Misunderstanding Comfort Food

macaroni and cheeseThis seems to be the week for misleading headlines. Here is a new study proclaiming “Comfort Food is a Myth”.

Mann and her colleagues describe four experiments, three of which were similarly structured. At an introductory session, participants were specifically asked “What foods would make you feel better if you were in a bad mood?”, as well as other foods they enjoy but do not place into that category.

Then, during two sessions scheduled at least one week apart, groups of students (100 in total) watched 18-minute videos composed of film clips found to elicit “feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, and/or sadness.” At one session, after filling out a questionnaire designed to determine their mood, they were given a generous portion of their self-described comfort food (chocolate being the most popular, followed by ice cream and cookies).

At the other, they were given either one of the non-comfort foods they enjoyed, such as almonds or cashews (Experiment 1); a granola bar, which served as a neutral food (Experiment 2); or nothing at all, meaning they simply sat in silence for three minutes (Experiment 3). Afterwards, all filled out the mood questionnaire for a second time.

“Participants’ moods improved over time,” the researchers report. However, they add, “this happened to the same extent regardless of which type of food they ate, or whether they at any food at all.”

Perhaps I’m mistaken in my assumptions, but I never thought the idea of “comfort food” was food that put you in a good mood. Whether one is in a good mood or not will obviously be affected by all kinds of factors that have nothing to do with the food you’re eating. Just as sad songs don’t make us feel sad, and happy songs by themselves don’t make us feel happy, I doubt that specific kinds of food can shift our mood from negative to positive more so than alternative victuals.

Rather, I think of comfort foods as having a particular kind of meaning for us—they evoke images of simple, filling, warming, home-cooked meals prepared by people who care for us. Comfort foods mean comfort; they represent comfort; they don’t necessarily cause it and certainly not by themselves. Moods are complex affective responses to our environment or our internal states. It is not surprising that food, regardless of how loved, would by itself fail to change that state.

But it doesn’t follow from the absence of causal effect that certain foods don’t have the meanings we ascribe to them. Macaroni and cheese is comfort food, not because it makes us feel better than non-comfort foods, but because it reminds us of psychological security.

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