Why do we reach for pizza and pasta when stressed? They are warm, heavy, and tasty- comfort foods fill our stomachs, make us feel at home, and set our brains abuzz. Feel-good dopamine and our reward systems have trained us to associate comfort foods with feeling happier.
Grilled cheese sandwiches, mashed potatoes, mac n cheese, cheap tacos, and pizza are the top five comfort foods, according to Huffpost.com. The fat, sugar, and salt content of our favorite comfort foods activate the brain's reward system. Hence why salty and greasy food is so darn good (and addicting!) The reward system hits the brain with a boost of dopamine, making a low mood feel much, much pleasanter!
Here is the science, the brain releases dopamine, creating a strong connection between pleasure, anticipation, and eating. Chowing down on our favorite comfort foods does make us feel better for a time. Dopamine strengthens synapses (pathways in your brain), connecting the food that triggered your reward system to a pleasurable brain-rush.
Essentially, eating a hearty helping of mac n cheese after a stressful day can easily become a not-so-healthy way to compensate for a less-than-great-day. In black and white, a pint of ice cream on a bad day will cheer you up- that is a scientific fact!
Here is the reality though, sweet treats may cheer you up at the moment, but what about after? If you are working hard toward a fitness goal, eating for comfort could make you feel guilty or defeated afterward! The instant gratification of fat, sugary, and salty foods can not become a consistent way to deal with stress AND not stand in the way of a healthier you.
Comfort eating will make reaching your goals harder and longer. Eating is most certainly comforting and should be enjoyed, but maybe it is time to redefine what your comfort foods are.
Can Good Food Also Release Dopamine?
The answer is yes! Healthy and wholesome foods can lift your mood! Research data shows that beets, avocados, bananas, and almonds will trigger your brain to release dopamine just as much as a pizza.
Of course, saying no to comfort foods will challenge you at first. But by regularly eating a dopamine-rich diet and eventually, your body will crave smarter foods. A consistent diet will keep you feeling cheery and bright on the regular.
Don't go cold turkey and completely cut off greasy foods. Begin by limiting when you eat your favorite comfort foods.
You can also work to change the relationship you have with unhealthy foods; maybe you don't eat them when you're sad. So when you are experiencing stress, your brain won't link unhealthy foods with feeling better!
Over time, your body will not crave bad fats, sugars, and salt as much. And as a last note, beyond weight loss and management, a healthy diet is the best way to combat chronic stress.