The phrase Presidential Debate has become synonymous with “petty shouting match.” Ballot deadlines were extended and then revoked. Some Americans still haven’t received their absentee ballots, while others report “faulty” ballots that don’t list any presidential candidates at all. Everywhere we turn, it seems that there is new election news to lament and almost no way of letting out this stress while locked at home. The week before one of the most important elections of our lifetimes, Americans have never needed comfort food more.
Logically, we all know that a bowl of chicken soup or mac and cheese can’t actually solve any of the turmoil our country is currently going through. A bag of crunchy, salty chips won’t do the trick either, yet we still turn to these familiar foods to support us emotionally when everything seems like it’s a bit too much to handle. Despite understanding the ridiculousness of expecting food to fix our anxieties, it strangely works. Without knowing why, many of us instinctively reach for warm, fatty or sugary foods when stressed and can feel legitimately soothed as a result. It is worth noting that we are focusing on North American food preferences today.
There are various intrinsic characteristics of comfort foods which make some choices more popular than others. Social psychologists have reported, for example, that physically warm foods can make others seem emotionally warmer; to elaborate, a cup of tea is more than the sum of its parts. By holding a warm mug, we become more responsive to our companions’ positive personality traits like friendliness or trustworthiness. Warm foods become filters which smooth over social interactions and make us remember the experience positively. Additionally, we find that our bodies “release trace amounts of opiates which elevate both mood and satisfaction” when consuming highly palatable foods, or foods with a significant fat and sugar content. These palatable foods are increasingly desirable among those with high cortisol reactivity; as the adrenal gland produces cortisol in response to stressors, it’s therefore no wonder that many of us crave junk food when under intense pressure or stress. Others have also hypothesized that food cravings could stem from nutritional or caloric deficiencies.
In addition to the physiological motivations to crave sugary, fatty foods, many comfort foods fulfill some psychological needs to feel loved and welcomed. Nostalgia, in particular, plays a crucial role in deciding which comfort foods we gravitate towards; it’s no secret that taste and memory are intimately linked. Our brains process memory and taste closely, meaning that food is uniquely capable of bringing up powerful and distinct memories. Therefore, the foods we associate with positive experiences from childhood can actually make us feel better later in life as a result of the memories attached to them. Many of us remember our mothers feeding us chicken soup when sick, or attach celebrations to the holiday meals we ate alongside festivities. Likewise, hot cocoa reminds us of nights spent around a fire, surrounded by those who love us. Even when eaten alone, home cooked food transports us back to blissful mornings in the kitchen with our families.
Human beings have both an inherent need and right to belong, and to feel like a welcome part of a larger community. When we work in groups, we receive ample love, validation and comfort which many believe is a crucial part of growing into a thriving adult. Nevertheless, America’s “postmodern society [has] made it increasingly difficult for individuals to form and sustain meaningful personal and social identities.” Long work days with a significant focus on productivity leave little time for leisure, relationship building and sit down meals with family. Many Americans who are short on time rely on grab-and-go foods that can be eaten in their cars or at their desks; because eating in communion with others can be such a useful bonding activity, eating alone at work is incredibly isolating and strips countless people of their chance to create community through food. In light of this American isolation, it’s natural for us to seek out some other form of comfort. Some scholars have hypothesized that food can fill this gap, serving as a “social surrogate,” or crutch, for the consumer to lean on as a form of emotional support in lieu of other coping tools.
I should add that comfort food consumption varies greatly depending on the person; a 2014 study shows that when questioned, 74 percent of participants consumed comfort foods to reward themselves for something, while only 39 percent used comfort foods as a coping mechanism when sad or lonely. Additionally, age has some impact on how and what we eat. 77 percent of the younger population studied (participants between 18-34) pointed towards ice cream as their favorite comfort food, whereas 76 percent of subjects 55 years and older prefer soup. It has also been suggested that cisgender women tend to enjoy sugary snacks like chocolate as comfort foods, whereas cisgender men often consume hot meals like pizza. Both of these groups reported ice cream as their top comfort food, however.
The effect that consuming comfort foods has on our moods is surprisingly significant. Therefore, many of us will be nervously snacking on the night of November 3 in an effort to calm down and remember better times when less was at stake. When that night comes, listen to your bodies — they know more than we give them credit for. Remember that we often feel stress and emptiness as a result of loneliness. Offer some mac and cheese, pizza or doughnuts to your roommate; you will likely feel even more fulfilled and calmed by eating these foods with them. Food is a tool for forming relationships, but not a replacement for them. Let me be clear — I’m in no way suggesting that you avoid comfort foods. In fact, I encourage indulging in them, as we’ve already established that there can be positive effects on our mood and social interactions when eating them. Regardless, I imagine that you’ll find yourself significantly happier when you’re able to share this incredibly stressful experience with others, and with food as a social buffer. So go vote, and then pass a plate around the table — the night will be better because of it.
Amelia Clute is a junior in the college of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].