A recent post over at Soulveggie on “comfort food” caught my attention enough that not only did I feel the need to comment as I often do for his posts, but to reflect some and write my own thoughts on the matter. My first thought is that all food should be considered comfort food. Right? I mean, if you’re hungry and you eat, aren’t you comforted? But clearly there is a distinction between being satisfied and being comforted.
A quick perusal of the cooking magazines shows many cover stories on comfort food. The accompanying photos are usually high fat, meat based concoctions we remember from our childhood. What is being comforted? Certainly not our arteries! Yet somehow we ignore the physical consequences of these dishes with an excuse that they comfort us. Where is the disconnect? Why do we choose short term emotional benefit over long term health? After reading Dr. Kessler’s book The End of Overeating, I think I see a reason. He explains some of the new research in neuroscience that shows how bad food, that is, food high in some combination of sugar, salt or fat has a drug effect on the brain quite similar to other drugs like caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol. So, at a biological level, we truly are being powerfully comforted by food we know rationally is not good. Couple that drug effect with all the residue of past good feelings associated with this food, and you have a powerful brain cocktail.
I say that it is time to rethink what comfort food should be, and make solid efforts to define comfort as how we will feel in our 60s, 70s and beyond. Kessler details other psychological research that gives some suggestions about how to rewire our brains for new habits. But I am just as encouraged by Dr. Esselstyn’s program to reverse heart disease that explains that within three months those brain receptors that respond to fat so enthusiastically can be retrained. Also, Dr. McDougall always refers to his food as comfort food, since it is starch based and therefore very satisfying. My experience has been that if I keep the starch, eliminate the fat, and stick to tastes and flavors I like, I find a different kind of comfort. One that feels good today, and I know will feel good far into the future.