This article will explore the scientific reasons why we reach for comfort foods such as ice cream after a breakup.
If you’ve ever downed a pint of ice cream after having your heart broken, chances are you’re not alone. For decades, the woman curled up on her sofa with a tub of ice cream and a box of tissues has served as the paradigm of heartbreak in American pop culture. However, research shows that craving comfort foods such as ice cream after a split is more than just cliché—it’s backed by science.
Love is a far more potent and sweeping emotion than we make it out to be, studies show. “Falling in love causes our body to release a flood of feel-good chemicals that trigger specific physical reactions,” says Pat Mumby, Ph.D., a sexual wellness specialist at Loyola University’s Chicago Stritch School of Medicine. “This internal elixir of love is responsible for making our cheeks flush, our palms sweat, and our hearts race.” Indeed, being in love prompts the brain to release substances including dopamine and endorphins, chemicals that are intimately tied to the brain’s pleasure center. Occurring naturally in the body, these chemicals are responsible for creating the euphoric ‘highs’ that we experience in a romantic relationship.
Remarkably, this portion of the brain also regulates appetite. If you’ve ever heard someone admit to “eating their feelings” after a bout of emotional distress, the comment was more likely meant in a literal sense than a figurative one. “The areas of the brain in charge of emotions and emotional pain also [regulate] how we eat,” explains neurobiology professor Gert ter Hors. Although heartache is notorious for suppressing appetites, it can also produce the opposite effect, prompting emotional eaters to crave comfort food. Like love, eating prompts the endocrine system to secrete similar ‘feel-good’ chemicals into the bloodstream, producing feelings of satisfaction and euphoria.
Although eating generally improves one’s mood, ice cream and other such comfort foods are particularly effective at doing so. “Ice cream has two of the ingredients that we’re engineered to have a big reward response to, fat and sugar,” explains clinical psychologist and psychology professor Ashley Gearhardt. Indeed, certain food groups are known for inducing a greater dopamine rush than their counterparts. Carbohydrates (i.e., sugars, bread, pasta, and pastries), for instance, significantly boost brain levels of serotonin, an endogenous chemical that plays a key role in keeping anxiety and depression at bay.
Moreover, it’s during periods of isolation and emotional tumult that we’re most inclined to reach for sugar-laden indulgences like ice cream. “Comfort food has a social function,” explains Shira Gabriel, a psychologist at the University of Buffalo. “It is especially appealing to us when we are feeling lonely or rejected.” When mourning the loss of a relationship, then, it’s no wonder emotional eaters rely on comfort foods like ice cream to lift their spirits.
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