Comfort Foods Aren’t Magic, But Memory Might Be

On National Comfort Food Day (yeah it’s a thing), dig into the powers of food and how it makes us feel

Feeling down? Many would reach for comfort food like pasta casserole—but you may as well go for a salad, research says. Azurita/iStockPhoto

Sometimes when we eat, what we’re hungry for isn’t food—it’s the taste of memory.

Studies show that foods we think of as comfort food don’t contain any magic properties. What might be comforting is the feeling of proximity to other people they can evoke: something to keep in mind before you reach for the mac’n’cheese on this National Comfort Food Day.

Thoughts about comfort food are often linked to calories, warmth or a sense of well-being, Shira Gabriel told Cari Romm of The Atlantic in 2015. “But what we don’t think about is that comfort food also provides something social to us.” Comfort food can make us feel less lonesome, writes Marissa Fessenden for the study Gabriel co-authored found that people like comfort food because of its ability to make them feel that they belong.

When Marcel Proust bit into a madeleine (or perhaps a piece of toast) at his mother’s house, he was overwhelmed by a feeling of love and nostalgia. “I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal,” he wrote. Where had this “all-powerful joy” come from? He sensed that it was connected to the taste of tea and cake, “but that it infinitely transcended those savours.”

In Proust’s case, the taste he experienced took him back to childhood experiences with a beloved aunt and memories of the places he belonged as a child.  Proust evidently formed strong attachments—Gabriel’s study found that people who have strong bonds to others are more likely to use comfort food after an argument or other emotionally stressful occasion.

It probably goes back to classical conditioning, Gabriel said. If your childhood associations with comfort food are of being taken care of, the food will make you feel better. If they’re less positive, the food might not.

Comfort food is often thought of as being rich or full of sugar, but other studies have also shown that the line between comfort and food isn’t as clear as junk food = happiness. Eating so-called “junk foods” high in fat, sugar and salt does activate the brain’s reward system, writes Jan Hoffman for The New York Times, but that high is transient. It’s not the deep reward of real comfort.

Regardless of whether you comfort yourself with food, Hoffman writes, one study found that “your mood will probably bounce back on its own.” The study, intended to look at how food might help keep astronauts mentally healthy on a long journey (such as to Mars), found that participants’ ability to recover from watching negative movie scenes wasn’t affected by the kind of food they received afterwards.

The takeaway here is probably that there’s no reason to eat comfort food for its own sake. In other words, if you get dumped, you might as well have a salad. But there is something in comfort food’s ability to evoke belonging and memory. Taste and smell, Proust wrote, stay fresh a long time. “They bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”  

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