Why comfort food is so comforting

The phrase ‘comfort food’ immediately brings to mind feelings, memories and tastes. Whether it’s your mum’s shepherd’s pie on a cold day, chocolate when you’re feeling sad, or chicken soup when you’re ill, we all have those foods that bring us comfort. For me, it’s a roast dinner on a Sunday, a veggie lasagne, or a homemade minestrone soup: these heart-warming foods transport me back to childhood, to that feeling of having been on a long, muddy walk with my dog, and coming in from the bitter cold to a hot meal.

Taste, like smell, is one of those senses that can instantly bring us back to a particular moment in time. Comfort food, however, is about much more than the food itself, it’s about the feelings that are conjured up because of it – of safety, of happiness, and that feeling of being surrounded by the people you love.

While at university, I think it’s important to have things around you that remind you of home. Cooking your comfort foods is a great way of reconnecting, creating a sense of belonging and reliving memories of shared meals with family and friends. In a study of Filipino migrants living in Hong Kong, home cooking was cited as one of the main ways of connecting. Migrant women would gather on a Sunday and share food from their country, this gathering becoming a way of re-inventing home. Food means more to people than just taste, it’s also associated with identity, belonging and culture.

Shira Gabriel, a psychology professor, defines ‘comfort food’ as ‘any food that a person uses to feel better’. This notion of ‘comfort eating’ is engrained in us through the media that we consume: think Bridget Jones getting over a break-up by crying into an ice-cream tub alone at night . A study from the Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science also shows that we often eat comfort foods to improve our mood and rid ourselves of feelings of loneliness and isolation.

In this way comfort food is often equated to emotional eating, but are they the same thing? If comfort food is simply a way out of what you’re feeling, this could arguably be replaced by anything else that gives you that same dopamine hit: watching a TV show or listening to a certain album that reminds you of a happy(ier) time.

For me, though, comfort food is not simply a ‘way out’, it’s a way of reconnecting. Comfort food doesn’t have to be unhealthy, it can be a nutritious, warming meal packed full of veggies that makes you feel full and looked after, a hearty soup with homemade bread, a bowl of chilli. Particularly in winter, when our dopamine levels naturally decline from lack of sunlight, food can play a positive role in combating this and alleviating these negative feelings, reminding us of happy memories and of being together. I think that we should remove the food-guilt and listen to what our bodies are telling us during these cold months and confusing times. It can be a powerful tool for shifting your emotional state.


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Alice Williamson

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January 2022
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