Why Comfort Food Comforts

A new study looks at the intersection of taste, nostalgia, and loneliness.

When the Oxford English Dictionary added a definition for “comfort food” in 1997, it traced the term’s etymology back to a 1977 Washington Post magazine article about Southern cooking: “Along with grits, one of the comfort foods of the South is black-eyed peas.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, though, was wrong. (“I don’t really believe I created the term,” the author of the Post article wrote in 2013, but “since [1977]—if not before then—it has been one of my favorite food descriptors.”) The phrase “comfort food” has been around at least as early as 1966, when the Palm Beach Post used it in a story on obesity: “Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’—food associated with the security of childhood, like mother’s poached egg or famous chicken soup,” it reads, beneath the headline “Sad Child May Overeat.”

Regardless of when people found the words to describe it, though, the concept itself is ageless. Sad child may overeat. Or, put another way, certain foods promise solace as much as they do fuel. But what’s murkier is whether comfort food can actually deliver on that promise. Is that the feeling of a soul being soothed, or just the onset of a mac-and-cheese-induced food coma?

According to Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, the best way to understand the question is to shift the focus away from the food itself.

Gabriel’s research broadly defines “comfort food” as anything that a person uses to feel better, but in the U.S., the term calls some specific, universal things to mind: ice cream, mashed potatoes, French fries, and other simple, often indulgent meals or snacks. When a woman on a sitcom is feeling down, she busts out the ice cream. When someone in the 1970s South is having a bad day, they go for the grits.

But to equate “comfort food” with “caloric” is to misunderstand where the comfort actually comes from, Gabriel says. “When we think about something like comfort food, we tend to think about it as providing calories or warmth or a sense of well-being,” she tells me. “But what we don’t think about is that comfort food also provides something social to us.”

In a study recently published in the journal Appetite, Gabriel and colleagues from SUNY-Buffalo and the University of the South ran a pair of experiments to shed light on what that something social might be. In the first, volunteers chose a description that most closely matched their attachment style. (Loosely translated from psych-speak, “attachment style” means the ability to form strong, healthy emotional bonds, a trait that typically takes root at an early age, starting with one’s parents. People with secure attachment styles can easily form these bonds and tend to view their relationships positively; people with insecure attachment styles, less so.) Half of them were then asked to remember a fight they’d had with someone close to them. When the participants were given potato chips, those who had been asked to describe a conflict ranked the snack as tastier—but only, the researchers found, among the ones with a secure attachment style. Among those whose emotional relationships were shakier, there was no significant difference in enjoyment between the people who had revisited painful memories and those who hadn’t.

The second experiment yielded similar results: After filling out a survey on their attachment style, volunteers kept a daily food-and-feelings diary for two weeks, recording how much they ate, whether they had consumed what they considered to be comfort food, and whether or not they felt lonely. Measuring food intake against self-reported levels of isolation, the study authors found that people with strong emotional relationships were more likely than others to reach for comforting foods on the days that they felt lonely.

Both sets of results, Gabriel and her co-authors believe, point to the same idea: that comfort food’s power may lie primarily in the associations it calls to mind. People who have positive family relationships are more likely to reach for reminders of those relationships in times of sadness—and often, those reminders come in the form of something edible. A grilled cheese sandwich can be a greasy, gooey, satisfying endeavor in its own right, but even more so if it features in happy childhood memories.

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.