Comfort food has earned its moniker for a reason –– it’s pretty darn comforting. That’s why we can’t help but want a bowl of hot chicken noodle soup when we’re feeling a little under the weather, or a sweet pint of mint chocolate chip ice cream when we’re a little down in the dumps. While each comfort food is different, there are plenty of go-to grocery store picks that share a kind of strange ability to make us feel content when something else is making us feel anything but.
What is it, though, about that bowl of soup or that ice cream (or that order of fries, or that spaghetti, or that cookie) that makes these comfort foods so comforting, anyway?
At first glance, it seems like the biggest thing that all of the most comforting foods have in common is that they’re not exactly low in calories. It would make sense, then, for us to assume that comfort foods are comforting to an extent because they’re unhealthy. As research would have it, though, that’s not exactly what’s going on here.
In fact, the reason that we tend to find comfort foods so comforting comes more from the fact that they are nostalgic and bring back memories of friends and family.
“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,” Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the State University of New York, Buffalo, told The Atlantic. “But what we don’t think about is that comfort food also provides something social to us.”
And it’s true –– according to experiments conducted by Gabriel and colleagues from SUNY-Buffalo and the University of the South, people who have generally stronger emotional bonds and connections with people in their lives also tend to find more solace in comforting foods on days when they’re feeling a little blue, the reason being that the foods draw their power of comfort primarily from the associations we tie to them.
In the case of chicken noodle soup, we might associate that dish with being taken care of by a parent or caregiver when we were young and sick. A cookie might be comforting because it brings back memories of baking with family during the holidays. In other words, the more that different foods are linked to happy childhood memories, the more those foods become sources of comfort for us when we need a little pick-me-up and are searching for a sense of security.
So next time you’re feeling a little low and find yourself craving your mom’s special chicken soup, maybe what you’re really craving is some TLC from your mom. (Are we really ending this article on a “want your mommy” note? Why yes, yes we are.)