Food perception

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How comfort foods work like Prozac

Posted by wizzdem.933 on March 1, 2013 at 9:55 PM

The psychology behind why we turn to fatty staples like French fries and fried chicken when life gets rough


Food is a fort we build.

When you begin to eat, your eyes, hands and mouth start the chain of command. Then the brain kicks in. Sugar and starch spur serotonin, a neurotransmitter known to increase a sense of well-being. (It’s what makes Prozac work.) Salty foods spur oxytocin, aka the “cuddle chemical,” a hormone that is also spiked by hugs and orgasm. Hence, potato chips. Mice unable to taste the difference between regular and extra-high-calorie food in a recent study preferred the high-calorie kind, which suggests that fattening food appeals simply because it is fattening. Which makes sense, given how much fuel our prehistoric ancestors burned crisscrossing savannahs, fleeing carnivores and chasing prey. Fat is a good balm for the fear of starvation.

Of course, all matters of psychology are unrelentingly complex. Comfort food feels good, but — for some of us — in that first rush is also a twinge: For some, comfort food invokes a special hot-faced shame because both food and comfort are so intimate, and using one to do the other borders on self-pleasure. From there, it’s just one small step to guilty pleasure, which is what most of us would call caramel corn and curly fries. Perhaps it’s because in this crowded, hard world, we have convinced ourselves that seeking comfort is itself embarrassing, as if need makes us weak. We are ashamed to crave the salty, starchy, soft, unctuous and sweet, because we tell ourselves we are too smart to want what the judgmental would call junk — although, surrounded by food that is market-tested to appeal to our most primal urges, we don’t stand a chance. If comfort food exposes those urges, a drive-thru window can become a harsh confessional.


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