A Winter’s Tale

Food as the Great Comforter

We tend to think of food as nutrition, a reasonable thought given that that is its ultimate function. But food is also one of life’s truly great pleasures, the source of much comfort. It warms our souls, and not just our cells.

For ages we have wondered whether we eat to live, or live to eat. To a surprising degree, the answer truly is both. Our actual experience of food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. We know that only three activities light up the entire brain—listening to music, making love, and eating food. It makes sense, after all, the body needs food so urgently, food has to make sure we are motivated to seek it out and eat it.

Food has a direct influence on our emotions. Strong emotions call for food, and food creates strong emotions. Nearly every important moment in our life is marked by a special meal—holiday dinners, birthday meals, and special moments in every ethnicity and religion. And on an everyday level, we seek comfort from our food. Every person has a special list of foods they can count on for reassurance, relaxation, and comfort.

Many times these comfort foods gain their power from association. A positive experience occurring every time with a certain food will lead to that food bringing back the memories of comfort. Others are comfort foods by design. They usually contain at least one of two very influential ingredients: sugar or fats. Our craving for sugar and fat is no surprise given the power of both to provide an enormous amount of fuel in each bite.

What kind of pleasure do we experience when we indulge in comfort food? There are many chemical reactions, but three illustrate how a sense of pleasure is created. The first is that eating sugar and fat releases a special, soothing neurotransmitter: serotonin. This is the neurotransmitter whose release is strengthened by medications such as Prozac, and by the drug LSD. Serotonin release is associated with a sense of calm, of improved mood, of more vibrant imagination.

Sugar and fat also lead to more beta-endorphins bathing the brain. The beta-endorphins are the neurotransmitters that morphine mimics. These neurotransmitters deliver a sense of ease, worries lifting, and pain ceasing. The third impact of sugar and fat on the body is the release of insulin. We are not sure what impact a jump in insulin level has on our feelings, but some surmise that it gives us a sense of calm and satisfaction.

Together, these potent forces provide a profound sense of comfort, so strong a pleasure, that if we accustom ourselves to eating sugars in candy and carbohydrates, and fats in many other foods, we end up craving more. There is a growing body of research that finds that the craving is strong enough to draw parallels to the dynamics of addiction.

As we warm ourselves against the biting cold, we should all enjoy our holiday meals and our everyday food. It is good to be comforted by food. But at the same time, the lure of carbohydrates, candy, and fatty treats should be enjoyed in moderation. Add a few treats from among the fruits, vegetables, and whole grains that not only give us comfort, but also good, effective nutrition to create a balanced seasonal diet that can provide great comfort and joy.