Pasta and butter, mashed potatoes, pizza, ice cream sundaes, chicken soup, grilled cheese — these are the kind of foods we turn to after a stressful day, when we're fighting off illness or when we're trying to survive a bad breakup.
Turns out, there's a reason we lean on these foods in tough times and find comfort in them. According to a new study, certain foods in our lives actually evoke certain feelings for us, making "eating our feelings" oh so real.
Food with feelings: In a study published in the journal Appetite, a research team from the State University of New York at Buffalo asked a group of undergraduates to taste potato chips. One portion of the tasters were made to recount in writing a time they had a terrible fight — an experience that left them feeling lonely and socially isolated — before eating the chips.
The result? For participants with positive associations with the food, the chips tasted even better after remembering the alienating time in their lives. "When social needs were threatened, enjoyment of the comfort food increased, but only for those for whom the food had significant, positive social value," the study said.
The researchers' conclusion: "Comfort food" gets its appeal because it serves as an actual source of emotional comfort in hard times, as long as we have a positive past association with that food.
That includes the person who first served us the dish. Did Mom make baked macaroni and cheese topped with breadcrumbs whenever you caught a cold? Chances are you're subconsciously drawn to mac and cheese when you're feeling down, because it reminds you of the love and comfort of home.
"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," study author Shira Gabriel told ScienceDaily.
Feeling sated and secure: This isn't the first study to explain why comfort foods are actually comforting (for reasons outside the fact that they're high in calories, low in nutrition and delicious).
A 2011 study conducted by the same research team asked 111 undergraduates to consume chicken soup and then perform a series of word-completion tasks. Participants who thought of chicken soup as a comfort food were more likely to complete relationship-related words in the experiment. "The emotional power of comfort food comes from its connection with relationships and is realized in its propensity to reduce feelings of loneliness," the study found.
The new study takes it one step further in a form of culinary social conditioning: Foods with positive associations serve as a source of comfort, they taste better, leading us to turn to them more in the next time of need.
While previous studies have argued the effects of comfort food are all in our head, this research finds that certain foods can capture certain emotions that actually make us love the foods more. The excuse that you're just "eating your feelings"? Totally valid — even Ernest Hemingway "lost the empty feeling and began to be happy" after indulging in his go-to oysters and white wine.