The Science of Why We Love Comfort Food

Why do certain foods give us such a warm and fuzzy feeling?

Updated on August 11, 2017 14:08 pm

loving comfort food

Few things are so enjoyable in the moment for us as some of our favorite comfort foods. A big bowl of spaghetti Bolognese snowed under with Parmesan? Amazing. A hefty slab of moist chocolate cake covered with plate-lickable chocolate frosting? Divine!

Whether you have a soft spot for tubs of ice cream, crave perfectly crisp sweet potato fries, or simply can’t say no to a steaming bowl of hearty chili, we’ve all got our favorite comfort foods. They cheer us up after bad breakups, warm us up on cold winter days, and remind us of the wonderfully simpler times of childhood.

But why do certain foods give us such a warm and fuzzy feeling? Why do we differ so much in the foods we adore?

smells evoke memories

The Psychological Dimension

As it turns out, there’s a bit more to that feel-good chicken noodle soup than great taste and a full belly. A study conducted in July 2015 discovered a strong relationship between comfort foods and significant relationships in people’s lives. It wasn’t just that these favorite foods were sinfully irresistible on their own—they had greater meaning from being connected to important people (your family, close friends, or people who took care of you as a kid) and positive memories of them.

Sometimes just the smell of a dish or a single ingredient can evoke strong memories. Often these associations seem totally bizarre to others.

But the science also shows that our love of comfort food goes beyond any chemical-driven feeling of happiness we might get, like the giddy effects of a sugar rush. One study found that comfort food doesn’t speed up the feel-good vibes any more than any other food, or no food for that matter. So we seem to have feelings about these foods that go further than the transitory highs we tend to experience from junk food.

Comfort Foods From Around The World

As temperatures cool we start to reach for those foods that help us feel warm, physically, emotionally, and also culturally. Here are some favorite comfort foods from around the world:

infographics: comfort food around the world

The Cultural Dimension

Cultural differences in comfort foods make sense if we tend to think of comfort foods as things served to us in childhood by those we love. A Chinese family will have served different dishes than an American family, and so on.

Jennifer Berg, director of graduate food studies at New York University, notes that the cultural dimension of comfort food is particularly important when you become separated from your mother culture. Eating these comfort foods is a way to maintain that strong emotional connection to family and place.

We can see this played out on a much larger scale when we look at big international cities that have become “melting pots” of people from around the world—think New York City or San Francisco. Instead of shedding their cultural heritage, we see increased diversification of restaurants and food options offered proudly by those who know exactly how to make it the authentic way. It’s a product of the passion of many restaurateurs to bring the foods they grew up eating to the world.

Article originally published in Edited and republished with permission.

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Cover photo courtesy of B&G Photography as published in The Knot


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