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The Science of Comfort Food

Clients often tell us that they reach for junk food, processed food, or sugary sweets when they feel sad, stressed or overwhelmed. This is a common behavior- so much so, in fact, that foods like pasta, cake, and ice cream are often referred to as "comfort food".  But what is the science behind why our bodies crave refined carbohydrates and sugar when we need to self-soothe?

These calorically dense, easy-to-eat foods trigger a reward center in the brain similar to that triggered by gambling or drugs. They are hyper-palatable, and easily digested, releasing a quick hit of dopamine to our bodies, making us feel good. It is just as much of an addiction (and a socially acceptable one at that!) as many controlled substances.  One Princeton University study showed that rats not only became addicted to sugar, they exhibited anxiety and withdrawal symptoms when it was removed.

Carbohydrate-rich snacks boost tryptophan which is converted to serotonin in the brain. Protein and healthy fats don't trigger the same response. So does that mean the key to your happiness lies at the bottom of a potato chip bag? Of course not.

While carbohydrate-rich foods do trigger a mood boost in the short term, they also spike your blood sugar, meaning 90 minutes to 2 hours after eating them you feel that dreaded crash. That short-term pleasure is paid for later, with interest. Not to mention the dreaded weight gain and fatigue that comes in the long run!

It's also important to acknowledge the psychological connection of self-soothing with food that starts in childhood.  How many of us were soothed with a trip for ice cream after a doctor's appointment, or a bowl of processed Mac n' cheese after a long day at school? The sight, smell and taste of these foods evoke strong memories of comfort.

Remember you're playing the long game.  When you forgo the short term pleasure of processed food and refined carbohydrates and choose balanced whole foods, you support your long-term health, happiness and optimal body function.  Your brain needs fat (specifically Omega 3s) to function properly, and DHAs are a key weapon against depression.  Salmon, tuna, flaxseed, and walnuts are all great sources. Foods rich in B vitamins- fish, shellfish, beef and chicken- are key in serotonin production. So as much as we think of pasta or ice cream as "comfort food" your body will actually produce more serotonin and have more sustained happiness when you reach for that salmon salad!