We love comfort food because we love the cook

Eric Hopton for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

It’s mom’s apple pie, backyard BBQ, mashed potatoes, or spaghetti. It could even be Elvis’s favorite breakfast sandwich, complete with butter, peanut butter, bacon, and bananas. Comfort food – we all have our own version, and our attraction to it is probably based on having a good relationship with the person who first made it. Research by the University at Buffalo says so.

“Comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children. As long 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,” says UB psychologist Shira Gabriel. “It can be understood as straight-up classical conditioning.” These findings should improve our understanding of how social factors influence our food preferences and eating behavior.

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Previous research has shown that comfort food can reduce feelings of rejection and isolation. The latest study, ‘Threatened belonging and preference for comfort food among the securely attached’, published in the journal Appetite, investigates why certain foods are attractive when we are feeling down.

Comfort food won’t break your heart

The Buffalo team wanted to see if “securely attached individuals prefer comfort food because of its “social utility” (i.e., its capacity to fulfill belongingness needs).”

The study was in two parts – one experiment and one daily diary study using two samples of university students from the United States. In the Study 1 experiment of 77 students, the results of a ‘belongingness threat essay’ showed that securely attached participants preferred the taste of a comfort food more after the belongingness threat. In Study 2, with 86 participants, a 14-day daily diary program found that “securely attached individuals consumed more comfort food in response to naturally occurring feelings of isolation.”

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The main findings were that comfort food is associated with relationships (it has “social utility”), feeling isolated predicted how much people enjoy comfort food, and that threatening belonging led those with secure attachment to enjoy comfort food more.

“Because comfort food has a social function,” says Gabriel, “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.”

The choice of food

Everyone has their own go-to goodies when they need comfort food. Some of the study participants made healthy food choices. But, for many others, it was the starchy, fatty, gooey grub that they turned to. For a lot of people, says Gabriel, the choice of comfort food was the food they grew up eating.

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“In a previous study, we gave all of the participants chicken noodle soup,” says Gabriel. “But only those who had a social connection to that soup identified it as a comfort food and felt socially accepted after eating it.”

This research gives insight into a unique method by which people can feel socially connected and safe – through eating comfort foods.  Because a threatened sense of belonging is related to mental and physical health risks, the researchers say it’s important to learn how that vulnerability can be managed.

However, this method of filling social needs is not without risks.  As Gabriel says, “Although comfort food will never break your heart, it might destroy your diet.” And remember – as one of Elvis’s friends liked to say “It wasn’t drugs that killed Elvis. It was breakfast.”

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