What is your comfort food? Macaroni and cheese? A turkey sandwich? Whatever it is, there’s a good chance that your attraction to that dish is based on having a good relationship with the person who first prepared it for you, according to new findings from a study at the University at Buffalo (UB).
Comfort food is defined as the food one eats to elicit comforting feelings. For some of the study participants, comfort food was a healthy food choice, for others, it was starchy and fatty.
“For a lot of people it is the food they grew up eating,” said UB psychologist Dr. Shira Gabriel. “In a previous study, we gave all of the participants chicken noodle soup, but only those who had a social connection to that soup identified it as a comfort food and felt socially accepted after eating it.
“Comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children. As long as we have positive association with the person who made that food then there’s a good chance that you will be drawn to that food during times of rejection or isolation,” said Gabriel. “It can be understood as straight-up classical conditioning.”
The study sheds new light on the link between social experiences and our food preferences and eating behaviors. While previous research has shown that comfort food can reduce feelings of rejection and isolation, the new study explores why certain foods are attractive to us when we are feeling down.
“Because comfort food has a social function,” Gabriel said, “it is especially appealing to us when we are feeling lonely or rejected. The current study helps us understand why we might be eating comfort foods even when we’re dieting or not particularly hungry.”
Having a threatened sense of belonging is related to mental and physical health risks, say the researchers, and it’s important to learn how that vulnerability can be managed. The findings offer insights into why so many people turn to comfort food in order to feel socially connected and safe.
However, turning to food to fill one’s social needs is not without risks. As Gabriel said, “Although comfort food will never break your heart, it might destroy your diet.”
The study is published in the journal Appetite.
Source: University at Buffalo