Comfort food is defined as “food that provides consolation or a feeling of well-being, typically having a high sugar or carbohydrate content and associated with childhood or home cooking.” (1)
I recently went to a concert and realised that nostalgia does the same thing to music than to food, at least for me. Comfort music is generally music I grew up listening to. There are bands that I don’t necessarily consider my favourite ones but that made a strong impression in my life as a youngster, and give me that warm, fuzzy feeling when I listen to their music.
Back to food. It is key to note that, for the most part, comfort food is associated with childhood, because that means we can potentially influence the comfort food choices of new generations.
Comfort foods can vary greatly by country. For example, according to Wikipedia, Australians and kiwis find comfort in sticky date pudding, potato wedges and chiko rolls, while Indians prefer biryani, samosas and mutton soup and Polish would rather have bigos, pierogi and vodka (2). The photo at the top of this article is lomo saltado, a traditional Peruvian dish that is comfort food for many Peruvians.
Interestingly, a study done with 3 different cohorts: from the US, Singapore and the Netherlands, found that the Dutch did not have a word or phrase for “comfort food”. I checked the Diccionario de la Real Academia de la Lengua Española (the only official source of Spanish vocabulary) and it doesn’t have entry for “comfort food” either.
Comfort food preferences can vary with age. Apparently, there is a tendency for younger people to prefer more intense flavours and for older people to appreciate blander but more complex flavours (4). I think this can be true for adults and middle-aged people but, because all senses lose their edge with age, elderly people might prefer foods that are seasoned more aggressively.
Apparently science has determined that men more than women choose savoury over sweet foods when stressed (4).
Do comfort foods work?
Most studies on the topic have been done by psychologists, in laboratory settings that don’t necessarily replicate real-life situations. Having said that, these studies seem to indicate that comfort foods don’t really work differently than other foods for improving mood (3, 4, 5).
How do comfort foods work (if they do)?
The most common hypothesis of how comfort foods act at a biological level involve the release of dopamine (a neurotransmitter linked to reward) in the brain. Others have theorised that leptin (a hormone that signals hunger) concentrations has something to do with mood. And, of course, we cannot rule out the placebo effect.
Do comfort foods have a place in a health diet?
Absolutely. Remember that comfort food does not necessarily equals junk food. Therefore, it depends on what is your weapon of choice, the frequency and the quantity. A chiko roll every day is likely to be more detrimental to spaghetti Bolognese once a week. Similarly, a regular-sized lamington is way better than an extra-large serve of potato wedges with sour cream and sweet chilli sauce.
These days, with the increasing interest in healthy/clean eating, the consumption of comfort food can have the opposite effect, i.e. depress one’s mood out of guilt. However, if a weekly cheat meal (or day) works for you, save your favourite comfort meal for this occasion. If you half self-control issues, you can follow Charles Spence’s advice at the bottom of this article.
Therapeutic uses of comfort food
While there is no consensus about the effectiveness of comfort food for lifting healthy people’s moods, there are potential therapeutic applications for these meals. Examples include palliative care patients, elderly people who are undernourished, patients with anorexia or conditions where metabolic demands are increased.
It’s your turn
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- comfort food. 2018. In OxfordDictionaries.com. Retrieved July 17, 2018, from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/comfort_food
- Wikipedia contributors. Comfort food. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. July 17, 2018, 01:28 UTC. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Comfort_food&oldid=850626453. Accessed July 18, 2018.
- Ong LS, IJzerman H and Leung AK-Y. Is Comfort Food Really Good For The Soul? A Replication of Troisi and Gabriel’s (2011) Study 2. Front. Psychol. 2015;6:314.
- Stein K. Contemporary Comfort Foods: Bringing Back Old Favorites. J Am Diet Assoc. 2008 Mar;108(3):412, 413.
- Wagner HS et al. The Myth of Comfort Food. Send to
Health Psychol. 2014 Dec;33(12):1552-7.