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Is Comfort Food Causing Your Depression?

Is Comfort Food Causing Your Depression?This guest article from YourTango was written by Nicole Burley

Well, it’s official. There is now absolutely zero reason to be eating fast food whatsoever! For those of you who always knew that fast food wasn’t healthy but ate it anyway because it made you feel happy, I have some unfortunate news.

A recently published study in the Journal Of Public Health Nutrition showed that people who ate hot dogs, hamburgers, and pizza were 51% more likely to suffer from depression than those who rarely or never ate the stuff. Yikes!

Do you get what that means? It means that your Happy Meal might not be making you very happy. In fact, the food that you may have been turning to when you were feeling sad, lonely, or depressed is actually contributing to those feelings.

How can this be?

After all, eating junky food is supposed to give you comfort and cheer you up, isn’t it? Who hasn’t turned to pizza and ice cream after a bad break-up? Who hasn’t eaten a whole basket of fries when you felt lonely?

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Well, this brings me to one of my favorite analogies: You can’t fill the bathtub by running the kitchen sink. Bear with me for a moment, won’t you?

Whether you want to call it “emotional eating” or “eating your feelings” or “medicating with food,” the truth is that many of us use food for reasons other than nourishing our cells.

We celebrate with food, we mourn with food, and we often turn to food when things just aren’t going our way. We have grown very accustomed to using food as an antidote to our emotions.

There are two reasons we do this to ourselves:

1. It kinda, sorta works.

We’re not totally misguided here. Fast food and junk food is loaded (I mean, loaded) with sugar, fat, and salt, which really do change your brain chemistry. These substances — sugar, fat, and salt — really will make you feel ‘happy’ in a chemical sense. There is evidence showing that sugar has the same effect on your brain as cocaine! 

So, if you eat food with a heaping dose of sugar, fat, and salt (like fast food) you will most definitely get a temporary, fleeting “hit” of faux happiness. The same would be true if you took a hit of heroin, but who thinks that that is a good way to manage your feelings?

2. Sad feelings and hunger are easy to confuse.

Think about it. When you feel sad or angry or lonely, there’s a certain gnawing in your gut. It feels empty and hollow — like something needs to be filled up.

Feelings of physical hunger — when your body is actually asking for food — can also feel like a churning emptiness. The sensations are similar. We run into trouble, though, when we can’t distinguish between our emotions and just needing a sandwich.

This brings me to my analogy. Trying to soothe your feelings by eating fast food and pastries is like trying to fill up your bathtub by running the kitchen sink. It’s never going to happen. One has nothing to do with the other. The plumbing is totally unrelated!

If you are sad and depressed, no amount of waffle fries is going to change that. Feelings need a voice. They need to be expressed and heard and processed.

Feelings don’t know what to do with a box of donut holes, which is partly why it’s possible to eat so many of them and still feel “hungry” (their lack of nutritional value is also a factor!).

This is why the results of this new study are even more worrisome. People are turning to this highly processed, commercially produced fast-food that is drowning in sugar, fat, and salt in part because they are looking for the “quick fix” of that fleeting chemical high.

But, in reality, the after-effects of such cheap and poor-quality food is leading them down the road to depression. It’s going to become an endless cycle unless we take a few important steps to stop it in its tracks.

  • Eat real foodWhole food that hasn’t been processed to death will give your body the actual nourishment it needs to function and feel satisfied. There is a difference between feeling “full” and actually feeling “satisfied” by your meal.

    Choose whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds — food that looks like it did when it came out of the ground or off a tree — and you can’t help but experience a new level of satisfaction and nourishment that is easy to recognize.

  • Avoid excess sugar, salt, and fat whenever possibleWhat’s considered “excess”? Well, you might not like the answer but, the truth is that your body only needs about 8 tsps of sugar a day to function. That’s about two small pieces of whole fruit. Anything beyond that would be excess! You also only need about 1 tsp of salt per day.

    To give you an idea, just one single slice of pizza contains a little more than 1 tsp of salt! As for fat, your body does require fat in order to function, but, ideally, no more than 12-20% of your daily calories ought to come from fat. Many fast food items are more than 50% fat in and of themselves!

  • Know the difference between your emotions and physical hungerDon’t try to fill your bathtub by running the kitchen sink. If you are sad or angry or lonely, then you need to deal with those emotions in an honest, healthy way.

    Cry, express yourself, confront the person who has hurt you, or reach out to a professional coach or therapist to help you handle your feelings in a way that serves you. Learn how to recognize your body’s actual hunger signals, eat good food when you’re hungry, and stop when you’re satisfied.

?What do you think about all this?
Do you turn to food when you’re feeling sad, happy, or lonely? Do you think it really helps? I’d love to hear from you on this one!

More great content from YourTango:

Is Comfort Food Causing Your Depression?

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APA Reference
Experts, Y. (2018). Is Comfort Food Causing Your Depression?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 15 May 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.