Everyone has foods that remind them of home, a positive time in their life, or just overall make them feel good. If you’ve ever wondered why a sweet potato pie or macaroni and cheese makes you feel blissful, it’s more than just the good taste of fresh cheese or a fresh baked pie—it’s how the brain processes those nostalgic tastes.
The desire for food is a function of hunger and satiety receptors in the brain. When your stomach is empty or depleted of nutrients, signals in the brain tell you that you are hungry. Once you eat and receive an appropriate amount of nutrients, satiety receptors tell you that you are full (3,4). Though this is certainly a simplification of this system, understanding the basics will help us understand the science behind brain food.
Since the brain is the powerhouse of the body, it processes food intake as well as mood. So when we are sitting around the table laughing with our family over a slice of pie, our brain associates the slice of pie with a positive mood. Once this connection is made, if you are consciously or subconsciously seeking positivity—after a breakup or bad day at work for example—your brain harkens back to that slice of pie that made you feel so great the last time and creates a craving (3). Thus, even though it was the time spent with family and the laughter that incited your good mood before, you go searching for a slice of pie to lift your spirits. The more often this happens, the more this connection is reinforced in the brain.
So why aren’t health foods like salads or green vegetables often considered comfort foods? Scientists attribute cravings for unhealthy foods and positive association with them to evolution. Scarcity and inconsistency of food meant that humans prioritized foods high in fat so that nutrients could be stored when food was not readily available (1). There is indication that these associations can be overwritten, however, and any food can become a comfort food.
One way to begin to override positive associations with less healthy foods is to start slowly--try a copycat recipe that still has the great taste and takes you back to a great time in your life without the added fat or sugar that generally comes along with it. Try this, or make small modifications to your own family recipes!