Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, MD discussed the psychology of comfort foods and trigger foods on a recent segment on the Today Show, which was broadcast on Friday, Aug. 5, 2011 (video above).

Comfort foods may vary from person to person and culture to culture, but they are generally foods that are high in calories, salty foods, as well as foods that are sweet and starchy and high in fat.

Dr. Saltz noted that there are biological reasons that drive us to high calorie comfort foods, and she cited a study with rats that revealed they choose high calorie food even when unable to taste it. In humans as well, the drive to eat high calorie foods is a survival mechanism.

Dr. Saltz discussed salty foods, and the lure in them is that they raise the levels of the hormone oxytocin, sometimes known as the “love hormone,” a hormone that creates bonding. As loneliness can be a source of stress and drive people to emotional eating, in picking salty foods to eat, a person may feel less lonely and more connected.

The appeal of sweet and starchy and fatty foods is that they boost serotonin levels which will help our mood. They are acting almost like a temporary antidepressant. Therein lies the problem, as one can feel great as one eats these foods, and then crash out and feel guilty for it. We may end up feel ashamed that we are eating to feel better. This can cause a vicious cycle of eating food to feel better, and feeling guilty thereafter and eat more to feel better. We may also have specific trigger foods which may lead to this kind of behavior; the triggering foods will vary from person to person.


Dr. Saltz noted that it is important to become conscious of the behavior and to know that comfort foods will not resolve your stress, so it’s important to find out what is causing the stress. She also recommends finding ways to get rid of stress in your life other than eating. Try using other kinds of coping skills such as exercise.

If you’re feeling bad all the time and eating all the time, Dr. Saltz noted that you may want to consider seeking help from a therapist.

It’s a useful primer on just what we face when dealing with foods that may lead to these destructive behaviors which can lead to weight gain and/or making it difficult to diet to lose weight or maintain weight.

Many experts from a multitude of perspectives have noted how we are at the mercy of our hunger drives which were living in the days of feast or famine, but not helpful when food is literally on every corner and virtually every social setting, creating conditions for what Dr. David Kessler called conditioned hypereating in his bestselling book, The End of Overeating.

And of course, comfort foods do not have to be unhealthy foods, as we can recalibrate our tastes. For instance, in place of donuts for breakfast, a bowl of old fashioned rolled oats or steel cut oats with fruit, cinnamon and lightly sweetened with a healthy sweetener such as maple syrup or stevia can be quite satisfying.

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