Ah, comfort foods … they bring a smile to our faces, make us feel happy, calm, and content … but is there a scientific reason for this wonderful food feeling?

A study conducted by Lukas Van Oudenhove, MD and Ph.D., at the University of Leuven in Belgium and reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation in 2011 showed that areas of the brain which are activated by our moods respond to fatty acids. Most comfort foods, like junk food, pizza, and macaroni and cheese, contain a large amount of fatty acids.

comfort foodThe Study

Participants in the study were first asked to rate their mood, hunger level, and how full they felt. They then viewed sad images while listening to sad music and were given a saturated fat solution or a saline solution through a feeding tube. None of the participants knew which infusion they were receiving. The study participants were given an MRI brain scan and were again asked the same questions. The findings showed that the participants who got the fatty acid reported they felt about half as sad as those who received the saline solution, and the areas of the brain that are affected by emotion or mood were shown to be activated on the MRI brain scan.

The Science

comfort foodsThis proof that comfort foods actually have the ability to make us feel better helps us to understand why eating ice cream or your grandmother’s homemade cinnamon rolls is so satisfying. It’s not just the good taste or the good memory of your grandmother that makes you feel better. The study shows that the stomach somehow communicates with the brain, telling it to be happy.

Exactly what biological function takes place is still unclear. The composition of the food – whether it is basically made up of sugars, carbohydrates, or proteins – and how it is broken down in the body is the key. Because comfort foods contain a lot of fatty acids, it causes them to have a chemical reaction following digestion. Van Oudenhove reports his findings suggest that the stomach may release hormones to influence the brain to feel content and less sad.

What this Means for Us

So mood and comfort food are related physically, not just psychologically. Giovanni Cizza, MD, a researcher with the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, advises: “Evolution has provided us with, if you wish, an over-the-counter anti-anxiety or anti-sadness product. Maybe if you’re sad and you feel like that chocolate could help you, go for it. Don’t feel too guilty, but try to limit what you eat and maybe later cut down on something else.”

Susan Albers, Psy.D., agrees. “If you continually pair feeling bad with food over and over again, it is likely that you will strengthen this connection in your brain.”

Oh, yes, my brain has confirmed it – chocolate chip cookies do make me feel better!

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