Why we love Comfort Foods
The term ‘comfort food’, believe it or not, is actually found in the dictionary. Merriam Webster defined it as “Food that is satisfying because it’s prepared in a simple or traditional way and reminds you of home, family, or friends, or food that has a nostalgic or sentimental appeal.” It’s the food we have good memories about; the food that reminds us of simpler times, and the food that makes us feel safe and warm again, amidst our busy and stressful lives.
The Psychology of Comfort Food
Based on studies by food scientists and psychologists, we love comfort foods because of four reasons. First is on a physiological level. Much of our eating experience takes place in our brains and other senses besides taste. When we eat, our taste buds transmit messages to our brainstem, and meets up in a part of the brain called the insula, which figures out the flavor you’ve tasted. The insula is connected to emotional centers in the brain, and this part evaluates the experience. Additionally, comfort foods typically contain lots of sugar, fats, and carbohydrates, all of which lead to increased serotonin levels, pleasure chemicals, and dopamine, to alleviate stress and to moderate your mood. They trigger our brain’s reward center, the Nucleus Accumbens, to release Serotonin and Dopamine making for a happier brain. Some foods that are proven to aid in Serotonin are actually seldom considered comfort foods. These are spinach, turkey and bananas. This is must be the reason why bananas are shaped like a smiley face!
The second, obvious reason is that comfort foods give us emotional benefits. Scientists estimate that as much as 75% of overeating is emotionally involved. Comfort food has the ability to cheer us up. A study from the journal of Psychological Science reports that comfort foods are associated with good thoughts and warm feelings, which not only improves a sense of well-being, but also decreases loneliness. In fact, this capability of comfort foods to impact mood is so powerful, that NASA funded a research conducted in Minnesota about it, in hopes of improving the mood of astronauts on space missions. In contrast, though, we eat comfort foods equally as much as when we’re happy or celebratory. According to a researcher at Cornell University, people lean toward it any time they’re experiencing an extreme emotion.
This brings us to the third reason—we are psychologically wired to find ‘comfort’ in comfort foods. It works by positive and negative reinforcements. When we eat it, we receive the “happiness” which leads us to want to continue eating what caused that happiness. Additionally, when we eat food to relieve stress, we associate it with the lessening of a burden. We want to continue eating what caused that lessening of stress. Our minds were trained to seek out food as a way to deal with life’s difficulties. This causes us to crave food, creating the idea of “comfort food.” Memory also plays a role. Most of our comfort foods are those we ate while growing up, or ones that remind us of celebrations. We may associate hot and milky sopas with all those times Mom took care of us when we were little, and maybe the juicy ham reminds us of joyful Christmas celebrations.
Lastly, food is something inevitably social. For hundreds of years, we’ve bonded over food—offering food as gifts or show of hospitality. Food encourages peace, and food builds friendships. There is a psychological concept of social surrogates, or non-human experiences that make us feel connected. Comfort food does this trick. According to a psychologist from Cornell University, people attach a significant social meaning to food. It reminds us of other people, like the people we were with when we first ate it, or the people who used to prepare it. Personally, I find comfort in a bowl of chocolatey champorado (chocolate porridge) with tuyo (salted fish), especially the way my mom prepares it by adding just the right amount of chocolate powder and Alpine milk.
Comfort Food Preferences
Interestingly, comfort food preferences vary across genders. According to a research from Cornell University, Men is to Outback as Women is to Ben and Jerry’s. Men tend to prefer savory and hearty foods such as steak, pizza, or mashed potatoes, while women prefer sweet and sugary snacks like chocolate, cookies or ice cream. Regardless of this finding, comfort food preferences are highly personal and unique to each individual. We choose our comfort foods based on our upbringing, experience, and exposure. These foods are artifacts from our pasts—memories, people and events.
Hooray for Comfort Foods!
Thank God for this nostalgia- inducing edible refuge! Just remember to not make food your only source of comfort. In this fast-paced culture, we should value self-care, and it may be in the form of food, health-- anything that helps us feel safe and content. So the next time you take a bite of your comfort food, I hope it fills your heart, just as much as it fills your stomach!
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