We Crave Comfort Food to Feel Less Alone

This is why you can’t stop eating corndogs

corn dogs
Randy Faris/Corbis

’Tis the season for fairs and their delicious fried foods. The greasy fare found at the fair tends to fall into that scrumptious category called comfort food. Like the name suggests, comfort food's allure is in more than its starchy, fatty or sweet flavors — it's tied in with nostalgia. But there's another benefit of comfort food, reports Alexandra Sifferlin for Time: it makes people feel less lonesome.

researchers at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. and the State University of New York in Buffalo shows that comfort food preys on human emotions. 

“Comfort food seems to be something people associate very significantly with close relationships,” study co-author Jordan Troisi tells Time. “This probably comes about by individuals coming to associate a particular food item with members of their family, social gatherings, and people taking care of them, which is why we see a lot of comfort foods [that are] traditional meals or things had at a party.”

In their study, the researchers told students to think about a time when they had a fight with someone close to them. After reliving that unpleasant time, the students were asked to evaluate the tastiness of potato chips (they were told this was for a different study). The researchers discovered that students who had stronger, more positive relationships in their lives thought the comfort food was tastier than the students who didn’t have as many positive relationships.

In a second experiment, the researchers noted that students who felt isolated on a particular day were more likely to eat food they considered comfort food that day. They published their findings in the journal Appetite

Though comfort food has been around as long as there have been people to eat it, the term has only been in the Oxford English Dictionary since 1997, reports Cari Romm for The Atlantic. Romm writes:

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.”

Using this knowledge can help smooth the complicated relationship some people tend to have with food. Perhaps recognizing that the comfort in comfort food comes not from the inherent greasiness or caloric load of the food itself can help some people find another way to feel less lonely. On the other hand, knowing that you want to trigger happy childhood memories could help you forgive the impulse to grab another corn dog and enjoy the treat.

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