We all have those foods we go to when we need a taste of nostalgia. Maybe we’re feeling down and we need a mood boost. Maybe we’re feeling great and we want to keep the good times going. Whatever the reason, reaching for a familiar food or meal is common, but the craving goes well beyond the contents and calories in the food itself. Let me explain.

The Psychology of Comfort Food via @Luvoinc

What is comfort food?

Comfort food is generally understood to be something that calls up pleasant, soothing feelings while we eat it. It’s often consumed when we’re feeling lonely or down, though some enjoy comfort foods when they’re feeling happy, too. Many of us associate the term with calorie-rich, fatty dishes, such as cheeseburgers and fries or chocolate cake. But chicken soup comes to mind as an example as well. For me, mac and cheese is a comfort food, maybe because my family often ate it around the Christmas holidays.

Why do we crave it?

So what’s going on here exactly? Well, a study published in the aptly named journal Appetite notes that comfort food is so important to us because our minds associate the food with the people involved in giving it to us. Furthermore, those of us who tend to develop strong relationships and attachments to others are even more susceptible to having foods that bring comfort when we’re feeling low.

So it’s not the calories in the comfort food you’re craving, it’s the people behind it, our friends and family members. When we eat these foods, memories of good times with these people come back—holidays, parties, occasions perhaps when we were sick but loved and well cared for. And when we’re feeling isolated, people with strong attachments tend to consume more comfort food than others.

What types of food can be comfort food?

Essentially any food can be a comfort food, as long as it has a strong memory associated with it. And extending this logic, “comfort food” can consist of more than just food. Any items you positively associate with your loved ones may bring the same level of positive feelings. Maybe it’s a book your brother gave you, or a leather baseball glove you played with as a kid, or a bottle of perfume that smells like your mother. Because scent is closely tied with memory, items—or foods—with particular smells can bring back strong memories. In that way, non-food items are like comfort food for the soul.

BBQ Chicken and Waffles via @Luvoinc

What foods do you consider comfort foods? Let us know in the comments section below!

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