Before we begin, let us say this up top: We’re approaching the holidays, so you might take this time to savor more cheeky indulgences. That’s OK! Do what makes you happy, and if that includes a frosted treat to lift your holiday spirits—go for it. We could all use a little more joy right now, whatever that looks like for you.
But in case you’re curious why those foods bring you comfort, Williams (board-certified neurologist and fellowship-trained MS specialist Mitzi Joi Williams, M.D.) shares that it’s actually not so much about the snacks themselves—it’s often the memories associated with them.
“A lot of it is about program behavior,” she says. If you think back to when you were a child and received a sweet treat, you felt pretty good about it, no? “So we look at things that made us feel good in the past, and we repeat those types of behaviors,” Williams says. Afterward, every time you eat that sweet treat, your brain may conjure up those memories of when you were a child—and all the positive brain chemicals that come with them.
“Each time those endorphins are released, that pattern may become ingrained into your brain. “And we begin to repeat and repeat behaviors, whether they’re good or bad for us, that release that same chemical and allow us to have that feel-good feeling, but obviously it’s not a long lasting effect,” she adds.
How to break the habit.
It’s the billion dollar question: How do you retrain your brain?
“I think that mindfulness is the key,” notes Williams. “Paying attention to your behaviours, not just doing things automatically, and finding ways to replace those negative behaviours with positive ones.” When you feel the urge to reach for food as a source of comfort, stop and think: What are your true motivations? Are you truly going to savour the treat, relish in the flavour of every crumb, or are you just chowing down because of the familiar rush it brings?
You can also try to get to the root of where these habits come from. “For instance, my love of sweets came as a child,” Williams reminisces. “Sweets were always treats that I shared with my parents; my dad would buy some cookies, put them in the cabinet, and we would sneak into the cookies at night, and that was our little fun secret.” For Williams, those sweets became associated with the mirth and playfulness of childhood, as well as feeling close to her father. Rather than reaching for those foods as a source of comfort, perhaps she calls her father to recreate that feeling of connection. “Finding ways to interrupt those habits and then replace them with other positive things, is one of the keys to helping break those habits,” Williams adds.
Of course, that’s not to say you should give up comfort food entirely. As we mentioned above, a sweet treat now and then brings joy! It lifts your spirits! It tastes amazing! Just try to recognise when you’re using those sweets to fill an emotional void, as opposed to appreciating the food itself. “Some people can do a little bit [of sweets], some people need to go cold turkey and then slowly reintroduce them, but you have to find what fits for you,” Williams says.
Finally, she also mentions that your body begins to crave what you give it: “So if you treat yourself a lot, then you begin to crave those treats more and more, versus if you are eating healthy, then you crave those things more.”
Wondering how comfort food earned its name? According to Williams, it’s all about behavioral habits. That said, with a bit of mindfulness, you can understand what’s truly spurring your affinity for sweets.
If you are experiencing difficulties with your mental health, please seek advice from a medical professional or the Samaritans helpline at 116 123.