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Comfort Foods and Depression

October 22, 2021 Natasha Tracy

I'm far too acquainted with comfort food and depression. I wish I had no knowledge of it, but that's just not true. I admit to comfort-eating when depressed in spite of knowing that it tends to be bad for one's physical health. So, let's dive into what comfort food in depression is and whether it actually offers any benefit.

What Are Comfort Foods in Depression?

From what I understand, people tend to crave sweet, salty, or carbohydrate-rich foods when they have a low mood. Some people say this relates to something physical; I say it relates to personal taste. I also think that people can crave different foods at different times. In other words, you might be a salty craver 60 percent of the time and a carbohydrate craver 40 percent of the time. I really don't think there are any hard and fast rules. 

So, comfort foods can be pretty much whatever you're craving, such as:

  • Ice cream
  • Candy
  • Pasta
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Potato chips
  • Cookies

To the best of my knowledge, no one craves broccoli or kohlrabi when depressed.

Comfort Foods in Depression -- Why Do We Crave Them?

I know that I crave comfort foods in depression because they make me feel better. It's pretty much that simple. Specifically, when I'm feeling low, I want to eat ice cream. When I do eat ice cream, I can actually feel my mood lighten a little. 

And this is not just in my head. The study, "Is Comfort Food Actually Comforting for Emotional Eaters? A (Moderated) Mediation Analysis," shows that comfort food does, indeed, make people feel better.1

The study shows that:

  • Those with a low mood eat more.
  • Those who are stressed or who have a low mood experience mood improvement after eating.
  • The "tastier" the food is considered, the more effect it has on mood.

In other words, yes, comfort food really does work to improve mood, and the more comforting the food, the more it works. (This is why kohlrabi isn't big in depression.)

(This study also shows that there are some people who are "low emotional eaters." These people don't show the same size correlation as they may choose not to eat when stressed, for example.)

Comfort Foods in Depression -- Fighting the Urge

Some would argue you have to fight the urge to eat comfort foods in depression. As a person who is overweight, I understand this advice. Certainly, some of us have to be concerned about our waistline when it comes to eating high-calorie foods. Even those who are not overweight tend to worry about becoming overweight due to comfort food eating.

This is why there are stacks and stacks of articles online about how not to eat a given food. Expert after expert will tell you how to avoid salt, sugar, or carbohydrates, and what's more, they'll say it's the right move and good for you.

I'm not going to offer this advice.

What I'm going to say is this: being conscious of what you're eating and why is the best medicine. You can think of this as mindful eating. So when you reach for chips or cookies, you need to ask yourself what is going on in your life that is producing that craving. Are you stressed? Are you sad? What is going on for you?

Once you've ascertained that, you can decide for yourself whether eating that pasta or ice cream really makes sense. In many instances, dealing with your sorrow, stress, or other provocative emotion in other ways may be far more successful. 

Eating Comfort Foods When Depressed -- It's Okay

If after you've looked at your eating desires, the situation, and what you can do about the situation, you still may decide you want to eat the candy -- and that's okay. I'm not the diet police, and I'm not about to tell you what to do. And, as I said, eating comfort food really does help to elevate mood and maybe, at that moment, that's the most important thing. That, honestly, is a reasonable choice at times.

Of course, we all need to take into account our physical health, and this means that too much of the above will hurt you. I know that. You know that. But I believe that understanding comfort foods and depression and making conscious choices is the best way to handle it.

(PS: There are some medications, often antipsychotics, that will make you crave carbohydrates, specifically, or just food in general. In this case, eating might not actually alleviate your craving or make you feel better because that craving is not as much about emotional eating as it is about changes in your body. If this is you, I recommend talking to the prescribing physician and even seeing a dietician to see how you can work with that.)

Source

  1. Van Stien et al., "Is Comfort Food Actually Comforting for Emotional Eaters? A (Moderated) Mediation Analysis." Physiology and Behavior, November 2019. 

APA Reference
Tracy, N. (2021, October 22). Comfort Foods and Depression, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2021, November 30 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/breakingbipolar/2021/10/comfort-foods-and-depression



Author: Natasha Tracy

Natasha Tracy is a renowned speaker, award-winning advocate and author of Lost Marbles: Insights into My Life with Depression & Bipolar.

Find Natasha Tracy on her blog, Bipolar BurbleTwitter, InstagramFacebook and YouTube.

Lizanne Corbit
October, 26 2021 at 6:32 pm

This is such lovely and spot-on advice, "being conscious of what you're eating and why is the best medicine.". It can be all too easy (especially coming into the holiday season) to be hard on ourselves and beat up for things like comfort or "emotional eating", but that is, of course, the last thing we need. I think the more we practice gentle mindfulness around habits such as comfort eating, the more we respond positively and recognize that sometimes it's a-okay and other times, there might be another option. Both are good!

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