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The Real Truth about Comfort Food

We think of foods as comforting just because they provide us with a quick dopamine fix but the long term effects are anything but.

The other night I watched, in vague horror, as a TV chef added Wotsits to a Mac ’n’ Cheese proclaiming that she was “taking comfort food to a new level”. While Wotsit-laden Mac ’n’ Cheese may deliver some short term pleasure, that initial dopamine high will quite likely give rise to feelings of lethargy, bloating and self-loathing, fuelling the emotional stress that led to the “comfort” eating in the first place. This “comfort food” should carry a health warning.

But food has always brought comfort. Gripped by the pains of hunger or illness or when chilled to the bone, food provides relief. It seems a natural cure for such physical stress. But we are now blessed to seldom be particularly hungry or cold — the stresses we seek relief from now are emotional ones and food seems to make much less sense as a treatment for these.

We know that eating triggers the release of dopamine which has a pleasing effect and is the brain’s way of rewarding us. Sugar provides the “biggest hit” which anthropologically makes good sense as sweet food was scarce and the brain needs glucose to function. Reward for eating fat also makes sense as it is by far the most energy-rich nutrient and, garnered with this knowledge, it didn’t take the food industry long to work out that if you mix fat with sugar and make it cheap, readily available, present it in a nicely coloured wrapper and market the hell out of it then you hit the dopamine jackpot. The Nestlé Group have certainly done that and we happily pull their dopamine triggers, not just at mealtimes but repeatedly throughout the day. Great purveyors of the snack, Nestlé saw their net profit grow to nearly £10 billion in 2020 with chocolate, that ingenious blend of sugar and fat, accounting for sales of over £5 billion. (Source: www.statista.com)

As well as snacking, other cultural changes have led us to become more reliant on the food industry for all our meals and never ones to disappoint, they came to our rescue with cereals, processed foods and ready meals laden with sugar and fat. The vilification of saturated fat by western governments spurred on by rising heart disease in the 1960s and 70s further assisted the food industry — by forcing them to replace some of the saturated fat in their products they developed cheap, refined unsaturated vegetable oils and added more salt and sugar too. In this way, they were able to deliver even greater dopamine “highs” at even cheaper prices. This was all very comforting to the evermore emotionally-stressed consumer. Sadly though, our bodies have been unable to adapt to this radical change in our diet which has led to an exponential rise in metabolic diseases such as obesity and diabetes. Now, 40 years on and with our National Health Service buckling under the strain, our government still promotes outdated nutritional advice and celebrity chefs are adding Wotsits to mac ’n’ cheese on prime time television.

This modern concept of comfort eating would surely appear gluttonous to past generations or people and societies today that live more frugal lives where food isn’t taken for granted and every morsel provides comfort. To these cultures, foods that are fed to the very young and the very old are the foods that they might crave when feeling physically or mentally fragile. Dishes their mothers prepared for them when they needed to be restored from illness or which bestowed on them the feeling of security felt in childhood. Soups, broths and porridges of rice, oatmeal or lentils — hot, nutritious and easy to digest — these are surely the true comfort foods.

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