So, when my awesome MagicKitchen.com boss gave me this topic, I must admit that I thought there wasn’t much to it. Boy was I wrong. It turns out that the phenomenon known as “comfort food” has been the subject of numerous psychological, sociological and physiological studies and I learned more about it than I actually cared to. But not to worry, devoted reader, I won’t bore you with the specifics of the studies or get all “psychological” on you. I’ll just explain the origins of the term, what constitutes comfort food, and does it, in fact, provide comfort to those that indulge.
It seems the term dates back to a 1966 newspaper article from the Palm Beach Post entitled, “Sad Child May Overeat” (a bit prophetic, that). In that article, the author stated, “Adults, when under severe stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’ – food associated with the security of childhood, like ‘mother’s poached egg’ or famous chicken soup.” I have two issues with that 50+ year-old definition of comfort food. 1. I think I would remove the term “severe.” And 2. Since when was a poached egg considered comfort food? Although, what is considered comfort food can vary greatly from person to person. The term was finally added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1997.
Next, I tried to create a generally acceptable definition of comfort food from the myriad definitions out there and here’s the simplified definition I came up with: any food consumed in an attempt to feel better or to enhance already positive feelings. The reason for the bifurcated definition is due to the fact that men and women (studies reveal) view comfort food quite differently. Not only are the foods consumed in a desire to attain comfort different between men and women, but the reasons for consuming that food vary as well.
Studies indicate that the trigger, for men, to search out their version of comfort food comes from positive emotions, while women’s need to binge are triggered by negative emotions. The study emphasizes that this is a trend, rather than a hard and fast truth. Men can certainly gorge due to negative emotions, as this male can attest to. When women do seek out comfort food, they tend to eat snack based foods such as chocolate, ice cream, cookies (in baked or dough form), and potato chips. Men, on the other hand, look for what most people consider traditional comfort food, like meatloaf, pot roast, biscuits and gravy, lasagna, and mashed potatoes.
Other studies tend to link comfort food to feelings of nostalgia or sentimentality. Remember when you were sick or hurt or found out your crush considered you hideous and your mommy took care of you by making home-made mac and cheese or apple pie? Or the warm, fuzzy feelings of belonging that were created during the holidays of your childhood when the family sat down together to eat ham, turkey, green bean casserole and strawberry-rhubarb pie? Well, when we are feeling lonely, stressed, rejected or dejected as an adult, some of us tend to go in search of those warm, fuzzy, “comfortable” feelings of our childhood in the form of food. In other words, some of us tend to seek solace in the foods that are tied to happier, more care-free times. Or foods linked with a specific person or place that have positive associations attached to them.
Or do we just use comfort food as an excuse to eat unhealthy junk, as one study alludes to? This study claims that we can swap comfort food for other things that elicit the same feelings of well-being and warmth, such as a favorite childhood television show, music or book. I know that watching old episodes of M*A*S*H while listening to Pink Floyd and reading Where the Red Fern Grows certainly makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.