Social While Alone -How comfort food can make you feel like you belong

As you may know comfort food is a hot topic here in the DiSH lab. Not just because it tastes really good and we all enjoy indulging in it from time to time, but also because much of our current research involves investigating the effect of comfort food on stress and health.

Researchers from the State University of New York-Buffalo and Sewanee: The University of the South recently conducted a study on comfort food where they looked at the intersection of taste, nostalgia, and loneliness. In order to do this, the researchers first asked each participant about their personality in order to identify the person’s attachment style. Then participants were randomly assigned to either think about a fight they’d had with someone close to them or to think about neutral occurrences. Everyone was given potato chips they could snack on while doing this.

Afterwards participants were asked to rate how tasty they thought the potato chips had been, and the results showed that those who had been asked to think about a fight with someone close found the chips significantly tastier than those who had been thinking about neutral things. Interestingly enough however, this relationship was only evident among the participants with a secure attachment style. In fact, no differences were found between the groups when looking at those with an insecure or avoidant attachment style.

Shira Gabriel, one of the leading researchers of the study, states that the best way to understand where the comfort of comfort food comes from is to shift focus away from the food itself. “When we think about something like comfort food, we tend to think about it as providing calories or warmth or a sense of well-being,” she says. “But what we don’t think about is that comfort food also provides something social to us.”

This idea was further explored in a second study. Again, participants were identified in terms of attachment style, and were then asked to keep a daily “food-and-feelings” diary for two weeks where they wrote down things like how much they ate, whether they had consumed what they considered to be comfort food, and whether or not they were feeling lonely. They found that on the days where the participant had reported feeling lonely, those with a secure attachment style were significantly more likely than others to consume comfort food.

From this the researchers argue that part of the power of comfort food may lie in the associations it calls to mind, especially those related to social bonds. “I tend to think of it in terms of classical conditioning,” Gabriel explains. “If you’re a small child and you get fed certain foods by your primary caregivers, then those foods begin to be associated with the feeling of being taken care of. And then when you get older, the food itself is enough to trigger that sense of belonging.” It makes sense then that on the days we feel lonely we are likely to do things that make us feel like we belong – one of them perhaps being comfort food!

Read the rest of the interesting article here!