Monday, September 26, 2011

Comfort Food . . . Is it a Contradiction in Terms?

What is it about certain foods, or even the idea of certain foods, that makes them comfortable—and why should food be comfortable. Shouldn’t food’s main attribute be nutrition?

Here’s where it gets confusing. We choose what we eat for reasons sometimes that go far beyond nutrition. Sometimes we choose a certain food based upon our emotional state. We want something soothing, and . . . well, comforting, often something that reminds us of childhood or pleasant associations.

Think meat loaf, macaroni and cheese, grilled cheese sandwiches, fried chicken, mashed potatoes, cheetos, french fries. Here’s the thing—what’s comfort food to you, might not be comforting at all to the next person you ask. But however you define your own comfort food, if you’re eating it due to stress, chances are you’re going to eat too much of it.

Studies have shown that comfort food can usually be categorized into one of four different patterns: Indulgence, physical, convenience and nostalgic. Different moods might impact which food pattern you turn to for comfort.

But it’s not only about comfort. There’s actually sound neuroscience behind some of the comfort food choices and decisions you make. 

Let’s start with salt, a staple of most comfort foods. Studies suggest that elevated levels of salt in the body lowers stress hormones and raises levels of oxytocin, a hormone involved in love and other social connections. Research (Eric G. Krause, et. al.), granted it was conducted in rats, found that the rats’ response to a stressful situation — being tied down — depended on how much salt they had in their bodies. When restrained, rats with high salt levels showed less activity in their brain’s stress systems, compared with rats with normal salt levels. 

What’s interesting is that rats with the elevated level of salts in their systems experienced lower stress hormones, and recovered faster from being stressed. 

These rats also exhibited elevated levels of oxytocin — that “love hormone.” Oxytocin is vital to the processes that allow love and social contact to reduce stress. Not surprisingly, rats with lots of oxytocin showed less anxiety in social interactions. 

Remember the last time you were in a bar, or a cocktail party? Remember the pretzels and salted nuts?  Did you know there’s a reason? Bartenders don’t just provide those free salty snacks out of the goodness of their hearts. They’re making the most of what having hypernatremia is most likely to make you feel—thirst.  And, the salt . . . stress relief. Those nuts and pretzels fit the comfort food bill.

Whether you care about the science behind it or not, recognizing why you turn to comfort foods at certain times can actually help you choose another, healthier choice for relief or consolation (such as deciding on a brisk walk to think about or work through what might be upsetting you as a positive substitution for what would ordinarily send you to the pantry or refrigerator for comfort).

We tend to carry a lot of emotional baggage around on why we make the choices we make. Food is a reward. It’s a gift. It’s a safe harbor. It can be our best friend, always there for us, no matter what. 

It can also be a very guilty pleasure. What starts out as comfort, for many of us can all too often end up as shame.

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