By Dr. Laura Pawlak
The term comfort food can be traced back to 1966, when the Palm Beach Post used the term in a story: “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort foods.’ These foods are associated with the security of childhood, the relief of stress, and euphoric feelings.”
Although the identification of particular items as comfort foods may be unique to an individual, patterns are detectable. In a study of American food choices, males preferred warm, hearty, meal-related comfort foods, such as steak, casseroles, and soup. Females consumed snacks as comfort foods, such as chocolate chip cookies and ice cream. Young or middle-age people, under 55 years of age, overwhelmingly chose snack-related, comfort foods.
As the holidays approach, families and friends gather to share an array of comfort foods that provide nostalgic or cultural value. These foods are often characterized by their high caloric nature, rich in (1) carbohydrate and fat or (2) fat and salt.
Consuming energy-dense food awakens a group of brain structures wired together into a reward system. This brain circuitry elicits emotions based on the sensory experience of the food. Comfort foods trigger pleasurable feelings — moments of joy.
The chemicals responsible for feeling good are two-fold: endorphins, nature’s opioids; and endocannabinoids, the feel-good chemicals found in marijuana. Sugary foods activate the release of endorphins. Pizza, cheese casseroles, and other fatty foods spur the production of endocannabinoids.
When fat and sugar are combined, as in desserts, an explosion of both endorphins and endocannabinoids floods the brain, causing elation beyond nature’s offerings. The temptation to overeat may be overwhelming, especially when a fond memory is linked to the food.
Enjoying holiday celebrations, without consuming excessive amounts of comfort foods, requires forethought. A plan is helpful! For example, set aside the day before the event as a time to eat fewer calories. Drink water, coffee, and/or tea. Have two light meals — perhaps a fruit salad and a green salad.
On the day of the celebration, eat a healthy breakfast and add a salad if you feel hungry before attending the festivity. At the party, take a deep breath between bites of your favorite foods. Notice the positive memories that surface as you eat slowly.
Lastly, don’t take goodies home. Holiday gatherings are meaningful times with friends, not just food. Savor the season!
Dr. Laura Pawlak (Ph.D., R.D. emerita) is a world-renown biochemist and dietitian emerita. She is the author of many scientific publications and has written such best-selling books as “The Hungry Brain,” “Life Without Diets,” and “Stop Gaining Weight.” On the subjects of nutrition and brain science, she gives talks internationally.