We have all heard the saying ‘you are what you eat’ but what about ‘good food = good mood’? In addition to nourishment, food brings us comfort. Whether its the happy memories associated with certain dishes or the hit of dopamine your brain gets when you eat dark chocolate. Today we are breaking down why comfort food is, well, so darn comforting.
Good Food = Good Mood
From the minute you pop the cork of a bottle of champagne, the real-life hunger games have begun. Why does champagne make us so happy? Champagne, and anything carbonated, is a full sensory experience. We hear the pop and fizz of the bubbles, we smell and taste the grapes, we see the colour and carbonation, and we feel the whole mélange on our tongues. This party of the senses lights up the brain, and we are primed for a positive experience.
It’s the same thing that happens with most comfort foods. The tastes we crave, the memories associated with those dishes and the robust textures trigger a dopamine release in the brain. You can open Instagram to see how many likes you have on your recent photo or you can chow down on macaroni and cheese. In the brain, the chemical response is the same.
“Dopamine is all about motivation, reward and pleasure. It gives us a feel-good sensation. So when you eat a comfort food that tastes good and is rewarding, you get a rush of dopamine,” says Registered Dietician, Sue Mah. (SOURCE)
Your Stomach Has a Memory
In response to the comfort food, our brains learn to recognize the positive feeling associated with what we eat. We already know about mood and food and how they are closely tied to each other. Every important celebration is enhanced by great food (trust us, we know!) and we’ve come to expect culinary amuse-bouche along with wedding vows, retirement farewells and milestone birthdays. Food goes hand-in-hand with feeling connected to those we love and those in our social circles. Our gastro response is so closely tied to our brain and a delicious meal can enhance how you feel about the party. Just ask anyone who has hit the stage to sing karaoke after a few drinks.
What Food Brings You Comfort?
When we think of comfort foods, starches, meats, and salt come to mind, but it doesn’t have to always be that way. A warm cup of cocoa, tea or coffee can warm you from the inside out. A bowl of pearl couscous with porcini mushrooms, which can be eaten warm or cold, can be just as satisfying and somewhat healthier than a salty stew.
Seasonally, our draw to comfort food changes. In fall and winter, we crave pies and pasta but during the summer, we are more likely to turn to coleslaw and fried chicken – reminders of family picnics and long, lazy summer days.
There are many layers to why we choose comfort foods during difficult or challenging times. We seek the foods that remind us – through taste and smell – of a time when we felt cared for, part of a social construct and were far removed from whatever stress or emotion we are experiencing when we answer the call for chips or burritos.
Its Not Just All In Your Head!
Enter Science. Studies of the brain have shown that not only are we getting a dopamine hit when we indulge, but we are also triggering the release of serotonin, a mood-leveling neurotransmitter. (SOURCE). If you want to calm your mind, instead of reaching for the complex carbs, scientists say you can reach for other serotonin-producing foods such as spinach, turkey and bananas.
But while we know eating our greens is better than indulging in grains, it is still deeply satisfying to sit down on the couch and dig into a bowl of truffle popcorn and your favourite feel-good movie.