Comfort Food

Mike McPhee

Mac and cheese. Salty French fries. A steaming bowl of chicken noodle soup just like Mom used to make. Makes you feel warm and fuzzy just thinking about these comfort foods, doesn’t it? Is there a magic ingredient in these dishes that makes us happy, or is it something else that creates this comfort?

Oftentimes, we affiliate comfort with high-calorie, and it’s true that many of our favourite comfort foods are not the healthiest. Foods high in sugar and fat activate our brains’ reward systems and give us a feeling of wellbeing. If it’s been a bad day, we want a hug in the form of ooey-gooey-ness; something to ground us and provide consolation. It could be argued that comfort-food consumption is a form of emotional eating in less diagnostic terms; a coping mechanism for something we’re going through. Research has found, however, that the feel-better formula is not as straightforward as unhappiness plus comfort food equals happiness.

A NASA-funded study by the Health Psychology journal and researchers at the University of Minnesota found that comfort food has no effect on improving a person’s mood. The study was created to test if food could be a way to maintain astronauts’ contentedness on long missions, such as to Mars. Researchers showed study participants various upsetting movie scenes, then asked them to rate their mood. Understandably, they said they felt awful. Next, some of the participants were given their favourite comfort food, some were given a bland snack, and others received nothing. They were then asked to rate their mood again. It was found that all participants’ moods had lifted at the same rate, regardless of if they had eaten their favourite comfort food. The study concluded that there is no ingredient in comfort food that magically lifts a person’s mood more than just waiting for the cloud to lift. It is undeniable, however, that there’s something comforting about a cosy stew and crusty bread on a cold day – so why is this?

Most researchers agree that the power of comfort food resides in the association it calls to mind, not the actual food itself. Grilled cheese feels like childhood, a simpler time, less responsibility, and coming in from playing in the backyard for lunch. Chicken noodle soup is synonymous with being taken care of, feeling safe, and belonging. That dish you always make when your best friends come over? It makes you feel good because it brings back feelings of closeness, fun and excitement. It could be argued, then, that if association is the magic of comfort food, senses other than taste could provide similar nostalgia. Smell, after all, has been deemed the strongest memory trigger and can provide time-warp style flashbacks that leave your heart thumping. 

So, the question is: If the comfort aspect of comfort food is not associated with the actual food but is, in fact, just nostalgia that could be triggered via other stimuli, is there still a point in eating these comfort foods at all? HECK YES! Eat that mac and cheese but eat it, not because it’s magic, but because it’s damn delicious.

Some of Fernie’s best comfort foods:

  • Nevados’ Tortilla Soup and Cornbread with Jalapeno Pineapple Marmalade and Cilantro Lime Butter
  • Himalayan Spice Bistro’s Malai Kofta and Garlic Naan
  • Island Lake Lodge’s Chorizo and Clam Pappardelle Pasta
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