Does Food Really Help Us Through Trying Times?

Soothing negative emotions with fat, carbohydrates, and sugar

Bribery Bakery (Photo by John Anderson)

During trying emotional times (or just PMS), humans tend to seek out comfort foods to salve their negative emotions. Everyone's got their vice: Fried chicken. Ramen. Beef stew. Warm bread slathered in butter. Enchiladas. Ice cream. Booze. When we're under stress, we nurture ourselves with nostalgic foods, dulling existential despair with a coating of fat, carbohydrates, and sugar.

As a nation, we've undergone a hugely stressful election and a harrowing aftermath. Relationships have fractured, people are constantly angry and worried, and a question mark hangs over our collective future. We're marching, we're protesting, we're calling our congresspeople. We're exhausted and depleted. We need a damn cheeseburger.

A very informal Facebook poll reveals that lots of people have been seeking out more comfort food since the election. "I've gained 10 pounds since November," lamented one woman. "I've been doing a lot of rage eating," shared a usually beatific yogini. Others noted that they've been drinking more, for better or worse.

And while baking a batch of chocolate chip cookies or a huge tray of lasagna is certainly one route to soothing psychic wounds, lots of folks also seek solace from Austin restaurants. I've personally cultivated a habit of picking up breakfast tacos on the way to work at least once a week. There's something deeply satisfying about tearing into a migas taco from Paco's or Torchy's (or an egg-white based Blanco from Tacodeli if I'm trying to toe the line on my diet), savoring the fatty cheese and the umami of the scrambled eggs and enjoying the blood-sugar spike courtesy of the tortilla. Oh, and Moscow Muellers, pigs in blankets, and grilled cheese sandwiches at Contigo. Those really hit the spot on high-anxiety days. Others report seeking out fried chicken at Lucy's or cinnamon rolls from Upper Crust Bakery.

Research shows that there's nothing in the nutritional makeup of comfort food that makes us feel better after a bout of emotional eating, but that the associations we have with those foods make us feel less lonely, less isolated, more connected to our friends and family, particularly if we associate things like fried chicken, breakfast tacos, and chocolate cake with positive relationships and memories. This can manifest itself in co-workers bringing scores of cupcakes to the office to share, or an uptick in happy hour invitations.

"I think all our stuff is probably considered 'comfort food' so we're definitely the place people come to indulge," says Jodi Elliott of Bribery Bakery, which caters to the sweet tooth in the form of gigantic cinnamon rolls, slabs of chocolate cake, and Technicolor macarons. "I know that in the days following the election we definitely had people come in and buy much more at one time, and mentioned they were drowning their sorrows in cupcakes!"

Hoover Alexander of Hoover's Cooking has noticed a similar trend on the savory side. While there's not been an increase in sales, per se, he has observed that "the sales mix has shifted to more chicken-fried steak, chicken-fried chicken, and more of the carbs, specifically mashed potatoes and macaroni & cheese."

Of course, although tensions haven't necessarily waned, we might be moving toward reining in the overconsumption of comfort eats. Elliott reports that people's bulk purchases of treats seems to be waning. Swimsuit season is nigh, after all. Ultimately, though, it's the togetherness, the commensal act of enjoying food with family and friends, that brings comfort, whether it's over margaritas on the patio at Curra's, a slab of cake at Quack's, or a giant salad at Bouldin Creek Cafe.

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Jodi Elliott, Bribery Bakery, Hoover Alexander, Hoover's

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