Earlier this month, my son, David, opened a ramen restaurant across from the Johns Hopkins University bookstore in Baltimore. PekoPeko Ramen serves steaming bowls of noodles to hungry and sometimes stressed or tired college students and locals. Having grown up in Japan, David – like most Japanese natives – knows ramen to be the quintessential comfort food.
How is it that comfort foods reach deep into our psyches, soothe us, and provide, as it were, chicken soup for the soul?
What makes something a comfort food? Comfort foods have distinctive properties and powers that are associated with pleasure. Almost universally, we can all name one or a few comfort foods. Some comfort foods are wildly popular and culturally shared – like ramen in Japan or ice cream in the US. Others are based on more idiosyncratic personal histories. The key element that gives a food this rarified status is whether it evokes that familiar “feel good feeling.” Comfort foods make us smile inside. Subjectively speaking, they make us feel better, improve our mood, help us relax, and reduce stress.
Our brains on comfort foods. Comfort foods have a specific, biological effect on the brain. It looks like three primary hormones – leptin, ghrelin, and insulin – play a key role in producing the sensation of reward or comfort after eating particularly palatable foods – many of which are high in sweet and fat. In fact, a lot of exciting research currently underway is examining the link between food properties and mood. It’s a complex interplay of biology and psychology – where the biological effects may be fleeting compared to the stickier psychological effects.
Comfort foods and childhood memories. Childhood memories are almost always multisensory – sights, sounds, smells, and emotional feelings abound. This is what makes them “sticky.” Emotional warmth and care and social experiences become associated with certain foods from childhood. These foods are linked to times that we remember feeling secure, happy, and taken care of, and reaching for these foods brings back good feelings. In fact, adults who describe experiences of warmth and security with early caregivers are more likely to seek out such comfort foods for an emotional pick-me-up compared to adults who recall a history of insecure attachments.
Women are sweet; men are savory. Gender seems to affect which foods are considered comfort foods. Researchers at Cornell University report that women generally prefer sweet foods, the top three comfort foods being ice cream, chocolate, and cookies. In contrast, men generally choose more savory foods like soup, pizza, and pasta. We don’t know why women tend to go for sweet and men tend to go for savory. Maybe the seed for a future dissertation?
What comfort foods can and can’t do. Taking a 20-minute break for a steaming bowl of noodles at PekoPeko Ramen curbs hunger, gives students a much needed and energizing study break, helps reset stress levels, and maybe even reminds them of their mom’s chicken soup. Those with a healthy relationship to food will find comfort foods, well, comforting. It’s important to remember, however, that comfort foods cannot complete the term paper or fix the larger, real-life problems that bring us down. Comfort foods get us to a place where we can make use of other skills and resources for real problem solving, and hoping for anything more can lead to problematic emotional eating and eating disorders – topics for another Five on Friday.