Comfort food is really connection food

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Do you want your favorite food to taste even better? Turns out, there’s a secret ingredient. Can you guess what it is?

Salt? Absolutely, if your food tastes bland.

Sriracha? Sure, if you’re a spicehead.

Candlelight? Works for some people!

How about another, less obvious ingredient? Loneliness.

This is the surprising conclusion from research on comfort foods. When researchers asked people to write about a fight they’d had with a person close to them, their comfort food actually tasted better afterward[1].

To understand why this happens, it helps to know a bit about what comfort foods are, and how they come to be.

One misconception about comfort foods is that they must be heavy on carbs and fat, light on nutrition. But, they can actually be of any nutritional value, and from any cuisine. The defining feature of a comfort food is that it must bring the individual consuming it psychological comfort.

Why do particular foods bring us comfort?

Psychologist Jordan Troisi and colleagues theorize that certain favorite foods—unique ones for every person—function as social surrogates in times of loneliness[1]. They comfort us because, over time, we’ve come to associate them with our loved ones. When eating them, we feel an immediate, soothing sense of belonging, even without realizing it.

In support of this theory, it’s been found that:

  • When feeling lonesome, people consume more of their self-identified comfort foods. Eating those foods causes the loneliness to subside, and feelings of belongingness to increase[1-3].
  • Comfort foods’ positive effects seem specific to feelings of loneliness and belonging—they won’t improve a mood that is low for other reasons[1,3].
  • People who have deeper connections with others are more likely to crave and benefit from comfort foods[1,2].

This last point is true because foods develop their power to comfort us when they’ve grown to be associated with someone who provided us with love and comfort in the past.

For example, if a beloved guardian provided you with chicken-noodle soup throughout your childhood, you are likely to connect the aroma and flavor of the soup to them. If the guardian provided attention, love, conversation, and laughter while you ate, it’s easy to see how the soup would take on a special meaning, and how consuming it later in life would make you feel connected and cared for[4].

So, the next time a favorite food makes you feel warm all over, don’t just think of how good it tastes. Think of the people who sat beside you as you grew to love it.

References

1. Troisi, J.D., & Wright, J. W. (2017). Comfort Food: Nourishing Our Collective Stomachs and Our Collective Minds. Teaching of Psychology, 44, 78-84.

2. Troisi, J.D., Gabriel, S., Derrick, J.L., & Geisler, A. (2015). Threatened belonging and preference for comfort food among the securely attached. Appetite, 9058-9064.

3. Troisi J. & Gabriel S. (2011) Chicken soup really is good for the soul: ‘comfort food’ fulfills the need to belong. Psychological Science, 22, 747-753.

4. Birch, L. L., Zimmerman, S. I., & Hind, H. (1980). The influence of social-affective context on the formation of children’s food preferences. Child Development, 51, 856–861.