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Comfort Foods: Nostalgia or Neurochemistry?

Was it simply a coincidence that the two hosts of public television cooking shows extolled their completed dishes as comfort food? One of them who specializes in the Italian dishes of her childhood often has her mother on the show to share in their memories and the tastes of the food. The other host who teaches the viewer about Mexican cooking describes her delight in the food’s comfort as she tastes the completed dishes. In both cases, most of the foods that earned the appellation of comfort foods contained carbohydrates, such as pasta, rice, or lentils, and were eaten warm with a sauce that was usually the featured aspect of the dish.

Most of us understand the notion of comfort food; indeed, it is such a common term that cooking magazines often will have comfort foods as their feature menus of the month. This term comes up more frequently in the waning days and light of the late fall, as we seemingly yearn for dinners that symbolize warmth and coziness.

What is Comfort Food?

The dictionary definition of comfort food is a “food prepared in a traditional style having a usually nostalgic or sentimental appeal,” and we often look to the older generation in our families to make such foods for holidays and celebrations, or just because we are in need of food that we anticipate satisfying our need for nurture.

Whenever I would go to dinner at the home of my father’s mother, I would ask her to make me the foods that I could not get at home, such as chicken fricassee. And whenever I have been in a restaurant and picked up the scent that resembles the fricassee, I immediately have an image of sitting at her table and enjoying her food – and her attention.

Comfort Foods and Pleasant Memories

According to an article published in the Atlantic a few years ago, a writer for the Palm Beach Post in the l960s coined the term comfort food to describe the foods adults experiencing emotional distress often craved. These foods were associated with pleasant childhood memories, and as such, might relieve stress.

Some of the foods we want to eat when we need comfort may make us feel good because they are associated with being nurtured: perhaps when sick (chicken soup), coming inside cold and tired from an afternoon sledding (hot chocolate), or as a special treat after a rough day at school (mac and cheese). And as adults, we may make those foods for ourselves, hoping to experience that sense of well-being again.

But that is not the same as eating to decrease or diminish stress, a depressed or anxious mood, or calm ourselves when we are agitated. When we are engaged in emotional overeating, we search for an immediate way to relieve an unpleasant emotional state. And if we choose the correct foods, we may accomplish this.

Comfort Foods and Physiological Stress Relief

Several decades ago, research studies we carried out at MIT found that people who eat carbohydrate-rich foods when attempting to feel better emotionally are eating these foods as a form of self-medication. That the foods produce such an effect can be seen in studies in which people are given a drink containing carbohydrates or a placebo, and their moods are measured before the drink and an hour or so after that.

The improvement in mood is not based on nostalgia but neurochemical activity. Serotonin in the brain increases as a result of the carbohydrate being consumed, and this, in turn, improves mood. We saw this most remarkably in studies done with women suffering severe premenstrual symptoms.

But will comfort foods, i.e., those foods that have traditionally been associated with memories of well-being and nurture, disappear because of a (post-pandemic) decrease in the number of home-cooked meals we eat? Many of our meals are once again being eaten away from home or delivered from a restaurant to our homes.

Eating Away from Home and Eating Prepared Foods

Today very young children who spend their entire day in daycare receive most of their food from their daycare provider. Schools often provide breakfast and lunch, and older students may decide to eat fast food or substantial snacks rather than dinner. College food service is no substitute for home cooking, either. And as adults, we (pre-and post-pandemic) may eat away from home four or five times a week.

Some households depend on commercial kitchens to deliver partially prepared meals in a box completed at home. It would be interesting to survey the younger generations to learn what they identify as comfort foods: homemade chicken pot pie or McDonald’s chicken McNuggets? One wonders if the near-obsession with the Thanksgiving menu is based on having foods that evoke positive associations for the eater.

Carbohydrates are Comforting 

Fortunately, the increase in emotional comfort and decrease in stress experienced after eating carbohydrates is not dependent on changing food choices or new foods entering the supermarket. Carbohydrates will elicit a positive mood, regardless of whether the food was also eaten by one’s grandparents or is new to the contemporary eater. After eating pasta or quinoa, oatmeal or farro, or orange or purple sweet potatoes, relief from feeling down or anxious or tense.

These foods may not be comfort foods in the traditional sense, as they evoke no memories, positive or negative. But once eaten, the emotional relief that is experienced may make new good memories, and the source may be eventually viewed as old-fashioned comfort food.

References

“The effect of a carbohydrate-rich beverage on mood, appetite, and cognitive function in women with premenstrual syndrome,” Sayegh R, Schiff, I Wurtman J, et al, Obstet. Gynecol. 1995 86:520-52.

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