When you hear “comfort food,” some very specific meals and snacks pop into your head, right? Personally, I think: mac ‘n’ cheese, french fries, spaghetti bolognese, a bowl of chicken noodle soup. Comfort foods are different for everyone -- it’s about what makes you comfortable, after all -- but, most of the time, they include more indulgent, carb- and sugar-heavy, maybe extra greasy foods. Is this a universal truth, or are there specific factors involved?
The first documented use of the term comfort food was found in a story by the Palm Beach Post in 1966: “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.” See? Chicken noodle soup!
It’s important to note, though, that this story was about obesity (the headline read “Sad Child May Overeat”), and that’s not what comfort food is all about.
According to associate professor of psychology Shira Gabriel, it’s not the caloric intake of a food that makes it comforting; rather, it’s about the social connections we draw from a specific meal. Food is meant to be used as sustenance, sure, but it’s also true that food is a very emotional thing for a lot of people, bringing on feelings of joy and accomplishment, depending on your relationship with it; food can soothe the soul based on what you associate it with.
“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. But what we don’t think about is that comfort food also provides something social to us,” Gabriel told The Atlantic in 2015.
So, if you have an especially strong, happy memory that involves ice cream, it’s likely that you’ll turn to ice cream to feel better later in life because it evokes happier feelings.
Of course, this goes the other way, as well: If you harbor bad memories that include a certain food, you likely won’t find any comfort in something that may be extra comforting to someone else. What’s more, studies have found that traditional comfort foods can vary by gender; females tend to prefer sweets, like ice cream or cake, to make them feel better, while men gravitate toward more savory meals, like soup or steak.
Whatever you crave when you’re feeling down, indulge a little. It’s all about balance!