Soothing to the soul: The psychology of comfort foods

Jessica Young

Collapsing on the couch after getting chewed out by the boss during a trying day at the office, you reach for a slice of French Silk heaven that has your name on it.

Post-breakup, you head straight for the freezer, where a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey sits waiting to facilitate your plans for the night — wallowing in self-pity.

And in the midst of a snowstorm fit for neither man nor beast, when you just can’t seem to shake the shivers, a big pot of chili with oyster crackers sure does the trick.

In times of stress, depression and physical malady, our bodies yearn for cuisine that’s the gastronomical equivalent of a favorite teddy bear or snugly afghan. But what about these dishes is soothing to the soul? Why chocolate chip cookies and not sushi? And what activates our craving?

“In times of emotional upheaval, people turn to food that reminds them of a happier, simpler time,” said Cami Morgan, a dietitian at DuPage Medical Group’s Hinsdale office. “When you’re younger, you solved problems with food. You got a bad test grade, and mom says ‘Let’s cut you a piece of cake, and then you can tell me all about it,’ or you fall and scrape your knee outside at grandma’s house, and she distracts you with some cookies.

“Your desire for diet of that nature is triggered by this need to escape or fill a void,” she added. “There’s a huge emotional component, but it’s just manifesting itself physically.”

But it’s not just the pleasant mental association of lingering childhood memories that has us yearning for calming fare that elicits warm and fuzzy feelings. While some tuna casserole or a brownie might offer familiarity and emotional security during a nostalgic phase, their nutritional value is just what the doctor ordered during a time of personal fragility.

Plates that have achieved comfort-food status typically are made from ingredients with simple or complex carbs like sugar, refined wheat and rice, according to Morgan and other dietitians and culinary experts.

Many times they’re starchier foods, like mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, Morgan added. And with seasonal changes in the elements, warmer, heartier nourishment — like tea, stews, pot pies and foods with creamier consistencies — rules the roost.

“Those are things that make you feel physically full and satiated,” she said. “Being comfortable in your own little lethargic cocoon is enticing, and it helps you to decompress both in mind and body.”

But some people seek comfort foods for the opposite reason. As far as the staple sweets go, the sugar rush is a big draw, said Sandy Folsom, director at Wilton School, an international culinary powerhouse with locations in Woodridge and Darien.

“When you’re feeling down or under the weather, you want that instant high or burst of energy,” she added. “You aren’t going to get that with a salad, but you will with a cupcake filled with ganache.”

There may even be more to it than merely satisfying our tummies.

“Researchers have looked at how these foods release brain chemicals that trick the brain into functioning or processing a certain way — almost like self-correction,” said Sandie Hunter, a dietitian at Delnor Community Hospital in Geneva. “Some theories center around serotonin. There might be something to that, because biological interactions can counteract stress, thereby serving as a pick-me-up.”

So feeling sated has become a coping mechanism, of sorts. And although the overwhelming majority of dishes deemed comfort foods are high in fat, our self-control goes out the window while we try to recover our peace of mind. In the meantime, we revel in the mental excuse to partake in the consumption of less-than-healthy treats.

“Forbidden foods are taunting you, and you binge in your moment of weakness,” Hunter said. “When you’re upset, you say ‘Screw it!’ and stop trying to be good. You feel entitled to indulge for once given the bad mood you’re in.”

While the underlying psychological and biological factors at play with comfort foods may intrigue chefs and those in the medical field alike, the rest of us are perfectly content with our pan of cornbread, bowl of Cream of Mushroom and mug of hot chocolate. No questions asked.

Comfort food recipes:

Chocolate Italian cookies

1 1/2 cup butter, softened

2 cup sugar

4 eggs

1 cup regular brewed coffee

2 tsp. vanilla

1 tsp. grated orange peel

1 tsp. grated lemon peel

6 cup flour

1/2 cup cocoa powder

6 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

2 tsp. ground cloves

1 cup chopped cashews

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Combine butter and sugar in mixer bowl. Blend on medium speed until well-combined. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then add coffee, vanilla, and grated orange and lemon peels. Continue blending until mixture is uniform in consistency. In separate bowl, combine flour, cocoa, baking powder, cinnamon and cloves. Gradually add flour mixture to wet ingredients. Mix in cashews. Drop by teaspoonful onto greased cookie sheet. Bake for 15 minutes. Cool on wire rack before frosting.

To frost, mix powdered sugar with lemon juice to make a glaze of honey consistency. Dip the tops of the cookies in the glaze. Let them sit for several hours until glaze hardens.

Recipe courtesy of Michel Di Vito, chief clinical dietitian at MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn

Beef stew

2 lbs. cubed beef stew

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

3 tbls. margarine

1 onion, chopped

4 carrots, sliced

3 stalks celery, sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

2 bay leaves

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. white sugar

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

1/2 tsp. paprika

1/8 tsp. ground cloves

1 tsp. lemon juice

1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce

4 cups water

Dredge beef cubes in flour until evenly coated. Melt butter in saute pan. Saute coated beef cubes until evenly brown. Transfer beef to slow cooker. Add onions, carrots, celery, garlic, bay leaves, salt, sugar, pepper, paprika, cloves, lemon juice and Worcestershire sauce. Pour in water and stir. Cover and cook on low 10 to 12 hours or on high five to six hours.

Recipe courtesy

Double chocolate pecan brownies:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

6 oz. unsweetened chocolate, chopped

2 cup granulated sugar

4 eggs

1 tsp. vanilla

1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 tsp. salt

1 cup mini semisweet chocolate chips

1 cup chopped pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 13x9 pan with vegetable pan spray. Place butter and chocolate in large microwaveable bowl. Microwave on 50 percent for 1 1/2 minutes. Stir to blend well. Stir in sugar. Whisk in eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each. Stir in vanilla. Fold in flour and salt. Fold in chocolate chips and nuts. Pour into prepared pan. Bake 25 to 28 minutes. Remove from oven and cool on cooling grid.

Recipe courtesy Sandy Folsom, director of the Wilton School in Woodridge and Darien

Suburban Life