Science Has Decoded Comfort Food

Photo: Alliance Images (Shutterstock)

Photo: Alliance Images (Shutterstock)

When you think of your favorite food, what do you picture? For me, it’s nachos. Yet even as I’m thinking about the delicious pile of toppings that can really make the platter pop, I’m also picturing cozying up with a big old plate of the things in front of my favorite movie, sharing them with friends. When I crave nachos, I’m not only craving the taste but also the warm and fuzzy emotions that have surrounded my past nacho-eating experiences. And some of the nachos have been objectively bad, with burnt cheese or too many jalapenos, but even so, the dish maintains its association with positive memories. The New York Times posits that this mental connection defines our favorite comfort foods, more so than the flavor does.

What makes a dish “comfort food”

There is some direct science behind the notion of “comfort food”: eating anything at all triggers a release of opioid-based chemicals in the brain, and carbohydrates in particular increase serotonin levels. If you identify as someone with a sweet tooth, that simply means that you have stronger brain-reward responses to sugary foods.

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But it’s our association with memories that makes certain foods more comforting than others. Comfort foods are different in different cultures, The New York Times explains, because that association is with foods we were given by people who cared for us early in life. This is why foods typically associated with healing during sickness, like soup, are often seen

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