The Science of Comfort Food

Turkey is not my thing, but one dish I cannot live without on Thanksgiving is my mom’s Snowy Mashed Potatoes. The recipe is more sour cream and cream cheese than potato, which may be why it’s so delectable. I start looking forward to these potatoes in early November, and I always make enough for the leftovers to last at least a week, which means the dish is my annual time-release capsule of pure joy. I’m pretty sure I’ve had them at every Thanksgiving since I was a toddler, and bites often transport me back to different years and different dining rooms.

How and why is it that certain foods give us so much pleasure? And what can be said about the kinds of foods we consider most comforting? I asked a nutritional scientist, a psychologist who studies how our brains process sensory information and a nutritional psychiatrist to learn more. Taste and nutritional content affect how foods make us feel, I learned, but much of the happiness we derive from our favorite foods stems from the memories they spark for us and the people we’re with while we enjoy them.

Because food is essential for our survival, our brains reward us for eating anything at all by releasing opioid-based chemicals that make us feel good, said Paul Breslin, a nutritional scientist at Rutgers University and the Monell Chemical Senses Center. But as anyone who’s ever eaten apple pie knows, sweets can make us feel especially nice. Carbohydrates increase brain levels of serotonin, a chemical that enhances mood.

“After eating these foods, we feel calm, we feel happy,” said Dr. Uma Naidoo, a professional chef and nutritional psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and the author of “This Is Your Brain on Food.” Some people enjoy treats more than others: One study found that people who are especially sensitive to sweetness — who can detect sweet flavors at lower concentrations than others and who often have a “sweet tooth” — have stronger brain-reward responses to sugary foods than less sweet-sensitive people do.

Certain foods are especially emotionally satisfying for reasons that have little to do with their taste or nutritional content, though. After all, different cultures have different comfort foods, explained Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford who studies human perception. And many favorite American comfort foods — chili, say, or tomato soup — are not particularly sweet or high in carbohydrates.

Often we love food because we have fond memories associated with it, Dr. Breslin said. My mom’s mashed potatoes remind me of holiday joy and past reunions with extended family. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, research has found that we crave comfort foods when we feel lonely.) We are also drawn to foods we were given early in life by people who cared for us, which can help explain our collective love for chicken noodle soup, which many parents feed their sick children to make them feel better.

The smell of food can evoke powerful memories, too. The part of the brain responsible for processing smell directly connects to the amygdala, a brain region that processes emotions, and the hippocampus, which handles memory. And our memory for smells is long-lasting and precise, especially when it comes to scents we were first exposed to in childhood. That’s why you might catch a whiff of pumpkin pie baking in the oven and be transported back to the first time you baked it with your grandmother.

These associations can go the other way, too. Sometimes you might feel sad when you eat foods that remind you of loved ones you miss, Dr. Breslin said. We may also avoid foods that we associate with bad experiences. I haven’t eaten cottage cheese since I was 8 years old, because it was the last thing I ate before coming down with a nasty stomach bug. (Thank goodness the food that got ruined was cottage cheese and not chocolate chip cookies.)

In addition to past memories, the context in which we eat foods shapes how much we enjoy them in the moment, and our gustatory experiences can be heightened by a “sense of community, a sense of warmth and enjoying it together,” Dr. Naidoo said. I appreciated my mom’s Snowy Mashed Potatoes that much more today because I got to eat them with my husband and two children, the three people I love most in the world.

I’m thankful for so much this Thanksgiving — including the fact that I’ve had the honor of writing the Well newsletter over the past seven months. I’ve loved exploring so many fascinating topics with you. But as of next week, I’m handing the newsletter over to Well’s new columnist, Jancee Dunn.

I’ll still be writing regularly for the Well section, and you can continue to follow me on me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, or visit my website.

Happy Thanksgiving!


When you think of A.D.H.D., hyperactive little boys might come to mind. But when adults have A.D.H.D., it’s often characterized by completely different symptoms, including forgetfulness, trouble focusing, organization problems and procrastination. People can also have mood swings or be quick to fly off the handle. Dana Smith delves into the nuances of these symptoms and offers advice for people who think they might have adult A.D.H.D.

Read more:
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The Well team has recommendations for all your holiday gift-giving. There are running mittens for cold weather, a multifunctional alarm clock that allows you to banish your phone from the bedroom, and an exercise mat that’s just as good as the mats at the gym you’re no longer going to. Something for everyone, in other words.

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