How comfort foods work like Prozac

The psychology behind why we turn to fatty staples like French fries and fried chicken when life gets rough

Published June 23, 2011 5:01PM (EDT)

When the recession hit, you could hear the words buzzing from the cell phones of every restaurant consultant in America: "It's time for comfort food." But under the mashed potatoes and meatloaf lies a question: What does "comfort food" really mean? What about it actually comforts us?

Let's look at some big-time comfort foods: Fried chicken. French fries. Chocolate cake. When people talk about comfort food, the obvious explanation is that it's all about nostalgia and missing Mommy. But that's also cultural. Look at lutefisk, natto and the reddish-black blood sausage I was served once by a sad Belgian who took comfort in what struck me as something you might see in a hospital. And really, it takes more than this to create the rush of sensations that make us feel safe, calm and cared for. It's a complex interplay of memory, history and brain chemistry, and while some basics apply -- most of us are soothed by the soft, sweet, smooth, salty and unctuous -- the specifics are highly personal.

In a certain cheese shop in my town, there is a rack of rolls. Gleaming golden outside and airy, stretchy, satiny inside, they're sourdough and only vaguely square as if cut by clowns. One fits in my palm, then my sweatshirt pocket, which it must because this is the acid test by which I define comfort food: It's small. It's portable. It can be consumed silently. My comfort food must never call attention to itself. It must be dazzlingly bland, like Zen koans. Rolls. Marshmallows. Mochi. One round bowl of rice.

For you, of course, it's something else. Celery, say, or vindaloo or wings. A friend of mine craves slick, sticky, flamboyant food that she can stir with slow, exaggerated swirls to make a sucking sound. This is her comfort food.

When you begin to eat, your eyes, hands and mouth start the chain of command. Then the brain kicks in. Sugar and starch spur serotonin, a neurotransmitter known to increase a sense of well-being. (It's what makes Prozac work.) Salty foods spur oxytocin, aka the "cuddle chemical," a hormone that is also spiked by hugs and orgasm. Hence, potato chips. Mice unable to taste the difference between regular and extra-high-calorie food in a recent study preferred the high-calorie kind, which suggests that fattening food appeals simply because it is fattening. Which makes sense, given how much fuel our prehistoric ancestors burned crisscrossing savannahs, fleeing carnivores and chasing prey. Fat is a good balm for the fear of starvation.

There's also how the brain links emotion, memory and sensory stimuli. Popsicles nibbled to break childhood fevers, pizza when your track team won, coconut on your honeymoon: The brain associates good experiences with specific flavors, fragrances and textures, coding them as harbingers of happiness. Henceforth, even when you neither have a fever nor have won a race, eating Popsicles still brings the rush of relief and pizza feels like a reward.

But buried in this (like the caramel at the heart of a Milk Dud) is the deeper question of what counts as comfort.

Neuroscientists define it as the opposite of stress. Whether with pharmaceuticals or firearms or flannel sheets or funnel cake, we seek to de-stress by any means necessary. The brain reaches its relaxed, restorative comfort state when we feel safe and/or when we receive rewards and/or when we feel part of something bigger than ourselves -- a culture or a community.

Security, reward and connectedness: Each of these three feelings activates a different portion of the brain, and each of these is more or less crucial to each of us, which further explains why we don't all relish the same comfort foods. A competitive person or one who feels chronically undervalued cherishes foods that the brain has coded as rewards. A loner finds no comfort in those foods the brain links with community. An abused person who lives in fear might hoard safety foods.

When we feel endangered, unsung and/or lonesome, we eat.

Food is a fort we build. Rolls in my pocket feel like ballast. As a former anorexic, I imagine they will keep me safe because they are small, round, clean, dry and can be eaten stealthily. Someone else might feel most secure when eating pudding, say, because she ate it in the playroom before knowing the meaning of pain.

Food is the gift we give ourselves. My husband beams as if it's Christmas whenever Sriracha sauce or tonsil-searing salsa make him sweat. His Jewish/Danish DNA never predicted this. He grew up in a capsicum-free home. Yet kimchee signals "treat" to him, because hot-spicy foods were his private discovery, not something that was ever given to him but something he gave himself. They are his prize, and thus they comfort him in that explosive, pore-widening way by which hot saunas heal. (Which makes me think: Is it reincarnation? Given that some people find comfort in what they grew up with, and others specifically in what they didn't grow up with, do we choose our comfort foods or do they choose us? Does this process parallel the ways in which we acquire other preferences -- for bondage, say, or for stiletto heels or hairy men?)

Food is also the friend who never disappoints or ditches us. Psychologists call comfort food a "social surrogate" -- in other words, not quite replacing real companions but reminding us of them. Participants in yet another recent study felt less lonely after writing about -- and not even necessarily eating -- comfort foods. The psychologists who designed that study theorized correctly that consuming comfort foods soothes us in the exact same ways as wearing our favorite clothes or watching our favorite TV shows. Reminding us of those who love us and/or look and talk like us, comfort food also reminds us of who we are. Away from home, we seek the foods of home.

Of course, all matters of psychology are unrelentingly complex. Comfort food feels good, but -- for some of us -- in that first rush is also a twinge: For some, comfort food invokes a special hot-faced shame because both food and comfort are so intimate, and using one to do the other borders on self-pleasure. From there, it's just one small step to guilty pleasure, which is what most of us would call caramel corn and curly fries. Perhaps it's because in this crowded, hard world, we have convinced ourselves that seeking comfort is itself embarrassing, as if need makes us weak. We are ashamed to crave the salty, starchy, soft, unctuous and sweet, because we tell ourselves we are too smart to want what the judgmental would call junk -- although, surrounded by food that is market-tested to appeal to our most primal urges, we don't stand a chance. If comfort food exposes those urges, a drive-thru window can become a harsh confessional.

By Anneli Rufus

Anneli Rufus is an award-winning journalist and author of the new book "Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself." She is also the author of Stuck: Why We Can’t (or Won’t) Move On and Party of One: The Loner’s Manifesto. She has written for many publications, including The Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, The Huffington Post, and

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