The question of why we find comfort in food has finally been answered. During difficult times, we crave our childhood's familiar favorites — and for many of us, that means pasta, ice cream or chocolate — because of the good feelings we associate with that time our lives, according to a new study out of the University of Buffalo.
“Comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children,” says study leader Shira Gabriel. “As long as 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.”
To figure out why celery, for example, doesn’t have the same effect, the scientists first assessed participants’ attachment style — that is, the strength and stability of their emotional bonds — through a questionnaire. Then, they were either given a writing assignment designed to make them feel lonely, or on a neutral topic.
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“We found that among those with strong relationships, experiencing the lonely writing task made them evaluate potato chips more favorably than others,” explains co-author Jordan D. Troisi.
In a follow-up study, the participants’ attachment styles were again assessed. They were then asked to keep a record of their feelings of loneliness and when they ate for comfort for two weeks. Again, “we found that for those with strong relationships, experiencing loneliness led to a much greater likelihood of consuming comfort food,” Troisi says.
The scientific basis for emotional eating didn’t come as a surprise. “Across the world, food is imbued with meaning and significance. We all need to eat to stay alive, but our research shows that we also need to eat for our psychological health,” Troisi says.
Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that vegetables can bring that emotional satisfaction. “Green beans or salad can’t be considered as comfort food; it needs to be rich to be able to give us emotions — and it has nothing to do with [whether] you like green beans or not,” says Jean-Philippe Zermati, a nutritionist and author of “Losing Weight Without Dieting.”
He continues: “Science hasn’t figured out why yet, but only rich food is able to trigger emotions and stimulate what we call the reward circuit.”
Until then, there’s no need to feel guilty, so long as you can indulge in moderation. “When you eat rich food, it takes more time to feel hungry again, so you will automatically compensate by eating less at the next meal,” the expert adds.