Macaroni Cheese

How comfort foods work like Prozac

The psychology behind why we turn to fatty staples like French fries and fried chicken when life gets rough – a complex interplay of memory, history and brain chemistry…

When the recession hit, you could hear the words buzzing from the cell phones of every restaurant consultant in America: “It’s time for comfort food.” But under the mashed potatoes and meatloaf lies a question: What does “comfort food” really mean? What about it actually comforts us?

Let’s look at some big-time comfort foods: Fried chicken. French fries. Chocolate cake. When people talk about comfort food, the obvious explanation is that it’s all about nostalgia and missing Mommy. But that’s also cultural. Look at I was served once by a sad Belgian who took comfort in what struck me as something you might see in a hospital. And really, it takes more than this to create the rush of sensations that make us feel safe, calm and cared for. It’s a complex interplay of memory, history and brain chemistry, and while some basics apply — most of us are soothed by the soft, sweet, smooth, salty and unctuous — the specifics are highly personal.

In a certain cheese shop in my town, there is a rack of rolls. Gleaming golden outside and airy, stretchy, satiny inside, they’re sourdough and only vaguely square as if cut by clowns. One fits in my palm, then my sweatshirt pocket, which it must because this is the acid test by which I define comfort food: It’s small. It’s portable. It can be consumed silently. My comfort food must never call attention to itself. It must be dazzlingly bland…

For you, of course, it’s something else. Celery, say, or vindaloo or wings. A friend of mine craves slick, sticky, flamboyant food that she can stir with slow, exaggerated swirls to make a sucking sound. This is her comfort food.

When you begin to eat, your eyes, hands and mouth start the chain of command. Then the brain kicks in. Sugar and starch spur serotonin, a neurotransmitter known to increase a sense of well-being. (It’s what makes Prozac work.) Salty foods spur oxytocin, aka the “cuddle chemical,” a hormone that is also spiked by hugs and orgasm. Hence, potato chips. Mice unable to taste the difference between regular and extra-high-calorie food in a recent study preferred the high-calorie kind, which suggests that fattening food appeals simply because it is fattening. Which makes sense, given how much fuel our prehistoric ancestors burned crisscrossing savannahs, fleeing carnivores and chasing prey. Fat is a good balm for the fear of starvation.

There’s also how the brain links emotion, memory and sensory stimuli. Popsicles nibbled to break childhood fevers, pizza when your track team won, coconut on your honeymoon: The brain associates good experiences with specific flavors, fragrances and textures, coding them as harbingers of happiness. Henceforth, even when you neither have a fever nor have won a race, eating Popsicles still brings the rush of relief and pizza feels like a reward.

But buried in this (like the caramel at the heart of a Milk Dud) is the deeper question of what counts as comfort.

Neuroscientists define it as the opposite of stress. Whether with pharmaceuticals or firearms or flannel sheets or funnel cake, we seek to de-stress by any means necessary. The brain reaches its relaxed, restorative comfort state when we feel safe and/or when we receive rewards and/or when we feel part of something bigger than ourselves — a culture or a community.

Security, reward and connectedness: Each of these three feelings activates a different portion of the brain….. Read more