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107: Comfort

(The Atlantic)
How comfort foods work like Prozac (Salon)


Full episode text

Psychologically, comfort is an odd concept. Honestly, the best definition I’ve found so far is that comfort is the opposite of stress – it’s a feeling that helps us reduce our stress hormones and makes us feel better.

As one of the nearly universal human experiences, food is one of those things that many people, in some way, shape, or form, find “comfort” in. The Oxford English Dictionary says that the phrase “comfort food” originated in a 1977 article, but even the author of that article says that it was a phrase that he had heard long before then.

Depending on which study you read, comfort food could come from a variety of different psychological phenomena. One study argued that foods that remind us of being cared for helps reduce our stress levels, saying those that form attachments more easily find especial comfort in particular foods, because they remind us of the relationships and feelings around those foods. Basically, we form an attachment to the food as much as the memory.

A different study argues that the elements of comfort food are a part of the neurochemical soup that helps us feel better – with salty foods encouraging the creation of oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone), while fatty foods speak to our caloric-hoarding brains, and starchy foods lead to serotonin production.

Some studies have even found that just writing about and talking about comfort food can be as comforting as eating it, because it calls to mind the social connections and positive emotions associated with that particular food – which may be one argument for the popularity of what is sometimes called “food porn” – the Cooking Channel and Food Channel induced joy of just watching food being prepared.

For yet others, comfort food is something borne of the joy that we find in having something just for ourselves, completely separate of our social connections we may have had.

No matter what the mechanism behind it, comfort food is a reality.