Taking Comfort in Food

Or: An examination of the mood-boosting power of mac-and-cheese

Does this sound familiar? You had an especially tough day at work, or broke up with your significant other, or the weather is dreary/damp/dreadful (maybe you’ve been snowed in three times in the last week?) or you’re down in the dumps for any of the other myriad reasons we all encounter, and your thoughts start turning to that specific food (or foods) that always makes you feel better…and later you stop and get that food at a restaurant or take-out joint, or purchase the required ingredients on your way home. Soon you’re “self-medicating” with the comfort food of your choice (and perhaps snuggling in your favorite comfy jammies for an extra measure of soothing). It’s okay: most of us have been there too.

Classic Macaroni and Cheese
This healthier modification of Classic Mac & Cheese (1 Guiding Star) is worth trying if you’ve got a craving.


The concept of comfort food

Finding comfort in certain foods is common across cultures, although the foods of choice vary according to cultural norms of course. (CNN gives us a peek at some comfort foods from across the planet.) The phrase “comfort food” may have been coined by Phyllis Richman in 1977 when she wrote about shrimp and grits for the Washington Post Magazine. Indeed, the term comfort food even has its own definition in the Oxford Dictionary.  Certainly obtaining comfort from certain foods isn’t a modern practice. (However, it does seem that only those with somewhat abundant food would start associating specific foods with feeling of comfort. For those who are food insecure, I imagine having any food to eat—no matter what it is—is the comfort.) Nevertheless, whether you feel the need for mac-and-cheese, chicken and dumplings, mashed potatoes or chocolate ice cream, feeding a blue mood with food is something that many of us have done—and continue to do.

Does food really help turn that frown upside down?

So do foods really help boost our moods? There is research on both sides of the question. In a study published in 2011 researchers discovered that fatty acids delivered via a feeding tube helped ease emotions that the twelve subjects experienced when viewing sad photos and listening to sad music. Somehow what was happening in the gut impacted the brain, since the researchers found definite neural differences between those subjects who simply got saline in their feeding tubes and those who got a mixture of fatty acids.

This information adds credence to the idea that eating certain foods (perhaps especially those containing fat) may help us feel less blue. And goodness knows, we aren’t usually craving a big bowl of crunchy salad when we’re down in the dumps. Nope. We want soft foods that are generally packed with calories, sometimes are sweet and often have a good dose of fat as well. However, a recently published University of Minnesota study seems to contradict the notion that only specific foods will do the trick. This study’s results indicate that the subjects’ moods, after being subjected to clips of sad movie scenes, were equally lifted regardless of whether the food they consumed was a typical comfort food or something that would be considered a “neutral” food (one they did not associate with comfort).

Interesting, but…

I’m not ready to give up the idea of comfort food though. Why? One reason is that I’m not convinced that the bad mood-inducing techniques used in the studies are equivalent to what brings us down in real life. Obviously in real life we aren’t just sad from watching sad movies or viewing photos that bring us down (though these techniques were validated previously before being used in the food-mood studies). The emotions that cause our “cravings” for banana pudding with vanilla wafers in it, or a PB & J made with squishy white bread might not be sadness at all, but things like stress, anxiety, loneliness, rejection, boredom or even that impending feeling that you’re getting sick. I do believe that eating certain foods seems to trigger some feelings and dampen others. I also think that sometimes part of the comfy feeling we get from our specific comfort foods is the satisfaction we derive from the “ritual” associated with them, such as the way we brew and prepare a cup of tea, or the way we butter our toast and then sprinkle it with just the right amount of cinnamon-sugar.

Ways to make your food more comforting

There are some ways to make your meals more comfy that don’t require cheese, pasta, sugar or a Mom or Grandmother to cook for you. Believe it or not, there are several things that impact how you feel about what you’re eating, and by manipulating those things, you can up your dinner’s comfort factor no matter what you’re eating. Here are some simple ideas:

  • Be mindful about the process of cooking and focus on the pleasure that you derive from providing yourself with food made just the way you like it.
  • Give yourself permission to garnish; make your own plate as eye-appealing as you would when you’re cooking for someone else.
  • Use your nice plates, your pretty coffee cups or your cloth napkins—these are things meant to bring pleasure through use, not from sitting in your china cupboard.
  • Keep your eating area free from daily clutter and non-meal related items; consider keeping flowers on the table (even a pretty silk flower or two can do the trick).
  • Sit and savor your food instead of standing and gulping it down. Practicing mindful eating may also help you feel more satisfied with less food.

Sometimes it’s not even about food

Take a few moments to really think about what it is that truly makes you feel better when you’re down in the dumps. It might be something that has nothing to do with food at all. Can’t think of any offhand? Try jotting down ideas for a few days or a week or so, noting exactly what helped in various types of situations. Some of my favorite non-food ways to nurture myself include:

  • taking a hot bubble bath or getting in the hot tub at the end of a tough day
  • streaming a favorite show or watching a movie I’ve been wanting to see
  • getting together with a friend for a coffee date (no eating required)
  • writing a letter (yes I still write letters sometimes…on actual paper)
  • organizing something small like a shelf in my bookcase (a neat and tidy surface makes me calmer)
  • going to the gym (even for a little while) or simply doing a few squat-jumps can shake off stress
  • crawling into my comfy bed at night with a book

Others find that going outside and getting a little natural sunlight (especially at this time of year) does wonders for boosting mood without food. Enjoying a favorite music CD (with or without dancing to it!) and being creative, such as drawing a picture or scrapbooking, even doing something repetitive, such as knitting can be soothing.