The science behind comfort food: Why we reach for chocolate or potato chips depending on our mood

According to research, the concept of “comfort food” isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario. You may want some chocolate if you’re feeling sad, but another person will reach for a bag of potato chips when they fail a test at school.

What is “comfort food?”

Does indulging in sweet or salty foods really give you comfort? Or does a lack of restraint only give you temporary joy that’s immediately followed by guilt because you cheated on your diet? Several studies suggest that while indulging in your guilty pleasures can cheer you up temporarily, your choice of comfort food can also be influenced by your current mood.

Sometimes, people crave comfort food because they’re trying to fill an emotional need instead of an empty stomach.

In a 2015 study, Jordan D. Troisi and a team of researchers looked into the circumstances that resulted in the consumption of comfort food. The study results revealed that “securely attached individuals preferred the taste of comfort food (potato chips for example), after experiencing a belongingness threat.”

In a second study by the same group of researchers, findings showed that securely attached individuals consumed more comfort food to deal with “naturally occurring feelings of isolation.”

The researchers also acknowledged earlier research concerning the phenomenon and a preference for comfort food. For the purpose of the two studies, comfort food was defined as “foods people eat in response to specific circumstances, in order to feel pleasant or psychologically comfortable.”


The scientists explained that a lot of individuals consume comfort food to escape negative emotion even though this form of attempted self-medication doesn’t always resolve the problem. Despite this fact, people want comfort foods because eating them produces feelings of relational connectedness, a result that is very evident in those who have strong social ties.

This suggests that eating comfort food is associated with context, experience, and “relational associations with the food.”

The researchers concluded that their reference material proves what people instinctively know: that sometimes, you want to eat food when you need emotional comfort to self-medicate whenever you are under psychological stress.

Can one kind of food comfort different people?

Despite the stereotypes about comfort food choices, the researchers said that comfort food doesn’t always mean junk food. This means comfort food is food that “produces a pleasant emotional state.”

According to self-reported definitions of comfort food, people focus more on the consumption experience and context, along with the associations and relational ties to a certain kind of food.

However, for some people comfort food isn’t about the kind of food but their mindset.

Comfort food and your mood

In a separate study, titled “Better Moods for Better Eating?: How Mood Influences Food Choice,” Meryl P. Gardner and a team of other researchers examined the connection between food and mood.

The researchers referenced previous studies to verify that individuals often eat to “deal with negative emotions such as frustration, fear, boredom, stress, or anxiety.” These people tend to favor foods that fatty, full of carbohydrates, indulgent, and sweet because these items often give them immediate satisfaction. Comfort foods that meet these criteria may also have psycho-physical benefits. (Related: Six easy ways to get your emotional eating habits under control.)

To find out how positive moods affect food choice compared to negative moods, the researchers conducted four experiments. The results imply that the answer is associated with the pursuit of long-term versus short-term benefits.

Based on the results of the four experiments, a positive mood is linked to long-term goals like health, which then results in healthier food choices. Meanwhile, negative mood makes people crave more immediate mood management that makes someone consume indulgent foods.

Can comfort foods be healthy?

Not all comfort foods are bad for you. In fact, there are healthy foods that you can swap for junk food if you want to ease stress and anxiety.

These feel-good food alternatives aren’t just delicious, they’re also nutritious.

  • Asparagus spears instead of fries
  • Blueberries instead of sweets
  • Lean turkey instead of fried chicken
  • Non-dairy frozen avocado instead of ice cream
  • Salmon instead of steak

Talk, don’t snack

When you’re feeling anxious or stressed, don’t binge-eat cookies or chips.

Experts suggest talking to friends or a therapist if you’re struggling to deal with fear, negativity, or situational anxiety. Talking about your feelings can help reduce your desire for temporary sources of comfort like junk food.

The next time you’re craving salty chips or fries, try chatting with a friend to help ease your anxious mind.

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