Why we often turn to nostalgic comfort food to relieve stress
WHAT IS COMFORT FOOD?
Comfort food is food that provides emotional and psychological comfort to the person eating it. It usually consists of dishes high in carbohydrates, fat, sugar or salt, such as macaroni with cheese, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, grilled cheese sandwiches or chocolate biscuits. Comfort foods often have nostalgic associations with childhood or a time when life was simpler. They are also often associated with times of stress and anxiety, as they provide a sense of warmth and security.
THE SCIENCE BEHIND COMFORT FOOD
When we eat comfort food, such as macaroni with cheese or sandwiches, it activates pleasure receptors in our brain. This triggers the release of serotonin, a feel-good hormone that helps us feel relaxed and satisfied. The release of these hormones reduces activity in the brain regions responsible for anxiety and sadness, which can help relieve feelings of stress or anxiety.
Comfort food acts as an antidepressant because it releases dopamine (the neurotransmitter responsible for motivation), which gives us a sense of satisfaction and encourages us to keep eating even when we don't actually need more food. This kind of reward system enhances the pleasurable effect of comfort food.
Research has also shown that certain comfort foods act as natural painkillers due to their high content of morphine-like substances called endorphins, which are released when we eat them. Endorphins bind to the opioid receptors in our brain that regulate pain perception, temporarily numbing pain until the effect disappears. Studies have even shown that eating comfort food can reduce migraines by 50%.
Besides the physical effects on our bodies, comfort food also has strong psychological effects. In times of stress or anxiety, our brains recognise these feelings as threats and reflexively look for something to make us feel better. We then often reach for familiar foods like macaroni and cheese or chocolate biscuits instead of healthier options like fruit and vegetables.
The association between such foods and feelings of security can be so strong that they actually override our body's physiological needs; if we are feeling down but still need energy, we are more likely to reach for something sugary than an apple.
HEALTHY OR NOT?
While there is much debate about whether comfort food is healthy or not, its ability to give us an emotional boost cannot be denied. It helps to relieve stress, anxiety and depression. Furthermore, comfort food also provides physical relief from pain by acting as a natural painkiller, as sugars and fats trigger the release of endorphins.
Comfort food holds a special place in many people's hearts because these dishes often remind them of happy moments from childhood or provide a sense of security in difficult times; whatever meal or snack you choose, it will always evoke fond memories and also provide physical benefits by acting as an antidepressant and natural pain reliever at the same time!
COMFORT FOOD AS A GUILTY PLEASURE?
Comfort food is often seen as an indulgence, but it does not have to be unhealthy. In fact, comfort food should nourish us in more ways than one.
Here are some dishes that will give you the warm and fluffy feeling you crave, while providing your body with all the nutrients it needs.
CHICKEN SOUP WITH SWEET POTATO & KALE
Nothing is more comforting than delicious chicken soup. Feel free to take it a step further by adding sweet potato and kale for some extra flavour and nutrition.
It's perfect for a cold winter day or when you're not feeling well. Serve this with some crusty wholemeal bread for an easy meal that warms both your soul and stomach!
A classic shepherd's pie is not only comforting but also incredibly satisfying. Start with a base of lean ground beef or turkey mixed with vegetables such as diced carrots, celery, onion and garlic.
Top with some mashed potatoes and bake the pie until golden brown. You'll get all the satisfaction of a heavy dish without the guilt!
CREAMY POLENTA WITH MUSHROOMS AND SPINACH
Polenta has a creamy texture that makes even the simplest dish special. This recipe combines polenta with mushrooms and spinach for some extra flavour and nutrition.
Serve it as part of a brunch or dinner - bet it will become one of your favourites?
Whether you are looking for something light and healthy or something savoury and indulgent, these comfort food meals will always please you. So next time you're in need of some feel-good food, try one of these dishes - they won't disappoint!