Comfort foods are on the daily menu this season. Autumn is a season conducive to good stews that perfume the house and warm the soul. The positive impact of these comforting meals on morale is not only psychological, but also involves a direct action of the stomach on certain areas of the brain.
Experiencing pleasure from eating a food is the culmination of an extremely complex biological process that involves our physical senses
than our memory. Initially, the stimuli caused by the appearance of the food, its smell, its flavor captured by the tongue, the aroma released by chewing as well as the tactile sensations produced in the mouth create a true “image” of the food. All of the constituents of this image are then sent to the brain which, depending on the nature of these signals and previous experiences, determines whether this food is a source of pleasure or should, on the contrary, be avoided. In other words, if everyone’s senses detect pretty much the same flavors, our brain’s interpretation of those flavors and textures can have diametrically opposite effects. The taste and emotion aroused by a given dish are therefore very relative phenomena, strongly influenced by the culture, time and experiences of each person.
Comfort foods: memories, pleasure and good mood
One of the best examples of the importance of these mental images associated with food is undoubtedly the pleasure provided by comfort foods. These are all familiar foods, often fatty or sugary, that elicit feelings of comfort and well-being when eaten. Indeed, the appeal of these foods is not only due to their delicious taste, but, just as importantly, to their ability to root out from our memory pleasant smells and memories of the past, often of our childhood. This positive image that we give to our favorite comfort foods means that their consumption is associated with a pleasure and a feeling of well-being far superior to those caused by a standard meal. It is for this reason that it is not uncommon for us to be tempted by a comfort food in times of stress or sadness: very often, eating these foods lifts our spirits.
Comfort foods: good mood can be read in the brain
But are these feelings of well-being associated with comfort foods exclusively due to psychology? To answer this question, researchers had the idea of introducing directly into the stomachs of volunteers a solution containing a type of fat often present in comfort foods (lauric acid, a saturated fat). These people were subsequently subjected to depressing conditions where they had to watch images of unhappy people while listening to sad music for 30 minutes. In parallel, a control group was infused with an inactive control solution, without lauric acid and subjected to the same depressing conditions.
The results are unequivocal: compared to people who received the control infusion, volunteers fed the fat infusion were significantly less depressed by music and pictures of sad people, as measured by researchers at using standard mood tests.
This difference is even visible in magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, because people who received the fat infusion had less brain activity in several regions known to participate in low mood.
It therefore seems that the stimulation of the stomach by certain molecules manages to influence the transmission of nerve impulses in certain brain regions and can thereby improve our mood. Comfort foods are aptly named!
Van Oudenhove L et al. Fatty acid–induced gut-brain signaling attenuates neural and behavioral effects of sad emotion in humans. J. Clin. Invest., 2011; 121:3094–99.
Breathing brings tranquility
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