Why do people find fatty or sugary foods comforting?

Dear Alice,

Why do people find fatty or sugary foods comforting? I mean, what is it in these types of foods that causes the body / mind to see this type of food as comforting or pleasurable? Surely from the point of view of the body, it prefers foods that are high in nutrients — so why do people who turn to food for comfort always turn to fatty or sugary foods that don't offer the body anything? just wondering??? and I hope that made sense because I'm sorry it's quite badly worded!

Dear Reader, 

Your question wasn’t poorly worded, and it definitely made sense! Comfort food preferences are determined by a variety of factors. While some individuals may choose to eat comfort foods that are higher in fat and sugar content, that isn’t always the case. Your comfort food preferences are usually determined by the combined influences of internal (i.e., hormones) and external (i.e., environment) stimuli. For example, humans can have genetically determined preferences for certain flavors and have experiences that result in positive (as well as negative) feelings being associated with certain foods. Comfort food preferences can range from a complex meal to something as simple as a piece of fruit! 

When it comes to internal stimuli, stress has a big role to play. While short-term stress may decrease appetite, research suggests that long-term stress triggers the release of additional cortisol—the body’s main stress hormone. When cortisol levels increase, so does your motivation to eat. To offset the effect of high cortisol levels in the body, people tend to eat foods with a higher sugar and fat content. This is because these foods may help to produce serotonin, a hormone that assists in improving mood and reducing cortisol levels. Not only do these sweet foods increase serotonin, but they also provide energy. 

The influence of an individual’s life experience also plays a significant role in comfort food preferences. Think about a time where you felt really upset or stressed, what foods did you turn to? When someone experiences similar emotions, they might turn to foods that offer emotional comfort. These foods usually have a higher calorie content and are often associated positively with childhood or home-cooked meals. Research suggests that eating comfort foods helps to feel less lonely and can reduce feelings of isolation. This is because comfort food has a social function (i.e., nostalgia) attached to it. This past association with specific foods can evoke feelings of safety, love, appreciation, or empowerment, which can keep you coming back for more! 

Life will sometimes, unfortunately, have upsetting or triggering events. These can be things like family or relationship conflicts, general work stress, fatigue, financial pressures, or health issues. While it may be nice to turn to comfort foods in times of stress, it may not always be the best option. If you're looking for other ways to curb your comfort food cravings, you might consider trying: 

  • Taming your stress! Because stress contributes to increased cortisol levels, it may be helpful to implement stress management strategies such as yoga, meditation, or deep breathing. 
  • Leaning on your support system. Sometimes the thing you may need most is family, friends, or a professional to talk to when things become too stressful, or you feel overwhelmed trying to manage the stress by yourself. 
  • Exercising. Exercise can help to decrease some of the negative effects of stress and boost your overall mood. 

These methods can help you to channel and process these experiences through a positive lens of support. When you experience a craving, you might first stop and ask yourself if satisfying that craving is really you avoiding a problem. But know that a desire for comfort foods is a common reaction to what's going on in your life. Whether it's an apple, a bag of chips, ice cream, or a nostalgic dish from your childhood, take the time to enjoy the flavor and know that there are people and alternative methods of support should you need them! 

Last updated Aug 11, 2023
Originally published Jan 21, 2005

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