Why You Crave Comfort Food & How To Break The Habit, From A Neurologist
Imagine: You're feeling down, stressed out, or just a bit bleh, and you reach for something sweet. Maybe it's a candy bar, bowl of ice cream, or gooey chocolate chip cookie. Or maybe something savory is calling your name—a bag of chips, perhaps. It feels great! All those previous emotions are harbored away for a blissful moment as you munch on the sugar and salt your body was craving. But then—the crash. You feel groggy, sluggish, back to bleh. That once-glorious comfort food can actually bring discomfort, so why did you reach for it in the first place?
Well, as board-certified neurologist and fellowship-trained MS specialist Mitzi Joi Williams, M.D., explains on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, there's a perfectly good reason comfort food brings you joy—albeit, for a fleeting moment—and why you may crave it time and again. Here's what she says is going on in the brain.
Why "comfort food" is so comforting to the brain.
Before we begin, let us say this up top: We're approaching the holidays, so you might take this time to savor more cheeky indulgences. That's OK! Do what makes you happy, and if that includes a frosted treat to lift your holiday spirits—go for it. We could all use a little more joy right now, whatever that looks like for you.
But in case you're curious about why those foods bring you comfort, Williams shares that it's actually not so much about the snacks themselves—it's often the memories associated with them.
"A lot of it is about program behavior," she says. If you think back to when you were a child and received a sweet treat, you felt pretty good about it, no? "So we look at things that made us feel good in the past, and we repeat those types of behaviors," Williams says. Afterward, every time you eat that sweet treat, your brain may conjure those memories of when you were a child—and all the positive brain chemicals that come with them.
"Each time those endorphins are released, that pattern may become ingrained into your brain. And we begin to repeat and repeat behaviors, whether they're good or bad for us, they release that same chemical and allow us to have that feel-good feeling, but obviously, it's not a long-lasting effect," she adds.
How to break the habit.
It's the billion-dollar question: How do you retrain your brain?
"I think that mindfulness is the key," notes Williams. "Paying attention to your behaviors, not just doing things automatically, and finding ways to replace those negative behaviors with positive ones." When you feel the urge to reach for food as a source of comfort, stop and think: What are your true motivations? Are you truly going to savor the treat, relish in the flavor of every crumb, or are you just chowing down because of the familiar rush it brings?
You can also try to get to the root of where these habits come from. "For instance, my love of sweets came as a child," Williams reminisces. "Sweets were always treats that I shared with my parents; my dad would buy some cookies, put them in the cabinet, and we would sneak the cookies at night, and that was our little fun secret." For Williams, those sweets became associated with the mirth and playfulness of childhood, as well as feeling close to her father. Rather than reaching for those foods as a source of comfort, perhaps she calls her father to recreate that feeling of connection. "Finding ways to interrupt those habits and then replace them with other positive things is one of the keys to helping break those habits," Williams adds.
Of course, that's not to say you should give up comfort food entirely. As we mentioned above, a sweet treat now and then brings joy! It lifts your spirits! It tastes amazing! Just try to recognize when you're using those sweets to fill an emotional void as opposed to appreciating the food itself. "Some people can do a little bit [of sweets], some people need to go cold turkey and then slowly reintroduce them, but you have to find what fits for you," Williams says.
Finally, she also mentions that your body begins to crave what you give it: "So if you treat yourself a lot, then you begin to crave those treats more and more, versus if you are eating healthy, then you crave those things more."
Wondering how comfort food earned its name? According to Williams, it's all about behavioral habits. That said, with a bit of mindfulness, you can understand what's truly spurring your affinity for sweets.
Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth. He has been featured in the New York Times, Entrepreneur, Fast Company, and Vogue, and has a B.A. in history from Columbia University, where he played varsity basketball for four years.