In a similar 2011 study, the authors found the same thing with chicken soup, a food that’s often associated with being taken care of: The stronger people’s emotional relationships were, the more satisfying they tended to find their soup.
“I tend to think of it in terms of classical conditioning,” Gabriel said. “If you’re a small child and you get fed certain foods by your primary caregivers, then those foods begin to be associated with the feeling of being taken care of. And then when you get older, the food itself is enough to trigger that sense of belonging. But if, when you’re a child, those connections are more anxiety-ridden … then when you’re older and you eat those foods, you may feel less happy.”
Past research has questioned the idea of comfort food in other ways. In a study published last year in the journal Health Psychology, researchers used upsetting movie scenes to induce bad moods in their participants, and then served each one either their previously indicated comfort food, another food they had said they liked, a neutral snack like a granola bar, or nothing. The comfort foods, the study authors discovered, did help boost participants’ moods—but so did the other foods, and so did receiving no food at all. People are resilient with or without their snacks, the researchers concluded—meaning that “comfort food” may be nothing more than an excuse to indulge in an old favorite.
“People have this belief that high-calorie foods are the path out of difficult feelings,” Kelly Brownell, an obesity researcher at Duke University, told the New York Times in an article on the Health Psychology study. “But the assignment of the word ‘comfort’ to these foods implies that there is a relationship between ‘comfort’ and ‘food’ that may not exist.”
Which, in a way, is what the authors of the Appetite study are saying, too. Food, Gabriel said, could be swapped out for anything else that brings the same soothing sense of familiarity, like re-reading a beloved book or watching a favorite TV show.
“We tend to think about the need to belong as a fundamental human need. And by doing that, we’re equating it to other fundamental human needs, like the need for food or water,” Gabriel said. “When it’s not fulfilled, you’re driven to fulfill it, in the same way that when you’re hungry, you’re driven towards food. So when you feel lonely or you feel rejected, you’re psychologically driven towards finding a way to belong.” Sometimes it’s not food. Sometimes it is.
As my colleague Julie Beck observed last year, “It seems entirely possible that all eating is emotional eating.” But there may be another layer in there, too: the possibility that all emotional eating is social eating—even, and maybe especially, when we’re eating alone.