The Social Utility of Comfort Food: Research Shows Why We Crave Comfort Foods When We’re Lonely

There’s a reason that ice cream looks especially good after a break-up or chicken soup taste better when we’re homesick. Research by Jordan D. Troisi from Sewanee: The University of the South published in the online edition of Appetite shows that comfort food holds both social and psychological significance for people, and especially for those with strong relationships, which is why so many reach for it to combat feelings of isolation. And here’s the kicker, when those with stronger bonds with others are isolated comfort food tastes better too.

“People eat food for many reasons beyond simply satisfying hunger—maybe because it just tastes good or because of boredom. But comfort food in particular has the ability to make people feel socially connected,” says Troisi. Comfort food, which is defined in the study as foods eaten to achieve “comfortable or pleasant states,” most often can help combat feelings of isolation and loneliness because it is linked with feelings of belonging. In his previous research published in 2011 in Psychological Science, Troisi demonstrated that consuming or writing about a comfort food led activated ideas related to relationships and helped combat loneliness among those with strong relationships.

In the new research, a first study asked participants to think of and vividly describe a fight they had with someone close to them, bringing up feelings of isolation and threat to a feeling of belonging. They were then asked to taste potato chips and answer questions about how they tasted. A follow-up study asked participants to keep a food diary for two weeks, answering questions about feelings of isolation each day along with what kinds of foods they ate.

Both studies showed that, among those with stronger relationships, those who felt isolated or otherwise socially threatened were not more likely to eat in general, but they were more likely to eat comfort food specifically, and they enjoyed it much more as well. This research helps further understanding of the social implications of emotional eating, showing it is not mere enjoyment of the taste that makes people reach for those special foods but rather a way to remember feelings of connectedness in times of isolation.

Source Contact Information

Institution:
Sewanee: The University of the South
Title:
Asst. Professor of Psychology
Email:
jdtroisi@sewanee.edu
Phone:
931-598-1382 (office)