We all have that particular food that we turn to after a devastating exam or that we use to distract us from piles of homework. The wonderful thing about food is that it can never turn us away and that it never disappoints. The funny thing about the brain is that it responds to happiness and stress relief by continuing to crave the same comfort foods.
The essence of comfort food is its ability to cheer us up. It works by creating reinforcements; when we eat food, we receive positive reinforcement by obtaining physical sustenance along with great flavors and taste. Positive reinforcement is when we receive something, which leads us to want to continue the action that caused the effect (more happiness).
Additionally, we also receive negative reinforcement when we eat food to relieve stress, and we begin to associate eating comfort food with the lessening of a burden. Negative reinforcement is when something is taken away, which leads us to want to continue the action that caused the effect (less stress). After a period of time, our minds will be trained to seek out food as a way to deal with our problems in life. This process causes us to crave food, creating the idea of “comfort food.”
The process of conditioning affects our brains in other ways that encourage the consumption of comfort food. For example, food that is associated with fond memories can bring happiness by enabling you to relive these memories. Similarly, a food associated with a certain person (say, Grandma’s apple pie) can become a comfort food that reminds you of someone you cherish. All these separate factors contribute to amplify your desires and cravings for your specific comfort foods.
However, the inconvenient drawback of comfort food is that it tends to be unhealthy. As with everything, moderation is key. Self-imposed deprivation tends to increase the reward value and cravings for the food you’re abstaining from. On the other hand, indulgence leads to a vicious cycle of more indulgence; a craving that is satisfied tends to cause a slump, which may tempt you to indulge once again.
Overall, while comfort food may prove to be a reliable way to deal with our problems, heed our warning and remember to show restraint. Too much of a good thing can definitely become a bad thing!