The weather is changing, the busy holiday season is coming, it’s always dark outside and, for some reason, you keep craving tomato soup and grilled cheese with the crust cut off, just like your parents made when you were a child.
It’s not unusual to crave comfort foods during stressful times and ache for the simplicity associated with childhood. In winter especially, the lack of sunlight results in lower levels of serotonin, a chemical that maintains mood, and this can drive us to eat foods such as sweets, simple carbohydrates and other not-so-healthy options that improve the chemical imbalance in the body.
Even if those foods are bland or kind of gross, we still want them. Dietitians, and professors in the departments of psychology and nutrition explain why.
It’s all in your mind
A large part of the reason we still enjoy that bright-orange mac ‘n’ cheese or those frozen, bread-filled Bagel Bites is because of psychological associations we’ve formed.
Matthew Will, a professor in the psychology department at MU, said in an email that food can become associated with childhood experiences. So, for example, if your parents made you an ice-cream sundae every time you were sad as a child, you might habitually grab a pint of Ben & Jerry’s when you need a grown-up pick-me-up.
Another reason people have positive associations with food is because they control it, says Jennifer Bean, an assistant teaching professor in MU’s department of nutrition and exercise physiology.
Jennifer Tveitnes, a clinical dietitian, agrees that associations play a large role. These foods were made by your parents and eaten in your home where warmth and love abounded, so they carry those comforting feelings now, Tveitnes says.
In the name of science
How certain childhood foods affect the brain chemically also impacts our desire to keep eating them. Sugary foods, such as homemade chocolate chip cookies, are rewarding, Will wrote in an email. “One thing they do is release opioids, and this will elevate mood.”
Tveitnes says starches are another commonly craved food in low times. Foods high in starch such as breads, potatoes and pasta end up as sugar in your bloodstream and further lift spirits.
Relieve stress healthily
Tveitnes says there are several other ways to control emotions and stress beyond eating comfort foods. She suggests activities such as exercise, talking to a friend, journaling or taking a relaxing bath.
It’s okay to indulge in sweets every now and then, but coping with stress healthily is important. First, when you’re driven to carbs, choose complex ones, such as whole grains and vegetables, rather than refined ones. Your stomach and adult metabolism will thank you.