Consuming for Comfort

When you hear "Cannes," you may think of beaches, crystal blue water and fancy people attending fancy film festivals (unless you work in advertising, in which case the first word Cannes brings to mind is probably more along the lines of “insanity”).

There's a huge festival in Cannes every June that's kind of like the Oscars of advertising. Between our events, our executives speaking, and daily award ceremonies, my agency had a lot going on last week. My role was sharing it with the world on social media. The catch is that I wasn't physically there and France is six hours ahead of New York, so this involved keeping bizarre hours.

I was up until 5am Monday, at work the usual time Tuesday, and then back up at 4am Wednesday. Most of my stress came from paranoia; that I'd be so tired I'd sleep through the alarm and then wake up on, like, Saturday. Every night, I was setting three alarms and because that didn't seem like quite enough, I'd put my phone in a bowl so that the volume would be amplified and the vibrating would be particularly violent.

In other words, I was out of my mind and I couldn't even begin to care about such concepts as nutrition. I ate pizza and breakfast sandwiches, and didn't go to the gym. As I've gotten older, I've gotten to a point where my entire existence on earth doesn't revolve around body image and have more of a "everything in moderation, including moderation" mentality. So I'm more interested in exploring the “why” than the “what.”

Comfort food is a thing. Everybody knows that. But why is it a thing?

For one, foods high in fat, sugar and/or salt activate the brain’s reward system. Research has found that eating comfort food has the same effect on people as doing drugs, which sheds a whole new light on the term “chocoholic.”[1]

This concept goes beyond the purely physical, into the emotional.

For example, in one study, researchers from SUNY Buffalo and the University of the South ran experiments. They first asked people about preferred ways to bond with others; some were asked to remember a fight they’d had with someone close to them. All were given potato chips. The people who were better at forming personal relationships who also had to recall past arguments found the chips more delicious.[2] In a later component of the same study, those same people kept food journals, which showed them to be more likely to eat comfort food when they felt lonely.[3]

While this is just one study, many believe that food and emotion go together. Kind of like macaroni and cheese do (which I could really go for after writing this thing, to be honest). The researchers deduced that one legitimate reason we find food comforting is the associations we have, with certain foods reminding us of our relationships. These connections are particularly strong when we’re feeling nostalgic for those people.

I didn’t even realize it until just now, but pizza reminds me of my childhood. We used to get it every Tuesday when the best pizzeria in my neighborhood- whose phone number I somehow still remember, it right up there with my mom and 911- had their weekly special.

So basically, pizza makes me happy. Whatever the food may be, we all have our favorite comfort foods that we stuff our faces with from time to time, or at least most of us do. Instead of beating ourselves up for it after the fact, recognizing and understanding why we’re eating these things may be more productive.

What are your comfort foods, and why do you turn to them?
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