We all know that feeling. When your stressed out and exhausted after the trials and tribulations of life. Relaxation and comfort can be found in different forms for many: a mind-clearing jog in the fresh air, delving deep into a good novel, or maybe a nice glass of wine (or two).

But there is something that most people can unanimously rely on for that metaphorical warm hug- delicious food.

Studies show that comfort foods are usually high in carbohydrates, fatty acids, or sugar. This is because they have been found to affect the same area of the brain that deals with emotions.

An article in The Huffington Post found that food memories are this strong and powerful as they involve all five of our sense. Where you are and who you are with as well as what the occasion was all compile together to add power to those nostalgic taste memories.

Image of a burger, Photo Credits: Unsplash

Senior psychologist and award-winning therapist, Sally Baker explains that when people eat heavy carbs it works on the brain the same way that Prozac works on the brain by activating serotonin- the chemicals in the brain that relax you and make you feel calmer.

She says: “People are actually drugging themselves with carbs quite often. A nice fully belly after indulging on food can mask anxiety and butterflies, making you overeat to counteract any anxious or sad feelings.”

Ultimately- a comfort food could be anything for anyone if it triggers those safe, nostalgic, and comforting feelings.

So, are you ‘drugging’ yourself with pizza, chocolate, or anything else that is perhaps not the healthiest?

A survey carried out on 2,000 adults by OnePoll.com found that 8 in 10 Brits are most likely to turn to their favourite food when in need of comfort. They also found that feeling stressed, feeling sad or down, followed by rainy cold weather were the top three reasons for turning to such foods.

With pizza voted as the most popular comfort food and fish and chips in at number two, it leads to questioning how healthy our nations comfort food reliance really is? Does indulging to get that instantaneous pang of happiness and comfort actually work, or is it unhealthy and potentially even damaging in the long run?

Mrs Baker added that when you use food to comfort you, you are giving your power over to it. She says that: “This is called an external locus. Instead of working out why they need the comfort, people use food as a masking process. It doesn’t really help to find out the root cause of what is bothering them- it is a strategy to mask the uncomfortable feelings instead of leaning into the uncomfortable feelings and dealing with them.

Comfort eating as a way of masking authentic emotions is never a good idea. Until you solve whatever is driving you to comfort eat, then it is going to continue. And you don’t comfort eat on a kale salad- it doesn’t give you the satiety and comfort that you need in that moment, so it can be very unhealthy.”

Binging on foods high in salt, sugar, and fat-or often those containing all the above when the day has been particularly rough, isn’t going to be the healthiest option. However, when consumed in moderation, is the nostalgia from a childhood favourite chocolate melting in the mouth or an oozing greasy bite of cheese pizza really the enemy?

Comfort food is often linked to memories and the wonderful feeling of nostalgia. Mrs Baker explained that: “Food you get given when you get home from school, when you are tired and you may have had a rough and tumble day, really stays with you. It signifies being safe, being home and being nurtured- all the things you may not have felt at school that day.”

The survey conducted by OnePoll.com also found that two thirds of respondents choose a comfort food which reminds them of childhood.

Think back to your childhood comfort meal. When you have it now- those smells and tastes will ignite warm and happy memories for most, perhaps even visualisation of your childhood home environment or maybe your mother cooking it.

It is thought to be a survival instinct, protecting you from eating things that may have made you ill in the past, but it works similarly with foods that bring good emotions.

Happiness expert and psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar says that tastes and scents can work on us in various ways. It is mainly through Indirect impact, which is through association. For example, a smell or a taste that was around during a powerful emotional experience, will in the future trigger the emotional experience.

He says that: “If we felt strong love from our Mum, and she made a particular dish, then that dish will elicit love whenever we smell or taste it.”

This explains why even the weirdest food combos from childhood may still ignite that warm, fuzzy feeling inside you- even if they disgust others. No need to question why marmite and cheese on crackers is like heaven for me, whilst my friends stare at me in disbelief!

Mr Ben-Shahar further explained that: “Likewise, if we smell or taste something that we associate with a kind person- be it a family member, a teacher, or some other role model-that person’s kindness becomes contagious through the taste or smell, and we are subsequently likely to act with more kindness.

Comfort food for me is a lasagne, my mum used to make it a lot and now, no matter who it is made by it will always be my favourite meal due to the fond memories it ignites in me.”

Even the top chefs take those wonderful feelings of comfort and nostalgia into account to tap into your senses and give you a dining experience full of emotion. MasterChef 2022 contestant and Head Chef, Chris Finnigan says: “Comfort food is everything to me, its nostalgia, its memories, its happiness, and its family.

I think it gives you the greatest feeling because you may have grown up with a dish like cottage pie at home and that memory and those flavours don’t go away, so when eating out, if you see a dish, you may have had as a child it can bring back happy memories and for me, comfort food just hits the spot and makes me smile.”

All of the dishes Chris cooked on MasterChef were created from memory as he lost his sense of smell 18 months ago due to Covid-19 and his tastebuds to this day still aren’t 100%. “For me it is super important to use memories of my comfort foods to cook. I grew up on corned beef hash and so did my partner, Helen. We often have a version of it with fried eggs and brown sauce on top. In my restaurant I recreated this with duck leg, duck eggs and star anise and it was a huge hit!

My fondest food memory as a kid, was my ‘Mam’s’ steak and chips with home-made gravy- every now and again I cook it and it brings back fond memories and puts the biggest smile on my face.”

One serotonin-boosting food for the masses comes in many a form. White, milk or dark. Bar, truffle or even an orange? That sweet, slightly bitter earthiness that melts of the tongue.

You guessed it- chocolate. For many, an ultimate comfort food.

Selection of chocolates, Photo Credits: Unsplash

CEO of Hotel Chocolat, Peter Harris explains that cocoa and particularly dark chocolate contains antioxidants called flavonoids, which have health protecting properties. He says: “Serotonin is increased when you eat chocolate, and this makes you feel uplifted- a feeling like being in love. Try it! It makes you feel good almost immediately.” Yes- you heard that right. Health protecting properties. Need I say more?

Mr Harris added that all of the chocolate his team makes has cocoa as the first ingredient, including their white chocolate where the first ingredient is cocoa butter.

He explains that: “Most other brands have sugar as the predominant ingredient, so the health aspects are considerably reduced.  We are determined that our customers enjoy real chocolate; I believe our recipes are unique and memorable- the quality is first class which makes our customers loyal to us.

When I am personally craving comfort food, my go to meal is roast chicken with roast potatoes and green vegetables. It is simple but very enjoyable and makes me feel good. It must be followed by apple crumble, then of course a couple of my most favourite selection of chocolates. A whole comfort banquet for me!”

Clearly, when keeping conscious of the health aspects (both physical and mental), comfort food is a huge source of happiness to us Brits. As explained above, it may even make you a kinder person, and be a genuine source of happiness, comfort, and indulgence.

However, being mindful of not becoming too over reliant on them and perhaps using them to mask any deeper issues is important.

With all things considered, I think it is safe to say there are worse things you could use as your vice! So go on, order that pizza- you know you want to.