This Is Why We Are Seeking Comfort Food

by Amber Leventry
Originally Published: 
Woman Eating Butter
CSA Images/Getty

I love to eat, but I don’t usually crave specific foods. I prefer savory dishes over sweet in most situations and my go-to is usually protein based—cheese, meat, eggs, or nuts. Oh, I can house several slices of pizza when the mood strikes, and finish off a pan of brownies in one sitting, but I know my body pretty well — and when it comes to eating, my patterns are predictable.

This is part routine—thanks OCD!—and part learning what foods make my body feel good vs. crappy. For me, too much sugar and too many simple carbohydrates give me headaches and make me feel sluggish and cranky. Lately, though, the system seems to have broken down. My usual snacks don’t taste great and I am eating way more chocolate and enriched bread than ever before. I have always tried to listen to my body, so I’m going with it, but my eating habits are far from normal. Yours probably are too. Please don’t blame yourself or your lack of willpower: Our cravings and taste bud deviations are based in science. If you’re craving comfort food more than ever, you are not alone.

I am literally eating all of the cake right now — I recently had a birthday and heaven forbid I stretch the chocolate cake into next week. Cheez-Its. Spoonfuls of Nutella. Chips. Sugary cereal. None of this is bad food, per se, but it’s not food I usually eat, and I have been eating in quantities way higher than my norm.

Admittedly, I was frustrated at first. The heart—er, stomach—wants what it wants, but I was beating myself up for eating in what some people may consider an unhealthy way. Thanks to diet culture and ads about weight loss and pandemic fitness routines that keep popping up in my news feeds, I felt shame as if I wasn’t taking care of myself. Not only wasn’t I eating “clean,” but I felt unbalanced and out of control. I wanted the sugar, but it eventually made me feel gross. What was I doing to myself?

Just like everyone else, I am trying to survive unemployment, my kids, homeschooling my kids, a dangerous virus, and the uncertainty that surrounds all of it. I took a step back and reminded myself that there are a lot of bullshit forces at work right now and I need to be kind to myself. It’s not just a matter of what my stomach wants; my brain is trying to protect me from stress.

In other words, we are in the middle of a fucking pandemic and the chemicals in my brain are begging me to indulge my reward system. My body is craving comfort food because I am very uncomfortable.

Stress is a funny thing when it comes to our appetite. Before a big meeting, test, or presentation, we may not want to eat at all. Stress suppresses our appetite because our body is pumping out adrenaline. Instead of eating, our body is conserving energy to survive. In the short-term, stress can shut down appetite. But when we stay in a state of stress for a long time—like we’re in now—our adrenal glands release cortisol. Cortisol increases appetite and our impulse to eat. But since we are on the cortisol struggle bus, we are not likely to crave a cheese stick or salad. We go for sugary foods like cookies, cake, half a jar of Nutella (I’m stressed, okay?), and carbs—which our bodies quickly break down into sugar. These foods cause a release of dopamine in our brains; this is the “happy hormone,” the thing we are all seeking right now.

Dopamine motivates us to do or consume more of the thing that makes us feel good. It’s why we play a song we love over and over. Why we exercise. Or eat pizza. Dopamine makes us feel good, but it can also lead to addiction. I am an alcoholic in recovery. I drank to feel better. Over time it took more booze to trigger the dopamine response in my brain, so I drank more. This happens in drugs, sex, and food addicts too. I am not suggesting your need to eat warm buttery bread or bake chocolate chip cookies are addiction based, but if you’re predisposed to addiction, this is something to think about. (If you are worried about the effects the pandemic is having on your mental health and feel that your habits or coping mechanisms are out of control, reach out.)

Stress also fucks with our sleep patterns, and when our bodies experience sleep deprivation, the hormone ghrelin increases and leptin decreases; this leads to a rise in hunger. Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough to send us to the private ice cream stash, when we aren’t getting enough sleep, a lipid called endocannabinoid increases in the blood and “acts on the brain in a similar way to marijuana, making the act of eating more enjoyable, especially in the evening,” according to The munchies require Funyuns, not protein shakes.

It’s okay to let our need for comfort food take over a little without letting diet culture or our “normal” stigmatize that need. We are living in a mind fuck, and the last thing we need to do is add more stress or restrictions by punishing ourselves for what we’re eating. Do what you need to do to feel good. If eating isn’t making you feel better, that’s okay too. Other ways to get that dopamine rush include exercise, mediation, sleep, music, and laughter.

We are living in the upside down and our equilibrium is off. If your eating habits are “off” too, but also giving you comfort, then so be it. We need all the relief we can get these days.

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