Our food programming is strongly associated with our brain’s natural wiring that seeks reward for our behaviours. For example, when you eat food that makes you feel temporarily better, you learn to identify food with an improved mood. This is why we turn to comfort food when we feel sad or depressed.
Evolutionarily, this worked for early humans whose everyday existence was focused on survival. The problem is that, in modern times, the connection between the food people eat and the brain’s reward system is that it often isn’t about survival.
Instead, food cravings often relate to emotional as well as physical triggers.
Comfort foods are usually high in sugar, fat, salt and carbohydrates; these foods tend to be calorically dense but nutritionally poor.
We might turn to comfort foods for other reasons— an argument with someone close to us, a bad day, even a perfect day—but the psychology behind comfort food is consistent; we seek out foods we link with memories in exchange for an emotional boost even when that boost is doing more harm than good.
The truth about comfort food
In the past, it was often assumed that cravings resulted from the body’s awareness of its deficiencies. So, for example, we thought that if we craved that muffin, we must be running low on sugar – eating sugar creates wanting more sugar.
Comfort foods trigger dopamine, altering levels of different brain chemicals and changing our mood.
The truth is that our cravings are more psychologically rooted. For example, cravings might result from an emotional need, a particular smell, or how we’ve conditioned ourselves to deal with specific situations.
Essentially, a craving for comfort foods can be emotionally driven and become a habit over time that has built a new neural pathway to cope.
When you turn to food to feel comforted, it’s rarely for the nutrients; most often, comfort food appears on your plate when you need an emotional boost.
The root cause is that eating comfort food can distract you from dealing with negative feelings and ultimately sabotage your results.
Regularly turning to food to distract yourself from difficult emotions is like throwing dirt over a bed of weeds instead of taking them out by the roots.
About the author:
Natalie E. West DCht IICT is a clinical psychotherapist with qualifications in clinical behavioural science, applied clinical hypnotherapy, nutritional psychology and current studies in nutritional psychiatry,. Natalie offers a modern perspective on the factors that influence our eating behaviours.
Follow Natalie on Facebook and Instagram. Website: natalieewest.com