Why comfort food can actually be good for your emotional health

Jordana Divon

When Drew Barrymore goes through a bad breakup, there are two words that always make her feel better: Kraft Dinner.

“[I] head straight for the carbs. Macaroni and cheese. Kraft. Deluxe. The kind with the cheese you squeeze out of a bag that takes at least a month to pass through your body,” the actress told Marie Claire in 2009.

While the “Charlie’s Angels” star singles out her preference for the gooey stuff, she’s certainly not alone when it comes to seeking solace in comfort food. Countless heartbreaks have been soothed with a wooden spoon in one hand and a giant vat of carbohydrates in the other.

Now, a new study out of the University of Buffalo has uncovered part of the reason why comfort foods feel so, well … comforting. It turns out our positive associations with a particular food item can actually minimize feelings of loneliness.

“Because people are really strongly motivated to connect with others as they go through their life course, many come to develop a comfort food that happens to be associated with close others,” says graduate student Jordan Troisi, who co-authored the study with partner Shira Gabriel. “And as a consequence, they can use this food item as a buffer against feeling lonely.”

The reason certain foods can be so effective in combating isolation has less to do with taste than what that taste represents. As social creatures, humans have a tendency to adopt social surrogates – or, non-human objects that make us feel like we belong – in order to imitate feelings of emotional comfort or well-being. 

“These are things that can fulfill our sense of belonging but aren’t actually relationships with close others,” Troisi explains. “So things like a favourite television show, movie, books, perceived relationships with a celebrity, that’s a social surrogate. We wondered if comfort food would show us the same kind of thing.”

The authors set up several experiments to test their theory. In one test, they gave participants a questionnaire asking them how highly they ranked chicken soup as a comfort food. 

Those who ranked it either high or low on the scale were brought back into the lab a few weeks later, where some were randomly assigned to eat the soup.

Participants were then asked to complete a series of word tasks. Troisi says he and Gabriel designed the tasks so that they could be completed in a number of ways.

One task asked participants to complete the word stem “INCL––” by using three more letters. 

“If comfort food reminds people of relationships, then people who eat their comfort food should be more apt to complete these word stems with relationship words,” he says.

The hypothesis proved correct. People that were reminded of relationships by eating the chicken soup were more likely to complete the word as “include,” instead of a word like “incline.”

However, an important variable in these results hinged upon the individual’s ability to form and maintain close relationships. 

“A lot of these foods serve as a reminder of relationships,” says Troisi. “So those who were reminded of good relationships found it helped combat the loneliness, rather than those who had bad relationships.”

The researchers found college students to be a particularly vulnerable group in this respect. “Many individuals in this age group are away from home for the first time, and during occasions of stress or isolation, comfort food may serve as a stable reminder of family or other relational ties.”

Now, you’re probably envisioning mounds of mashed potatoes, gravy, hamburgers and milkshakes spilling out of dorm room fridges —artery-busting snacks we typically consider comfort foods.

But while the study highlights the emotional benefits of comfort food, there’s no evidence it’s responsible for the dreaded Frosh 15.

“There’s a misconception that when we say ‘comfort food’ we’re talking about fundamentally unhealthy foods. At this point in time, we don’t have any evidence that the foods [people select] are unhealthier than other foods, nor do we have evidence that the consumption of them over time will lead to physical health detriments,” he says.

That’s welcome news for Troisi, whose own preferences lean toward Drew Barrymore’s tastes. “My family has some Italian heritage, so pasta’s always very high on my list,” he laughs. “Throughout my childhood we would sit down for a big meal together at least once a week.

“It tells you just how much people fundamentally need connection with others.”

A more detailed version of this study will appear in the May 2011 issue of Psychological Science.