Feature articles

Comfort Food

As the world continues to reel from the coronavirus pandemic, food has taken on an important role to help us feel better in hard times. For many of us home baking has become a therapeutic activity and starchy carbs have taken on their traditional mantle of trusty staples. We’ve picked up on a few of these discussions to explore the role of comfort food at this time.

In tough times remember enjoyment

Early on in this crisis the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) released information to help prepare households for quarantine. They recommended making a list of longer lasting and shelf stable core foods such as fruits, vegetables, soup, protein foods and grains, but they also included sauces, herbs and spices to boost flavour, and foods for enjoyment.

“Foods for enjoyment: In times of isolation and uncertainty, having foods that are a source of comfort, or a reminder of daily routine, can be beneficial for your mental health. Some examples include coffee or chocolate. While you won’t need much, it’s important they’re not forgotten.”

In their prescient work back in 2007, dietitians and nutritionists compiling a ’food lifeboat’ suitable for survival during a pandemic included bars of chocolate, honey, Milo and sweet chilli sauce. Army ration packs are another example of providing foods for enjoyment and practicality as well as nutrition.

The New York Times sought the advice of US registered dietitian Evelyn Tribole, author of Intuitive Eating, to help answer parents’ questions about food for their families during isolation.  “We all need comfort food right now… You may find yourself wanting to cook and bake more as a way to stay grounded… Smelling delicious food keeps us in the present moment. It’s also a great way to build some fond food memories that your children will have of this time.”

Another US registered dietitian quoted in the article was Anna Sweeney who works in eating disorders. “Parenting and self-care need to look different right now and we have to be OK with lowering some of the bars…People fear using food to cope, but it’s a beautifully orchestrated coping mechanism.”  She went on to say those with mental health issues who use food to regulate their emotions to an unhealthy extent should seek help from a health professional. Telehealth services are available in Australia, including from dietitians, that allows support to be provided to people in their homes.

Coping with anxiety through food

Feeling anxious is a normal response to stressful situations and the disruption and devastation caused by COVID-19 has created its own secondary pandemic of anxiety. The ‘social distancing’ required to prevent transmission has led to loneliness and social isolation, each of which by itself is psychologically harmful. Food can be a helpful balm for stress.

In their article on COVID 19 anxiety and food, Sophie Blackmore and Jo Tyler from Education in Nutrition remind us, “Cooking and preparing food can be calming and give us a sense of purpose. Sharing food provides emotional as well as physical nourishment… We can provide help to ourselves, our family, friends, community and our clients. We can lead by example, advise and care. Simple positive messages are soothing messages. Food routines help us keep stable and well.”

This simplicity message was repeated by DAA in their advice during quarantine, “At the moment, it’s best to focus on easy recipes with simple ingredients.”

From a physiological point of view, Beyond Blue says if you are going through a tough time it can be tempting to use alcohol as a coping strategy. However, alcohol can cause symptoms of depression and/or anxiety or make an existing problem worse. And high caffeine intakes (400mg/day) can increase anxiety symptoms. Moderation in both alcohol and caffeine appear prudent. Anxiety and depression are correlated with an activated oxidative stress pathway and increasing antioxidant levels can normalise the damage so enjoying more antioxidant-rich foods may help.

What are ‘comfort foods’?

The phrase ‘comfort food’ first appeared in the US in 1977 to describe foods that satiate emotional as well as physical needs. Research has demonstrated people often consume comfort food when they experience negative emotions to achieve a more positive emotional state.

Comfort foods can be favourite foods, family or cultural tradition, holiday foods, foods from significant family events, a part of a person’s past or a reminder of home.

There are cultural differences between comfort foods. For example, Ong (2015) found Americans find chicken noodle soup comforting, the Dutch find chocolate comforting and Singaporeans find noodles comforting. There is no published research into what Australians and New Zealanders consider comfort foods. Wikipedia bundles Australians and New Zealanders together and suggests hot chips, sausage and mash, a roast, bread & butter pudding, lamingtons and pikelets, however it only cites two media sources of comfort food recipes. This is a subject ripe for research.

Food writer for Fairfax Media, Callan Boys wrote about the rise of comfort cooking and the increased time we’re spending in the kitchen during home isolation (SMH April 18-19). He cites Google searches for recipes have increased by 50% and #quarantinecooking has been trending on Instagram. “Homey and rustic” recipes have been the search order of the day, and the five most searched recipes in Australia were for banana bread, pancakes, pizza dough, bread and cookies.  Also trending was damper (in part to eliminate the use of yeast which has been in short supply in supermarkets), quince jam (in season in Autumn), gnocchi, brownies, pendesal (Filipino sweet bread), cinnamon rolls and carrot cake. It appears that when the going gets tough, carbs gain traction.

Why do we find comfort foods comforting?

There is research to suggest that we associate comfort foods with primary relationship attachments. Because we have repeatedly eaten these foods in the presence of people emotionally close to us, we associate these foods with them and gain psychological comfort by eating them, or even thinking about eating them. Troisi and Gabriel (2011) proposed that comfort foods could serve as a social surrogate when people are feeling lonely and isolated. Other surrogates, or non-human social targets, that are sought out to avoid loneliness are TV shows, novels and movies, as well as photos and videos of loved ones. This provides a theoretical basis for the drift to comfort food and Netflix during this pandemic. This also begs the question as to whether digital communication technology can negate the need for social surrogates by linking us with each other remotely in real-time. Perhaps we are all participating in one big experiment to determine if digital communication technology can alleviate loneliness and social isolation.

Comfort foods: body or mind?

A review paper that examined threats to belonging (such as social isolation during a pandemic), immune function and eating behaviour found threats to belonging are linked with increased viral load, dysregulated appetite-relevant hormones, increased food consumption and elevated inflammation.

Are carbs good mood foods?

Many comfort foods such as chocolate, cake, ice cream and potato chips contain carbohydrates (and a generous amount of fat). Is there a biochemical basis for carbohydrates being comforting? A review paper by Wurtman (2018) suggests there is. Research into Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) has found those with SAD consume larger amounts of starchy or sweet carbohydrate-rich foods during the colder, darker and sadder months than when during remission in the lighter, warmer, happier months. People with SAD describe feeling improvement in their dysphoric state after eating carbohydrates. Similarly, women with premenstrual syndrome also eat more carbohydrate during the low mood of their luteal phase and this improves depressive symptoms. After which their carbohydrate intake returns to normal during the follicular phase of their menstrual cycle.

The mood-enhancing effect of carbohydrates is thought to be due to an insulin-mediated increase in the production and release of serotonin, which improves mood in a similar way to serotonin-reuptake inhibiting anti-depressant drugs. Work by Markus and colleagues has shown high carbohydrate diets and foods can reduce feelings of helplessness and depression, and improve mood and cognitive performance during stress via a serotonin mechanism. The more protein is in a meal/snack, the less serotonin is produced and released. Carbohydrates have been shown to help to improve mood in non-depressed people as well, but not protein. The amount of carbohydrate required to boost serotonin synthesis is 25-30g (or two carbohydrate exchanges) and consuming protein at the same time may block serotonin production.

Conclusion

Food can be a comfort in troubled times, both in physiological and psychological ways. Perhaps the coronavirus crisis offers a shift in perspective to view food through an emotional lens and invites us to consider a gentler and less judgemental stance toward food. Considering the covid-19 pandemic will double the global number of people with acute hunger, we can count ourselves lucky. Perhaps this crisis may also knock the wind out of the sails of extreme diets that now seem a frivolous folly in a food-complacent world.

NEXT: Diet and Inflammation

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