On the Evolutionary Psychology of Comfort Foods

Today is the birthday of the first International friend I ever had - a Japanese woman named Megumi. We have long since lost contact, but I still remember her.

She was a great friend, a biologist who had a great love of philosophy as well. We used to spend hours discussing all manner of things, whether we had any knowledge about them or not. I think comfort foods would have been an interesting topic to discuss with her.

One thing comfort foods have in common is that they are calorie dense - typically 5 or 6 calories per gram (carbohydrates and proteins are 4 calories per gram, fat is 9 calories per gram and alcohol is 6 calories per gram). And tend to be carbohydrate and fat heavy. Chocolates and nuts typically average around 6 calories per gram; chips about 5 calories per gram.

My suspicion is that early in our evolutionary history, getting adequate sustenance was a big stress in our lives. Energy dense foods would have relieved that stress. I am not saying there weren't other stresses, but avoiding being eaten by a predator would have activate our fight or flight mechanism.

Unfortunately, evolution has linked stress to lack of food/ energy, thus causing us to reach for potato chips even if we are adequately nourished. I am not aware of anyone who considers watermelon a comfort food or who sits down with a crate of oranges to comfort themselves (though, I have been known to gorge on clementines).

A usual, no scientific evidence to back up my thoughts.

Image nabbed from here


inherwritemind1 said…
Gimme Reece's Peanut Butter cups!
carra said…
My comfort food is strawberries! I can eat strawberries non stop when I feel miserable. However before it used to be coffee flavoured ice cream. I could eat a whole (1l) box in one sitting. Having suffered bulimia for a few years I must agree with your theory, I know very very few people that can not eat when they're stressed, it is definitely something in our blood!
Richard said…
tena: definitely energy dense, high fat and carb, but very, very good. However, I remember chocolates being tastier when I was younger.

carra: I can't deny there is something satisfying about eating certain fruits that hits the spot. I find sweet watery foods good - bananas don't cut but, but many berries do. It may be satisfying a physiological need to rehydrate.

My friend Megumi told me she let her body decide what she wanted to eat. Figuring that her body knew better what she was in need of than her mind. I can confess that there is some truth to this. I know that if I don't drink milk for a while, when I finally do, it tastes really, really good. On the other hand, I think if you wait until your body tells you that you are in need of something, you are probably seriously deficient.

Do you eat your strawberries with cream?
Barbara said…
Just seeing that picture and reading about potato chips made me salivate. I can't have that kind of food around because I have no willpower and I will definitely eat it.

I'm trying to eat raw nuts when I'm hungry or gorge on clementines.
b said…
Another interesting consideration here. I've often wondered what triggers that desire for and satisfaction from comfort foods. The energy density seems compelling though.

I too can gorge on clementines. I don't think I have one go-to comfort food. It seems to change. Lately though, I crave the butternut squash and spinach risotto from this particular restaurant. It is so creamy and comforting! :)
I salivate just looking at this pic! Of course, having been told since I was 13 that I can't have any of this since I was diabetic, makes me want it ALL the more!

(Ha! Just looked at Barbara's comment ! Almost the same! Sorry to drool on the computer!)
Richard said…
barbara: nuts are still energy dense (even if they are raw). Though ... they seem to be a little harder to over indulge in than roasted and salted nuts.

breal: I am pretty sure the risotto is energy dense - especially on fat and carbs.

MOI: doersn't the health risk outweigh the forbidden temptation? However, I will tell you that as I get older, those things that seemed so yummy when I was a kid, are pretty one dimensional now-a-days.

I wonder why clementines are a comfort food? It is because they are juicy, but not too sweet, easy to peel and delicious when chilled? I don't get the same from eating oranges or grapefruits.
carra said…
I eat strawberries on their own, cream (or champagne) ruins their sweetness. In fact strawberries with cream, it is strawberries that compliment the cream and not the other way round (it is my opinion only). Though last year when my husband was away on business trip for almost two weeks I was so miserable I would eat only whipped cream on it's own as strawberries were unavailable...

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