Comfort food is a term we use a lot, but what dishes deserve the title is highly personal. My Japanese-American mother-in-law said that white rice with lightly steamed veggies were her true comfort food while mine was freshly made whole-wheat bread lightly buttered and jammed (served with a cup of tea).  

Some of us feel passionately about our comfort foods and what they mean to us, so it’s no surprise that there has been a negative reaction to a study that found the concept of comfort food may not be backed by science, according to NPR.

The study

Traci Mann, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, along with colleagues, have been studying the effects of so-called comfort foods. First, they took 100 college students, asked them to watch a lot of sad movie clips, and then fed half of them their personal choice of comfort food. The other half got good food, but not something they would have personally placed in the comfort food category. 

Both groups recovered from the movie-induced blues at the same rate. The researchers found this result so surprising that they doubted the results, but even repeat experiments showed the same result. 

Further, when they gave one group comfort foods, and the other group nothing, once again both groups recovered at the same rate. 

A few thoughts

Undoubtedly, this is a limited study for a variety of reasons. The factor that stuck out the most to me was that this was simply feeling sad over a movie. How many of us have left the movie theater feeling sad over a tear jerker only to feel quite happy by the time we drove home (or even, in the time it took to get to the car?). To me, this study seems limited because how many people remain sad after seeing movie clips? With that in mind, are the results truly that unexpected? 

Another thought I had was that I never thought of comfort food as a remedy for sadness. To me, comfort food is food that makes me feel deeply satisfied on different levels. It’s easy to eat, easy on the stomach, and leaves you feeling content. And yes, some of those foods also induce feelings of happiness because they remind me of happy memories. Grilled cheese reminds me of my childhood, cream of wheat served with real maple syrup reminds me of my honeymoon (where I first introduced this childhood favorite to my new husband), and soups just make me happy — period. Like anything else, food can be connected to both good and bad memories, and a shadow of those connected emotions can pass over us when we eat them. I would love to see studies that go beyond this momentary sadness recovery point and delve into the connotations of foods. 

My final thought on the topic is this: I’m not sure we should carry the idea of comfort food too far. I think there is a special balance. We need to understand that food is deeply satisfying, enjoyable, and yes, comforting. But we also need to understand that eating unhealthy food (or just too much) as therapy for life’s problems is not a good long-term habit, and it certainly won't make us happy. All of the comfort food in the world can’t change life circumstances, so we shouldn’t look to food to solve our problems. But we should enjoy it for what it is – a great gift of sustenance, nutrition, beauty and flavor that can be deeply enjoyed. 

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