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.
These days, U.K. chef Jamie Oliver may be focusing on getting healthier meals into schools, but he's also a chef who knows that when it's time for the dishes we crave, nothing else will do. From his ultimate entertaining guide,“Comfort Food,”he calls this recipe “a dish to create memories.”
• 1 whole duck
• olive oil
• 4 cloves of garlic
• 1 bunch of fresh oregano
• 4 cups fresh or frozen spinach
• 1 whole nutmeg, for grating
• 1 onion
• 2 carrots
• 2 sticks of celery
• ¾ cup Chianti
• 56 oz. canned plum tomatoes
• 2 fresh bay leaves
• 2 cloves
• fresh pasta sheets
• 2.5 tbsp. Parmesan cheese
For the white sauce:
• 7 tbsp. unsalted butter
• ¾ cup plain flour
• 4 cups 2% milk
• ⅔ cup cheddar cheese
• ⅔ cup Fontina or Taleggio cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a tray, rub the duck all over with oil, sea salt and black pepper; roast for two hours. Drain fat into a jar. Remove skin and fat and place them in a food processor, then strip all the meat off the bone into a bowl.
Peel and finely slice two garlic cloves, then put into a large non-stick pan on a high heat with a little duck fat and the oregano. Cook until the garlic is lightly golden, then stir in the spinach and a good grating of nutmeg and cook for 15 minutes, or until the spinach has cooked right down and all the excess water has evaporated.
Peel the onion and carrots, trim the celery, then roughly chop it all. Place all in a large pan on medium heat with a little duck fat and crush in the remaining garlic. Fry for about 20 minutes, stirring regularly. Pour in the Chianti, turn up the heat and cook it away.
Add the shredded duck meat and tomatoes, along with one can’s worth of water, the bay leaves and cloves. Stir, then simmer for about an hour.
For the sauce, melt the butter in a large pan over medium heat, then stir in the flour to form a paste. Whisk in the milk and continue to heat until you have a thick white sauce. Remove from heat, grate and stir in the cheeses, season to taste and add a grating of nutmeg. Cover the base of a baking dish with a good layer of spinach, then cover with a single layer of pasta sheets. Add a layer of ragu, with a generous grating of Parmesan, then another thin layer of spinach, a layer of ragu and another layer of pasta. Repeat twice more, finishing with a layer of white sauce. Top with a good grating of Parmesan, then bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes, or until golden and bubbling.