When the going gets tough, the tough ... eat a cookie and get going. There’s a reason why the cliché of a rom-com heroine finding solace in a pint of ice cream is so prevalent: comfort food can actually change brain chemistry and make stress go away for a short time. At times like these, when so many of us are dealing with the aftermath of Harvey or helping friends and neighbors on the long road to normalcy, comfort foods definitely have a place on the menu.
Most of the foods people turn to for comfort, like macaroni and cheese, ice cream and baked goods, deliver a big helping of carbohydrates and fatty acids. In several studies, research participants who received fatty acids reported being half as sad as participants who received a saline solution when they were told the same distressing stories. Brain scans confirmed the difference, showing that the stomach could actually be successful in cheering up the brain.
Comfort food is as much art as science, though. “Nostalgic eating,” returning to a food associated with a happy time, has a less physiological impact but a profound emotional one. One reason ice cream is such a popular comfort food is that many people associate it with their happiest childhood memories of birthday parties and summer outings.
The urge to find comfort in food is so strong that, after Hurricane Katrina, one of the first projects the decimated city’s newspaper took on was a recipe exchange to help readers make the food they remembered. The project took on a life of its own, resulting in “Cooking Up a Storm: Recipes Lost and Found from the Times-Picayune of New Orleans,” a cookbook that details the role that memories of food can play in recovering from a catastrophe.
“Displaced citizens from New Orleans began to cook their comfort foods, bringing their indigenous dishes to places like Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Pittsburgh,” cookbook compiler Marcella Bienvenu wrote. It was the same for those still in Louisiana. “Back home, they wanted a roast beef po-boy dripping with gravy, a bowl of rich gumbo or maybe just a cup of cafe au lait and a hot beignet to give them sustenance as they tried to rebuild their shattered homes and lives.”
Probably one of the other reasons ice cream is such a go-to comfort food is that it’s ready to eat, requiring nothing but a spoon. Other comfort foods can be almost as easy. A lasagna-like casserole made of frozen ravioli, frozen spinach and sauce from a jar can elicit the same satisfied sighs as a carefully constructed lasagna. If chicken salad brings comfort, a rotisserie chicken from the hot counter at the grocery store is just as good a starting place as a pile of raw chicken.
There are healthy comfort foods, too. Foods that boost the production of serotonin, one of the neurotransmitters regulating happiness, include spinach, turkey and bananas. Not surprisingly those foods combine well with the carbs and butter of traditional comfort foods.