Good food. Source: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons
What is comfort food?
As the name suggests, comfort food is any type of food that brings the individual more contentment. They tend to be associated with nostalgia or something that is familiar that brings you comfort. This can occur with other things such as wearing your favorite pants, watching your favorite movie, or reading your favorite book. Engaging in an activity that you have good connotations with can reduce the negativity surrounding change. There is a level of stability that comes with familiar items. Regardless of what chaos happens in everyday life, you can always have that favorite item.
“Comfort foods get their power from our belief in them.”
Comfort food varies depending on the person and their preferences. A survey conducted by Brian Wansink and Cynthia Sangerman asked a population of 1,000 North Americans to choose their favorite comfort food. Generally speaking, the top choices included chips, ice cream, cookies, pizza, pasta, and burgers. However, when looking into gender, the results diverged. Females tended to pick ice cream, chocolate, and cookies. While males would pick ice cream, soup, pizza, and pasta.
As one news article from USA TODAY said, ‘Women like sugar, men like meat’.
Another interesting difference is that women tend to look to comfort food when they are feeling lonely or sad, whereas men seek comfort food as a reward. Women associate comfort food with negative emotions, while men associate it with positive emotions. A study conducted by McGill University found that individuals who have positive emotions in regards to comfort food were more likely to pick healthier options. A common misconception is that comfort foods are unhealthy, but that is not always the case. Instead, comfort food is solely based on what people find comforting.
Is there a benefit to comfort food?
A 2015 study at Sewanee found that comfort food was associated with close relationships. It reminds of us our “social ties” and helps us feel less lonely when we feel isolated. This happens when an individual connects a food item with a social gathering, their family, or people taking care of them. There is a strong association between scents and memories due to the olfactory bulb, which is a part of the limbic system that deals with memory and emotional experience. Thus, nostalgia can evoke a sense of belonging.
“The emotional benefits of comfort food are more likely to be experienced amongst those for whom consumption brings back positive associations of early social interaction”
Foods that are pleasant to taste can cause opiates to be released. Similarly, when eating sweet, high-calorie foods, opiates and serotonin are released. This can cause a mood elevation or prevent one’s mood from declining. Another example is when you drink black tea, it decreases the amount of cortisol which can reduce stress. A study conducted at the University of Minnesota had college students watch sad movie clips and then eat their favorite comfort food or just food they enjoyed. The results showed that regardless of what people had eaten, their mood improved. This study was repeated, but instead of having the second group eat something they enjoy, they did not eat anything; the results were the same. However, there were some limitations to this study. They only looked at people who watched sad movie clips, when in reality other things can cause a negative mood. Furthermore, researchers did not look at how people eat comfort foods, meaning that going to get the comfort food could have an effect. Either way, while we are not definitively sure of the psychological effects, there is a link between food and memory.
Influence of Comfort Food
Everyone needs to eat; it is a biological necessity. However, what people eat varies depending on certain aspects such as one’s location, culture, and religion. For example, African and Afro Caribbean groups usually eat more meats, whet, and rice, whereas eastern groups will consume more herbs and spices. Something as simple as smelling a freshly baked apple pie or turmeric and onions can cause you to reminisce about a certain memory surrounding the food. Food is an important part of culture. Traditional foods are passed down from generation to generation. Immigrants bring the food they eat with them wherever they go. The food becomes a symbol of their culture amidst the unfamiliarity of their new place. Ultimately, everyone has a right to their culture and their food.
People eating. Source: Flickr, Creative Commons
When people hear the term comfort food, their mind goes to unhealthy food that you eat when stressed or upset. An article by Triosi and Wright pointed out that people either define comfort food as lacking in nutritional value or a food that has meaning, whether it is traditional, familiar, or cultural. They too found that there is a tie between relationships and belongingness in regards to comfort food. The need to belong is so strong that people have associated foods as reminders of others, not necessarily on their mood. Furthermore, their findings also shed light on how comfort food can range in flavor and taste. Thus, the importance is based on what people perceive the food as, not what the food actually is. An interesting finding was that comfort food can reduce loneliness but for those who are securely attached, not for those who are insecurely attached. Additionally, people who are secure tend to eat more comfort food overall especially when feeling lonely.
Importance of Comfort Food
Comfort food isn’t just about eating something because you enjoy it. Instead, it is intertwined with other aspects of one’s life through emotions, memory, and culture. “Food can be nostalgic and provide important connections to our family or our nation.” When you move to a new country, everything is unfamiliar; however, through food have a way to preserve your culture and it can help provide a sense of familiarity. Food and culture “makes up an important part of who we are, how we connect, what we value, and how we express ourselves as human beings.