In the depths of a cold dark winter, on a rainy day, or when feeling nostalgic, comfort foods bring us solace and digestive support. The recent pandemic has tempted and filled us with foods that delight our senses. Where did the idea of comfort foods come from? Did we all decide that certain delectable foods would make us feel better? Let’s take a look at the history behind comfort foods.
Defining Comfort Foods
By definition, comfort foods are either high in carbohydrates, in calorie count, or just quick and easy enough to make. They also carry with them a sense of delectable nostalgia. Most of the time, comfort foods remind us of our childhood or a happy time, hence the “comfort.” It could be a specific chocolate chip cookie that you always made with your grandmother that soothes you. Maybe it’s a grilled cheese sandwich that is bathed in butter and fried to perfection. Whatever the food might be, it’s less about the finished product and more about the warm and fuzzy feelings it brings. Ironically enough, comfort food doesn’t always physically make us feel the best but instead gives us a mental reprieve.
Where Did This Idea Come From?
The idea of comfort foods came from a 1966 Palm Beach Post article that referenced comfort foods as those that remind us of a happy time from our childhood. The reference was made to any food you eat that gives you a sense of security and comfort. While this article made that phrase famous, using food as comfort was nothing new. People had been doing this for centuries without giving it a name or maybe even realizing that they were reaching out to food as a means of coping.
Potatoes - The Original Comfort Food
Things don’t get much better than a piping hot plate of french fries drenched in salt. Potatoes, a root vegetable, are loaded with carbohydrates, so clearly, they are our number one choice for comfort foods. The thing with potatoes is there is so much variety in how you make them, and almost all of them bring an immediate sense of fullness and comfort. French fries, potato chips, mashed potatoes covered in butter, twice-baked potatoes, and baked potatoes with cheese or sour cream are just a few examples of ways potatoes are made. Putting french fries on a fully loaded hamburger breaks the bank in comfort foods, and we love it all. Depending on how your parents or grandparents made them will bring you that sense of satisfaction and ease when you eat them. Are you drooling yet, thinking about your family potato recipe?
Psychology Behind It All
Why do we feel reassurance when we eat these so-called “comfort foods?” It’s all in the science of our brain and how we cope with things. Studies have shown that emotional eaters find short-lived relief from eating comfort foods. However, people who aren’t emotional eaters are conflicted once they eat foods that comfort others. So what does that mean?
In short, comfort foods are not really about eating but about emotions and how we handle our stress levels. For some, turning to foods that we grew up with provides that sense of joy and changes our current state of emotion for a short time. You could go from feeling sad to eating the comfort food associated with a happy childhood memory and start feeling better. This happens because you receive a rush of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is all about reward and pleasure, when you eat certain foods. The brain associates the food as a reward because it tastes good and emotionally connects to a memory. This association becomes stronger and stronger with time and repetition.
Some scientists speculate that even the smell of comfort foods can elicit a surge of dopamine. That connection to a happy, safe memory is triggering this response. Test it out the next time you cook that macaroni and cheese. See if your happy jumps up a few notches just from the smell.
Comfort Food is About You
The fascinating thing about comfort foods is that it’s unique to you. Since it represents a happy memory or comfort, it’s all based on your past experiences. That means that not all comfort foods are automatically bad for you. While we mentioned high-calorie items like french fries, macaroni and cheese, and hamburgers, a nutritious bowl of chicken noodle soup is also trendy comfort food.
For one thing, chicken noodle soup is a staple when you are ill. Chances are, when you were sick as a kid, your parents made it for you to help you feel better. A chicken noodle soup loaded with vegetables and some noodles gives you essential vitamins and nutrients while keeping you hydrated with the broth. It’s a bowl of medicine. If you were given this as a kid, it was nurturing and brought you a sense of comfort. Years later, you crave it when you feel down to feel that same sense of security related to that memory.
Likewise, McDonald’s french fries might give you that same sense of nostalgia because your grandfather always stopped there on the way home from work when you were a kid. The french fries might not be as healthy for you like the chicken noodle soup, but they are tied to a memory that brings you joy. In short, this shows that it’s not about the food but about you and what brings you solace. Next time you crave comfort food, stop and examine why you want that food. It might surprise you by the memory it stirs.
Patrick, Wendy L. J.D Ph.D. “Does Comfort Food Really Make you Feel Good?” 2 Nov 2018. Psychology Today. Web. Accessed 20 Jan 2022. <https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/why-bad-looks-good/201811/does-comfort-food-really-make-you-feel-good>
van Strien T, Gibson EL, Baños R, Cebolla A, Winkens LHH. Is comfort food actually comforting for emotional eaters? A (moderated) mediation analysis. Physiol Behav. 2019 Nov 1;211:112671. doi: 10.1016/j.physbeh.2019.112671. Epub 2019 Sep 1. PMID: 31484047. <https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31484047/>
White, April. “A Brief History of Comfort Food.” 30 May 2020. JSTOR Daily. Web. Accessed 20 Jan 2022. < https://daily.jstor.org/a-brief-history-of-comfort-food/>