As a former sugar addict and someone who used food to numb and comfort me for over 15 years, I speak about this not just from a scientific or clinical perspective, but from a very personal one.
Comfort foods are comforting for many reasons.
First, food is the original source of nourishment, connection, and comfort. We’ve had this since we were infants, along with other nurturing things like human touch, words of affirmation, and pleasant sounds.
Second, the foods we pick for comfort foods are almost always foods that we have a positive association with, usually from a childhood memory (an afternoon at Grandma’s, a 10th birthday party, or as a reward for enduring a struggle, like the days following my appendectomy).
When I was growing up, my eldest sister would make me the best macaroni and cheese. There was something special about the way she made it that I found so comforting and nourishing, not only because it tasted good and the texture was good, but because it was associated with her. I’m sure many of you can relate to this example.
Comfort foods tend to be sweet and fatty, sometimes even salty. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes total sense. Sugar and fat were the things that, in ancient times as hunter-gatherers, we valued most to keep us alive and to prevent starvation. However, now that we’re not worried about running from lions or going hungry throughout the winter, we’re using sugar and fat for “other 21st century things” (i.e. celebrations, funerals, helping someone feel good). Think of all the cakes, frosting, icing, ice cream, cookies, candy bars, and chocolate we bring to these kinds of events. And as for salt, well it tastes good and was also necessary for survival.
Understanding the science of why comfort foods are so comforting helps us understand the how and why behind our own unique comfort foods.