You’re feeling down, a little under the weather. You’re trying to decide what to eat. Hands up who instinctively reaches for a healthy snack? The majority of the time, the answer is no, even though at this time this is what your body really needs.
In this article we’ll find out why comfort food is so appealing.
Comfort food has usually been processed and stripped of its nutritional value. This way, it can be kept on the supermarket shelf for as long as possible and food producers and retailers waste minimal stock.
During processing, unstable fats and vitamins as well as fibre are removed to reduce spoilage. Such foods provide energy and not a great deal else. On top of this you’ll be undoubtedly consuming a whole variety of food additives and preservatives, as well as plenty of salt and sugar.
Although we need energy, we also need a host of other substances to help us with the process of digesting energy–containing foods. Our body releases enzymes to break down food. We need certain minerals to manufacture these enzymes, but if we’re eating food which has been stripped of these nutrients we’ll be using up stored minerals and not replacing them.
So why do we crave comfort food like this if it offers us negative nutrition?
It’s all to do with the emotional value we attach to food. Food, although we need it to survive, also affects us in other ways not simply connected with reducing hunger and providing nutrients. Eating food also affects us psychologically.
Our preferred foods are partly influenced by family, friends, culture and upbringing. From the time we are infants, food symbolises comfort and nurturing. Throughout life, food is used to express affection or hospitality, and is often seen as a reward. As a result we learn to connect food with certain circumstances.
We often eat certain food in specific situations, like chocolate when we’re down or sweets when we are stressed.
Scientists have found stress, depression and helpless feelings reduce and we feel happier when we eat, regardless of what we eat. This is seemingly unconnected with the nutritional value of the food and more related to the simple act of eating.
Mood can also affect food choices, and it is well-known depression can lead to cravings for sugary foods.
On the other hand, our emotional state influences how much we eat and what we eat. If we’re experiencing stress, we’ll tend to eat more, especially high energy, fatty and snack foods. This is something to which we can probably all relate. At the same time, we tend to eat fewer fruit and vegetables when we’re stressed.
This is not good news, because when we are under ongoing stress, the hormones we secrete to react to this stress negatively impact our digestion and use up certain nutrients such as B vitamins and vitamin C at a faster rate. In other words, this is just the time when we need to choose nutrient-dense foods.
In one intriguing study, volunteers were given anagrams which were impossible to solve. These people ate more chocolate and fewer grapes than people who were given anagrams which could be solved. Other research has found children presented with problems eat more sugary and fatty food and fewer fruit and vegetables.
It seems we eat bigger meals if we are with close family and partners, because the closer our relationship with the person with whom we eat, the more we eat.
The appeal of comfort food may lie in its association with social togetherness because we’ve eaten that food with our family when we are young. When we’re with people we’re close to, we tend to be more relaxed, and this may mean we don’t stop eating as we would when we’re alone.
Taken to extremes, the comfort factor offered by food can lead to binge eating. Sufferers often turn to food as if it were an ally and continue eating far longer after their stomach is full. Foods craved are usually high-fat, nutrient dense foods which are low in essential nutrients.
All this shows the huge role played by emotions in our food choices.
Because we are all individual, with unique genetics, nutritional status and lifestyle history, our optimal food choices will differ for each of us. If you would like to support your health through nutritional means, a consultation with a Functional Medicine practitioner will take into account your symptoms and your emotions.
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