eat full blown desserts anymore, but we can keep people around the table laughing and talking after dinner with a good espresso or some dark chocolate. We might be surprised at how much of our enjoyment comes from the ambience, the company, the hospitality, the ritual of sharing a meal or just dining solo exactly the way we want.

Finally, the last point speaks to a greater lesson – that we need comfort in the first place. I, for one, see nothing wrong with healthy indulgence, but there’s more pleasure to be had in life than food. In this manically harried culture of ours, we’ve lost the art of self-care. I’m not talking about keeping your toe nails clipped or ironing your clothes. I mean things that go beyond basic hygiene and social norm.

Perform this radical exercise. Absolutely zero guilt, fear, or self-loathing allowed. Write a 100 things – yes, at least 100 – things that bring you comfort and pleasure. Yes, it’s a shocking, lotus-eating brand of exercise, but do it on good paper (or on the computer) because you’ll want to save it. Put it all on there – walking barefoot in warm sand to getting a scalp massage, alphabetizing your book collection to buying flowers, using power tools to relishing comfort foods. Now you have it – for when you need it or when you just feel like using it, which probably can’t be often enough.

Can you tell it’s almost Friday? Yes, now go cook yourselves something tantalizing, and relish it with all the voracity of a caveman/woman on a carcass.

Thanks for reading, everybody. Have a great end to the week.

TAGS:  hormones

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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