Wrestling With Comfort Foods

If you made merry over Christmas you may be one of the hundreds of thousands already resolved to losing those extra indulgent pounds? Just getting your diet back under control may work for you, or perhaps you’re one of the many people who struggle with food all year long?

Our motives for eating and the food choices we make are complex. One thing however seems certain and that is our intake is only partly governed by need. Most of us are susceptible to comfort foods of one sort or another, which have little if any bearing on our actual hunger.

Like so many other people, I find my own snacking behaviour can simply be due to availability, or novelty, boredom and sometimes even stress. In fact if we’re to believe those who claim expertise in this area, around two-thirds or more of the stuff we consume is governed by our emotions. So how do we explain why we turn to cake over carrots or burgers over bananas?

Shine a Light

Years ago I remember reading something about how lighting levels and the colour of light influenced customer food choices. Some very simple experiments showed that less palatable food items would outsell better, cheaper and even higher quantity food alternatives simply because of how light displays were used. As we all know, our senses are hugely important in attracting our attention to food. Case in point – the smell of hot food on a cold day makes many people go weak at the knees, me included.

Of course marketing people have known all about this for years and the use of lighting, smells, food and drink availability, magazines and seating are now all part of the ‘customer experience’. Food however is in a class of its own and while our senses attract us to it, this is only part of a much more complex relationship.

Just thinking about our everyday lives it becomes clear just how many of our activities revolve around food. Business meetings may take place over food, we socialise around food, we may graze on food at the cinema or in the street; in fact pretty well anywhere at any time of day. Part of this is due to the fact that we are over-indulged with food availability, often of the sugary, fatty variety. I went to the DIY store recently and two vending machines were ready to supply me with chocolates and fizzy drinks. Even the health club nearby sells fries, burgers and shakes; not a lettuce leaf in site – well maybe on the burger.

It’s a Long Standing Relationship

Part of our relationship with food and food choices goes right back to our survival needs, but one of the reasons people turn to chocolate or peanut butter or ice-cream when their emotions are triggered, is due to the fact that our body seeks out high-energy reserves to cope with stress. We lay down fat precisely so the body can call on energy reserves if it needs to.

Eating, as many people will recognize, serves a calming function. It tells the brain that high-energy foods are being consumed and can be called upon in case of need. So while our primitive functions may be happy with this arrangement we don’t usually expend these energy reserves and so body fat begins to build.

Comfort foods and snacks stimulate our pleasure centre and it does provide comfort in times of lower moods or stress. Over the longer term the costs can quickly outweigh the benefits. High sugar, high fat foods can never solve the kinds of stress we experience in modern life, but they will ultimately lead to health problems.

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