It comes as no surprise that yet today many food companies are interested in creating new “comfort foods,” or that restaurateurs have been known to put more comfort foods on the menu when times are hard.
The term “comfort food” alludes to positive feelings of well-being, consolation, and emotional security. Here in the States, we get sentimental thinking about Grandma’s home-baked cookies, mashed potatoes and gravy, or other foods that are reminiscent of home, family, and friends we hold dear. These are foods that offer some sort of comfort, whether psychological or emotional.
It has been suggested that people who live alone tend to eat more comfort foods than those who do not. Understandably, nostalgia plays a significant role in one’s choosing comfort food over healthy greens and modernist cuisine.
As Geneen Roth put it, “When people turn to food and they’re not physically hungry, it means that they’re using food for something else besides satisfying the needs of the body. They’re using it for a different kind of hunger – an emotional hunger, a psychological hunger, or a spiritual hunger.”
A recent survey has shown that potato chips, ice cream, cookies, pizza, and pasta top the list of favorite comfort foods reported by more than 1,000 North Americans. Interestingly, however, is the gender difference between them. The top choices amongst females were ice cream, chocolate, and cookies. On the other hand, men chose ice cream, soup, pizza, and pasta.
It is important to consider that it was not just the foods that differed by gender but certain situations that were likely to trigger the need to eat for comfort. Research shows that loneliness, depression, and guilt are key in driving the need for comfort eating for women, whereas men typically report eating comfort food as a reward for success.
Several questions come to mind for researchers regarding the relationship between the psychological, emotional, and physical needs of people and comfort food. What exactly is it that makes comfort food comforting? Are there any specific sensory cues that can be identified in association with comfort foods? Any particular tastes, smells, textures? Does one sense dominate over the others?
Extensive research shows that we are visually dominant creatures. It is the input from our eyes, over our other senses such as taste, hearing, touch, and smell, that we rely on to tell us where something is located or what something is. It is also clear from many of the studies conducted over the years, that the visual presentation of food is important to us.
However, when it comes to food that we find comforting, visual cues are not likely to be a defining factor. Another characteristic that one might consider is that comfort food ought not to make a noise. However, the potato chip, which tops the list, seems to dispute both ideas.
Rather than look to sensory cues, to understand what, if anything, is so special about comfort food, one needs to carefully consider the role of the more emotional senses, specifically touch, smell, and taste. The common factor with all these foods is how they feel in our mouth, or their oral-somatosensory qualities. Comfort foods typically have a soft texture that is both comforting and nurturing.
Additionally, social psychologists have reported that holding something warm in your hand makes other people around you seem warmer, that is, there seems to be a link between physical and social warmth. Similarly, olfactory cues can also promote an emotional lift, helping to aid in relaxation. Is it any wonder that we are using more relaxing aromas such as lavender, lemongrass, or rosemary in our foods and drinks?
In terms of basic tastes, sweet and salty would be more prevalent in comfort foods than sour or bitter tastes. However, there is little evidence to support a particular sensory profile when considering the wide range of common comfort foods, with the exception that they tend to be soft, smooth, sweet, and possibly have a salty/umami taste.
My personal go-to is fresh, home-baked bread straight from the oven with a slab of slightly salted, sweet cream melt-in-your-mouth butter. (It just doesn’t get homier and comforting than this!)
Researchers have not only focused on what kinds of foods fall into a “comfort food” category but also on when and why people choose to consume them. Studies show people are prone to choose comfort foods over other food choices when they are triggered by negative emotions or when they are attempting to get themselves into a more positive emotional state.
Apparently, our preferences for different tastes, aromas, and textures of food fluctuate depending upon our mood and level of stress. Research shows that during times of increased stress, the hedonic appeal of sweetness has been shown to increase as well.
On a personal note, I have a friend who once consumed an entire bag of Oreo cookies while changing a flat tire on her automobile. Perhaps there is truth in the story that the energy one derives from the sweetness is precisely what is needed to deal with the increased load of stress in your body in the first place.
Researchers have also addressed the question of how and if an individual’s attachment style (i.e., an individual’s ability to establish strong, healthy emotional bonds with others) influences the extent to which a person will feel drawn to eat comfort food. Given that comfort foods are associated with positive feelings of social connection, people who are experiencing some degree of loneliness tend to reach for the emotional benefits of comfort food.
Interestingly, the stronger a person’s emotional relationships, the more satisfying they tend to find chicken soup! Simply put, the claim is that comfort foods may help decrease feelings of loneliness.
However, in truth, anything that brings the same soothing sense of familiarity, such as re-reading a beloved book or watching a favorite television show, or even writing about the things that bring comfort have been shown to decrease a sense of loneliness and elevate mood without the consumption of anything.
Again, we ponder the question, “is comfort food really comforting?” Although we may experience a small amount of momentary relief, I contend that the answer is “No.” In all likelihood, your heart will still ache even after your tummy is full and your emotions will tell you something like, “Nice try but you are missing the mark.”
You may even experience the added self-induced stress of guilt, after checking the sugar content in the foods you have just ingested, or you may feel compelled to call a friend (or your therapist) and confess that you have just eaten not one but two slices of pie that you ordered on Uber Eats and feel terrible about it. But at least, you are reaching out for connection.
We learn from neuroscience that to be human is to form attachments. Consequently, our lives are directed toward what we are attached to. We are organized more around what we love, whether that is a thing or a person, than what we think.
Beneath the nagging feelings of lack, discomfort, or our inability to consistently relate well to others, is the root cause of damage that was done to our capacity for attachment. This is a condition of the soul that affects every person to some degree.
As a side note regarding the effects of trauma, research has revealed that people experience trauma in two forms. First, are the things that were to us that never should have happened, and second are the things that we needed but did receive.
The good news is that through Jesus and the Holy Spirit and in relationship with healthy people, our hearts and souls can be healed. What has been damaged by unhealthy relationships can be healed in healthy, life-giving relationships. Jesus, the Bread of Life is the ultimate comfort food that we crave.
In a personal relationship with God, we are open to receive His life and substance offered to us. We are free to pray, “God, increase my capacity to turn to you. Turn my gaze to you and allow me to radiate your wellness so that I will be enabled to comfort others because I have been comforted. I will refresh others because I receive your joy and refreshment. God, help me to turn from the worthless things with which I try to fill myself.”
If you are struggling with emotional eating that leaves you with a sense of guilt, helplessness, feelings of loss of control, or if you are experiencing intense feelings of loneliness or grief from a broken or lost relationship, please consider reaching out to one of the professional counselors listed in the directory. We are waiting and happy to hear from you.
“Stack of Pancakes”, Courtesy of Chad Montano, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Toast”, Courtesy of Krakenimages, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Coffee Mug”, Courtesy of Beth Jnr, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Sitting Among the Flowers”, Courtesy of Melissa Askew, Unsplash.com, CC0 License