Comfort Foods, Pandemic Stress & Breaking the Rules
Comfort foods have that name for a reason. They are the foods we turn to when sick, sad, or stressed. Our current pandemic certainly qualifies as a stressful time and, for many of us, comfort foods have become something of a safe harbour. With headlines about a third COVID-19 wave dominating our timelines, who among us hasn’t felt a burning desire to scarf down a package of cookies or inhale a bag of chips?
Seeking to justify my constant cravings for cheese and crackers, Doritos, popcorn, and chocolate–white or blonde since I can’t eat the real stuff–I did a little research into what makes comfort foods so, well, comforting.
What are comfort foods? There is no definitive answer to that question because there is no singular example. As psychologist Charles Spence notes, “foodstuffs take on their role as comfort foods” in a very idiosyncratic way. (1) In other words, everyone has their own definition. A 2003 study noted that men often gravitate toward meal-based foods when seeking comfort–think steak, burgers, or pasta. Women, on the other hand, tend to prefer snack-based foods like chocolate or ice cream. Age also plays a role, with younger people choosing intensely salty or sugary snacks more than meals, as some of their elders do. (2) But the motivation for eating these foods is the same, whether male or female, young or old: quell the emotion behind the craving.
Comfort foods calm us on both a physical and psychological level. During times of chronic stress, like the current pandemic, our bodies release cortisol, a substance that increases appetite, particularly for fatty, salty, or sweet foods. (3) Comfort foods satisfy the cravings cortisol creates, activating the reward centres in our brains and elevating our moods. (4)
Looking beyond the physical, Spence talks about the role a food’s mouth feel or “oral-somatosensory” quality plays in soothing us. He notes that many comfort foods tend to be soft, like mashed potatoes, pudding, or ice cream. This texture is seen as comforting and nurturing. Foods that provide warmth, like soup or tea, elicit a similar reaction. I’d also add the zesty, satisfying crunch of a Dorito to this list. Spence would concur. In addition to mouth feel, he believes that “what we hear when we bite into a food or take a sip of a drink—be it the crunch of the crisp or the fizz of the carbonation in the glass—plays an important role in our multisensory perception of flavour, not to mention in our enjoyment of the overall multisensory experience of eating or drinking.” (5) In other words, the sound of our food can be just as compelling and comforting as its aroma, texture, or taste.
Comfort foods also tend to be familiar, generating warm memories of childhood and the foods that made us happy then, family meals, or special occasions and gift giving. (The latter explains why candy and chocolate are high on most people’s lists of comfort foods.) I have passed on this tradition to my children, who undoubtedly associate every major holiday with chocolate. And pumpkin pie. And waffles for breakfast.
Nostalgia, soothing sensory experiences, and the physical release of stress are all perfectly good justifications for my ongoing comfort food habit. But my research turned up another, unexpected explanation (and excuse): liminality.
If you’re not sure what “liminality” is, you are not alone. I had only a vague idea of what the term meant when I came across it in a recent article about emotional eating and COVID-19. A liminal stage is a period of transition between one stage of life and another. In liminal stages, “the usual rules” are suspended; those of the earlier stage no longer apply, while those of the next stage are not yet in place. During such periods, people might make mistakes or “behave inappropriately” without regard for the consequences. The authors of this article view the COVID-19 pandemic as a liminal stage, suggesting that people have set aside their usual concerns about calories and nutrition as they deal with current stress and an uncertain future. The end result is more emotional eating and seeking of foods that comfort. (6)
The notion of “mistakes” and “inappropriate” behaviour add a negative spin to the authors’ argument about liminality, but overall, I found solace in what they said. The message is not that we are failing if we make questionable food choices, but that we should forgive ourselves for any transgressions where food is concerned. We are going through a very difficult moment in time. We have enough to worry about right now without fretting over extra cookies or pasta dinners. Once things are stable, we can go back to following the rules we have been ignoring for the last year. Until then, we can take comfort in our comfort foods. We need and deserve them.
I write this knowing full well that many people do not have the luxury of comfort foods right now. If you would like to make a donation to help people living with food insecurity, here are a couple of organizations I have supported: Food Banks Canada and Breakfast Club of Canada. Your local food bank would also welcome donations of food or cash.
- Spence, Charles. “Comfort food: a review.” International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science. 9 (2017) 105-109. p. 106.
- Wansink, Brian et al. “Exploring comfort food preferences across age and gender.” Physiology & Behavior. 79 (2003) 739-747.
- It’s actually a little more complicated, but that is the gist. For more detail, you can read Tahir, Urooj. “Stress and Eating Behaviour” Advances in Obesity, Weight Management & Control. 4 (4) (2016) 101-105. p. 102. [MedCrave]
- Leeds, Joanna et al. “Food and Mood: Exploring the determinants of food choices and the effects of food consumption on mood among women in Inner London.” World Nutrition. 11 (1) (2020) 68-96. p. 70.
- Spence, Charles. “Eating with our ears: assessing the importance of the sounds of consumption on our perception and enjoyment of multisensory flavour experiences.” Flavour. 4 (3) (2015) 1-14. p. 1.
- Shen, Wan et al. “A Humanities-Based Explanation for the Effects of Emotional Eating and Perceived Stress on Food Choice Motives during the COVID-19 Pandemic.” Nutrients 12 (2020) 1-18. p. 10-11.