At the final outcome of an interview on emotional overeating with a writer for a popular magazine, she asked me if comfort foods were harmful to us. Bad? How could they be bad when they comforted?
Decades ago our research at MIT found that some foods significantly improved people’s moods; they really did comfort. Not all foods needless to say, only sweet and starchy, non-fruit carbohydrates did the trick. We learned that these foods comforted not just because they taste good (although admittedly many do) but in addition because when carbohydrates are eaten, serotonin is made. This brain chemical, in charge of our emotional state, could make us feel emotionally stable and calm.
Just how could comfort foods be harmful to us? They don’t have side effects like alcohol, nicotine as well as prescription tranquilizers do. They don’t cost much. Plus, combined with the comfort bestowed by the serotonin, we get another benefit – a decrease in our appetite. So to paraphrase my grandmother, “What might be bad? “
“But how about pizza, potato chips or chocolate-chip cookies?” the interviewer asked. “ They are so fattening and emotional overeaters don’t just eat a little, they can eat enormous amounts of these highly caloric foods.”
She was right. The foods we seek when our moods need improvement tend to be empty of everything except taste, fat, sugar, salt and calories. Convenience stores, supermarket aisles, food courts and vending machines are filled with these sweet or starchy comfort food. They taste good, sometimes so much such that it is hard to stop eating a whole package of barbecued chips or even a pint of ice cream. The comfort seems in the future immediately while the sweet, fatty or salty flavors hit our tongues, and often we continue eating only to prolong the pleasure. But that taste bud comfort costs higher than a few dollars, while the added calories can soon add up to extra unwanted pounds.
Yet the interviewer was also wrong. We don’t have to consume “junk” carbohydrates to feel better. The true comfort arises from the brain, not the taste buds. The mind doesn’t care if the comfort food is fudge cake or brown rice; all non-fruit carbohydrates are digested to glucose. (Fruit doesn’t work because it generally does not enter the body as glucose.) As glucose enters the blood stream from the intestinal tract it starts the biochemical procedure that results with serotonin being synthesized. Simply put, the brain makes serotonin regardless of whether you eat a slice of whole wheat bread with a drizzle of honey or an éclair.
Moreover, real comfort comes faster if the foodstuff has little or no fat. A pot of fat-free pretzels or Cheerios will improve mood considerably faster than a slice of oily pizza or even a cup of high-fat ice cream. The reason being fat slows down digestion and slow digestion means that the eater has to attend an extended time for serotonin to be made. Unfortunately, what the eater does while waiting for serotonin’s calming effect is, alas, to carry on eating. Indeed, it is possible to consume hundreds of calories worth of cookies or potato chips while waiting for the body to digest the initial two cookies or a small number of chips.
Consider it in this way: You’ve a
headache and take two aspirin. Then because the pain does not disappear
completely immediately, you take two more, and two more and two more. By the
time you finish the bottle of aspirin your headache probably is likely to be
gone (and maybe you are having your stomach pumped). Many emotional overeaters
do exactly the same with sweet or starchy carbohydrates. They continue to
consume until they think better. The consequence is weight gain.