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Most of us have one or two go-to dishes we make or buy when when the going gets tough – even guarding our favourites as badges of honour.
But why? They’re not named comfort foods for nothing, of course.
A new study suggests other, non-nutritional benefits are in play, namely the warm feelings we associate with the person who first make the meatballs or lasagna for us.
These warm sentiments are so powerful, they can trump our hunger and our dieting plans, researchers found.
That companies producing fast food and junk food have zeroed in on the precise ratios of sugar, salt and fat we crave is now fairly common knowledge, thanks to the work of author Michael Moss.
But the lure of food we associate with happy memories of family and caretakers is trickier to pin down.
Researchers at the University of Buffalo ran two related studies. In one, they found that when a person is made to feel isolated, they report certain foods (one example was potato chips) tasting better. In a second study using food diaries, subjects consumed more comfort food in days when they felt isolated than on days they didn’t.
(The university students chosen for the experiments were all considered “securely attached,” meaning they have strong relationships with the people in their lives and practice other healthy social behaviours like seeking out social support when they are troubled.)
The science of comfort foods
Comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children, lead author UB psychologist Shira Gabriel said in a release. And if that association is a good one, there’s a “good chance that you will be drawn to that food during times of rejection or isolation,” she said.
In a previous study, Dr. Gabriel found that giving study participants chicken noodle soup was only comforting to those with a strong social connection to that particular food.
While comfort food may play a role in mental health, many healthcare professionals are promoting a best-of-both-worlds scenario in which we can have our macaroni and eat it too. Well, maybe a low-calorie version. And maybe only once a week or once a month.
Hankering for comfort food now? Here’s a list of all-time favourites, along with healthier versions.