Cupboard love – Unwrapping the comfort in food

When Andrea Oskis left home, the first dish she cooked was her Mum’s version of spaghetti bolognese. Here, she explores the intrinsic connection between food and feelings…

Food and feelings become mixed and mingled from early doors – via cupboard doors more precisely, according to early theories of relationships which were based on food and feeding. Right from the start food becomes a way to feed our feelings, and throughout life feelings influence when, what and how much we eat. One of the most reliable, everyday examples is that many of us tend to be bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger – a feeling that has come to be known as ‘hangry’ (MacCormack & Lindquist, 2019). But sometimes the greatest insights into feelings occur when we eat but are not even hungry. Sometimes the food itself allows us to work backwards to find the feelings and the context; opening a bottle of champagne tends to signal the celebration of success, whereas Nigella Lawson suggests her chocolate fudge cake is ‘the sort of cake you’d want to eat the whole of when you’d been chucked’. The power of sugar to soothe appears to be present from the very beginning, with effects demonstrated in those as young as one day old (Blass & Smith, 1992).

Nigella’s philosophy takes us to an area of food literature and research that still has many unresolved questions: emotional or comfort eating; the kind of eating where the body is in no real need of calories and feelings take over.

Of chicken soup and chocolate

Sadness would likely be one of the feelings that motivates baking and eating Nigella’s chocolate cake in its entirety, and research supports the comforting effects of chocolate to some degree. Eating milk chocolate after watching a sad film scene improved negative mood in a group of participants to a greater extent than consuming dark chocolate with 70–99 percent cocoa, or no food at all, but effects were short-term, only lasting for three minutes (Macht & Mueller, 2007). Other work however found that chocolate did not have a special comforting effect in improving anger, sadness and anxiety after watching ‘feel-bad’ film clips; in fact, ‘comfort food’ had the same effect on emotions as ‘non’ comfort foods or even no food at all (Wagner et al., 2014). The inconsistent findings likely reflect that responses to ruptured relationships, whether temporary or more long-term, as in the case of divorce or death, are inconsistent in and of themselves; separations can elicit a range of responses in the individual, including despair, anger and a lack of self-compassion (attacks on the self).

Does this mean that one might not have to eat a whole chocolate cake, or indeed any cake, after being ‘chucked’? The findings mentioned are just some of the conflicting results from the research on comfort eating and emotional eating. The issue seems to be that despite having a similar research interest, people follow different ‘recipes’ and use very different methodologies for studies, which for some has led to the conclusion that ‘comfort food is a myth’ (Wagner et al., 2014). The process of defining variables into measurable factors is fundamental to research methodology and for comfort food this is challenging. For example, chicken soup is often a front-runner for comfort food, coming in first place first for nearly half of the participants in one study (Wood & Vogen, 1998). One study however found that chicken soup was comforting only for those who considered chicken soup to be a comfort food (Troisi & Gabriel, 2011). This makes sense – the choice of comfort food depends on unique memories, and remembrance and reward association with both good and bad times; what’s comforting to me, might not be to you. The experiential aligns with the empirical, and comfort foods have been shown to vary by age, sex, culture, the type of food itself and the feeling that elicits comfort eating (see Spence, 2017 for a review) – it is a big melting pot. 

Taken together, findings from the psychological research indicate that we might have to go beyond the cupboard, beyond food and beyond emotions to find some clearer evidence regarding food and feelings. Some suggest that the emotions themselves are not responsible for comforting eating, but rather the strategies used to regulate those emotions; for instance, there is evidence that individuals who regularly use suppression, a maladaptive emotion regulation strategy, consume more calorie-rich snack foods when emotional (Evers, 2010). Here, calorie intake could be seen as a form of suppression – a way of forcing out the unwanted feelings by replacing them with food that is wanted. 

From feelings to physiology 

‘Man should not try to avoid stress any more than he would shun food, love or exercise,’ said Hans Selye (1956, p. vii), According to Selye, stress, like food, is one of the unavoidable ingredients in life. Considered the father of stress research, Selye’s work took the pathway from physics to physiology to feelings. The term ‘stress’ had only previously been used by physicists to refer to the interaction between a force and its opposing resistance. Selye applied this to his work in medicine, showing that a diverse range of ‘stressors’ had similar physiological effects in patients, including effects on bodily systems involved in regulating metabolism, the immune system, and other essential functions, including food intake. Selye defined stress as the ‘nonspecific response of the body to any demand’ (Selye, 1975, p.37), that is, anything that disrupted the body’s usual state.

John Bowlby shared Selye’s view that stressors were environmental conditions that produced negative physiological states, but he was particularly interested in the personal experience of this, which he said is one of distress (Bowlby, 1982). Stress can lead to distress in a variety of ways, ranging from physiological (e.g. hunger for food) to psychologically or emotional (e.g. hunger for comfort). To our brain, these stressors are the same and our body will respond in the same way. An important part of Selye’s work involved identifying specific hormones involved in the body’s stress response. 

Regardless of the type of stressor, if our brain perceives it to be threatening the critical hub of the brain’s stress response – the hypothalamus – will be activated. The hypothalamus is responsible for orchestrating the appropriate physical responses at the time, whether fight, flight, or feed, because the hypothalamus is also responsible for hunger. We have two basic physiological response systems to stress: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. These systems are interacting, but distinct too. The SNS is associated with ‘fight-or-flight’ responses, which come on rapidly and have classic visible signs, including sweaty hands, dilated pupils and increased breathing rate. An important difference is that the SNS is not uniquely activated by threat – it can be activated by positive arousal, such as excitement, whereas activation of the HPA axis is fine-tuned to threat, making it a ‘cleaner’ gauge of stress (Clow and Smyth, 2020).

The HPA cascade culminates in the release of the classic stress hormone cortisol. But cortisol also performs a wide range of ‘house-keeping’ duties to protect the body’s overall health and well-being, including important food-related drives, such as regulating the accumulation and storage of body fat, and increasing appetite, food intake, and body weight gain. Cortisol’s role in food and feelings begins early, literally pre-food. Research suggests that the path may go from mother’s stress, to food, to child’s feelings, with elevated cortisol in mother’s milk negatively influencing infant temperament (Grey et al., 2012). If a mother is stressed while pregnant, her child is substantially more likely to have emotional or cognitive problems, but interestingly, the quality of child-parent bond can buffer some of these adverse effects, particularly regarding the child’s later attachment behaviours (Bergman et al., 2010). For this reason, cortisol, and stress more generally, are at the core of food and feelings. Perhaps it is now time to shift our feeling-focus to stress. 

Fight, flight – or feed?

It makes no sense that we eat when we feel stressed. Stress promotes survival behaviours. Evolutionarily, feed, instead of fight or flight, is not a sensible strategy. The body’s resources need to be prioritised to deal with the imminent stressor otherwise we risk danger from attack. (Death by chocolate could indeed be a reality if a predator crept up on us while we were tucking into our favourite confectionary). Physiologically, our stress system works in line with this idea. Here, it is helpful that our systems for controlling stress and food share the same anatomy. When we are faced with acute stress the hypothalamus will not only initiate the stress cascade of the HPA axis, but it will inhibit the systems normally responsible for stimulating feeding behaviour so that our appetite is suppressed (Maniam & Morris, 2012). The end product of the stress cascade however, cortisol, promotes food intake, particularly of certain kinds of foods. This is because it is sensible to eat after stress – the energy used to cope with the stressor needs to be replaced. If we are not required to fight the lion anymore, we can go back to eating that Lion bar. Indeed, those who are highly sensitive, as shown by their cortisol reactions, eat significantly more sweet food after stress (Epel et al., 2001). 

At this point however the story is half-baked. Stress involves both physiology and feelings, and comfort and pleasure are powerful feelings that are linked to stress. Most individuals when stressed will increase their food intake, and crucially, the intake of foods just like Lion bars – foods that are calorie-dense and high in fat and/or carbohydrates, especially sugar (Epel et al., 2004, Ip et al., 2019; Oliver and Wardle, 1999). These foods have stress-reducing effects that appear to be controlled by the amygdala – one of the brain’s regions associated with emotion (Ulrich-Lai et al., 2015). All food, but especially comfort food, literally feeds the feeling part of our brain, which is contained within the larger ‘reward system’. Eating is therefore designed to feel good and be rewarding, but even more so when we feel stressed. Laboratory studies reveal that both acute physical and emotional distress increase comfort food intake in humans and animals even when they are not hungry and have no physiological need for calories (Dallman, 2010). This is because the body’s stress system interacts with the reward system, hence the comforting feelings we get from eating those more palatable, comfort foods (Adam and Epel, 2007). The feeling itself is a cocktail of increased comfort/pleasure/soothing and decreased stress. Sugar is particularly powerful; it not only inhibits stress-induced cortisol but at the same time it stimulates opioid release – one of the body’s ‘feel good’ chemicals (Tryon et al., 2015). 

Another of the body’s chemicals that comfort food increases is dopamine. It is interesting that such evidence has made its way into the culinary world – The Dopamine Diet is the name is the name of a bestselling cookbook by Chef Tom Kerridge (‘assured to make you happier in the process…. it’s a diet that will make you feel good!’). Dopamine appears to be involved in the motivational aspects of eating (‘wanting’), whereas opioids more affect the hedonic experience of food (‘liking’) (Berridge & Robinson, 1998). So, stress eating is indeed real, but comfort eating is a key part of stress eating, and this is known in the literature as reward-based stress eating (Adam & Epel, 2007).

All the sweeter

Chronic stress, however, poses a potential recipe for disaster. No matter what, if our brain perceives threat and we are continuously ‘fire-fighting’ then cortisol production is not switched off. And this is especially the case when it comes to attachment disturbances. Our attachments are one of the key resources we have for dealing with disruptions and demands in life. In my own clinical practice, I have found that attachment often has a seat at the table with chronic stress; attachments in and of themselves are ‘chronic’, in the sense that they are built up from continuous interactions. If attachment experiences include unavailability, inconsistency and a lack of attunement, then this can be incredibly distressing. When stress reactions are persistent and sustained, the body will end up turning down its ‘stress-ometer’, so to speak, to mitigate the damaging effects of cortisol (Fries et al., 2005). The brain and body’s receptors for cortisol can get ‘burnt’ over a of prolonged period of hyperarousal and as a result they will not work as well (McEwen, 2007). Chronic stress can therefore lead to decreased sensitivity to immediate stressors in the environment. And exactly this less sensitive, less reactive cortisol response to acute stress has been linked to greater stress eating in those with chronic stress (Tomiyama et al., 2011). 

So, stress eating appears to have a specific signature, which is high chronic stress, but low acute stress reactivity. One study found that chronically stressed women showing low cortisol reactivity to an acute laboratory stress task consumed significantly more calories from chocolate cake in response (Tryon et al., 2013). Chronic stress also increases the salience of pleasurable activities, so comfort food will feel more comforting – sweet foods taste sweeter and we want more of them (Dallman et al., 2003; Kuo et al., 2008). This may be what perpetuates the stress-eating cycle. Research has shown that stress-induced eating behaviours lead to a greater reduction in negative feelings in those with high chronic stress (Klatzkin et al., 2018). These are findings that we can take straight from the lab to the consulting room, and beyond. For those individuals for whom comfort eating becomes uncomfortable, and a serious problem, an approach which goes further than the provision of dietary guidance and goals is necessary, particularly one that involves an exploration of Adverse Childhood Experiences (see Williamson et al., 2002) and life events (see Bidgood and Buckroyd, 2005). 

So, comfort food is most comforting to those who have experienced the most stress. But what exactly is the comfort that we are looking for?

Coming back to comfort – and to the cupboard

‘If I’m being honest, for me all food is comfort food, but there are times when you need a bowlful of something hot or a slice of something sweet just to make you feel that the world is a safer place. We all get tired, stressed, sad or lonely, and this is the food that soothes.’ – Nigella Lawson

What do we want when we stress eat? Nigella talks about feelings of safety and soothing – two concepts that attachment theory and research know very well. It is this sense of felt security – the experience of the world as a safe place in which to explore – that appears to regulate our attachment system (Sbarra & Borelli, 2018).

Attachment-related concepts are key ingredients that help make sense of the research on stress eating and its associations with cravings for comfort. Bowlby saw attachment behaviours as part of the infant’s ‘capacity to cope with stress’ (Bowlby, 1982, p.344), the most stressful experience being separation from the caregiver. This original idea has been studied extensively, and we now know that stress is linked to a range of attachment experiences across the lifespan, from divorce to saying goodbye at the airport to just thinking about the death of a loved one (Simpson & Rholes, 2017). So, might the stress underlying stress eating be related to attachment needs? If we look more closely at the research, this seems to be where the physiological research on stress eating and the psychological research on comfort eating meet in the middle. 

For stress, the most consistent cortisol findings come from studies employing the gold-standard of laboratory protocols – the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST; Kirschbaum et al., 1993; Oskis et al., 2019; Smyth et al., 2015). The task consists of public speaking and surprise mental arithmetic, all performed in front of a panel of experimenters in lab coats and recorded on camera. What makes this so stressful is that the experimenters are absolutely non-responsive; they do not smile or nod or encourage task performance in any way and their only comments are rejecting ones. The task therefore involves negative evaluation and social rejection, likely evoking shame, which threaten our universal needs to attach and to belong. Research outside of the physiology laboratory has shown that comfort food produces its psychological effects via these very feelings. One study found that when participants consumed their comfort food of chicken noodle soup, they thought more about relationships (Troisi & Gabriel, 2011). 

In Troisi and Gabriel’s (2011) second experiment when participants’ sense of belongingness was threatened, feelings of loneliness were attenuated when participants were instructed to write about an experience of eating a comfort food, but only for those who were securely attached. For participants with an insecure attachment style, writing about comfort food did not serve to buffer loneliness. Following this, Troisi et al. (2015) found that securely attached participants actually enjoyed eating comfort food more compared to insecurely attached individuals when they experienced a threat to their sense of belonging. Findings also showed that real-life experiences of loneliness were associated with increased comfort food consumption, but again only for those secure in their attachment style, and this effect only held for comfort food and ‘not just any food they could get their hands on’ (Troisi et al., 2015,  p.61). For those who are insecurely attached, it could be that food is just like people in life – uncomforting, because it never quite fulfils whatever need is at hand, and in true Goldilocks fashion, relationships feel like either too much (insecure avoidant) or too little (insecure anxious) – they are never just right. The conclusion from this research is that comfort food has ‘real significant, and consequential psychological roots’ (Troisi & Gabriel, 2011, p.752) – that are attachment-based. Comfort food is comforting, but only for those who know the comfort of relationships. 

What is interesting is that studies not using an attachment-based stressor do not find the same picture emerging for comfort food. Wagner et al. (2014) found that comfort food, in this case chocolate, was no more effective in improving mood than eating other foods, or even no food at all. There is an important methodological difference however, Wagner et al., (2014) chose to induce negative feelings in participants using 18 minutes of scenes from ‘feel-bad’ movies compiled by the researchers. On the other hand, the belongingness threat of Troisi and Gabriel (2011) involved writing for six minutes about a fight with a close other – a stressor which activates the attachment system. Bowlby (1982, p.42) states: ‘The goal of attachment behaviour is to maintain an affectional bond, any situation that seems to be endangering the bond elicits action designed to preserve it.’

Troisi and Gabriel’s (2011) findings suggest that comfort food fulfils a function of our attachment behavioural system – it maintains the affectional bond by reminding us of our close others. If attachment behaviour is ‘any behaviour that results in a person attaining or retaining proximity’ to another individual (Bowlby, 1982, p.39) then comfort food appears to achieve this set-goal for those who are securely attached – it brings that close relationship closer during an experience of stress. And so we find ourselves returning to cupboard love, as this most likely happens via a process of association, whereby a particular food comes to be associated with a ‘differentiated and preferred individual’ (Bowlby, 1982, p.39). 

In those who are securely attached this process will also likely involve what Bowlby called the ‘internal working model’ (Bowlby, 1982), also known as a ‘secure-base script’ (Waters and Waters, 2006). This script is essentially a recipe for relationships, based on our early caregiving experiences, that we use over the lifespan. And just like a recipe, it includes ‘if–then’ propositions that lead to the set-goal, such as ‘If I am stressed, I can approach my mother for help, she is usually available, sensitive, and supportive. Then this closeness will comfort and soothe me and help me to deal with the stress.’ By relying on the secure-base script, secure individuals can stay relatively calm in times of stress. Therefore, just as a positive recipe can take the stress out of the kitchen, a positive secure-base script can take the stress out of the relational world. It may be that the ‘comfort food secure-base script’ works in the same way to provide its buffering effects. 

An attachment dish

The first dish I cooked for myself in my own kitchen after leaving my family home, was spaghetti bolognese, not because I had a craving for pasta (although now that I understand the link between carbohydrates and stress, perhaps that was somewhat in the mix at the time); I made that dish because I missed my mum. I was alone and I wanted to feel close to her. My mum’s version of spaghetti bolognese has an evocative quality about it, but not one that takes me to the metropolitan city of Bologna or the Apennine mountains. Hers in no way resembles the original recipe for maccheroni alla bolognese that Pellegrino Artusi first published in 1891; she uses no sofrito, only a little chopped onion fried in olive oil (never butter), she uses minced pork instead of veal, tinned chopped tomatoes provide the liquid rather than wine or broth, and her featured herb, in line with our Greek Cypriot ethnicity, is dried mint, which gives the sauce a fresh, lively tang, rather than the deep, robust savouriness associated with the original recipe. Long spaghetti strands as opposed to squat macaroni are the pasta of choice. Finally, grated halloumi cheese is sprinkled on to the dish before serving, which unlike parmesan has a mellow rather than sharp saltiness. It’s not an authentic dish; it’s an attachment dish – my idea of Noshtalgia. It is fitting that this play on words involves the Greek words for pain and return/home. Food can be a powerfully comforting remedy to the pain of separation. 

The attachment-related qualities of comfort food may shed light on some of the inconsistent research findings. One recent laboratory-based study found that eating ‘unhealthy’ (i.e. processed foods high in sugar and/or fat) compared to ‘healthy’ (fruits and vegetables) comfort food made no difference to participants’ psychophysiological stress (Finch, Cummings and Tomiyama, 2019). But curiously, the authors recognise that participants would have perhaps felt more comfortable eating comfort food in the privacy of their own home and that the laboratory setting may have inhibited comforting effects, and this may be especially so for the eating of unhealthy foods, which could be linked fear of negative judgment from onlookers and consequently feelings of shame and being exposed. 

So perhaps the term security food is more fitting than comfort food. I have come to think of food and feelings in line with the Circle of Security (Marvin et al., 2002), which symbolises a child’s need to have a secure base from which to go out and explore the world and a safe haven to return to for physical and emotional nourishment. The idea is that parents need to be attuned to where their child is ‘on the circle’, in other words, does the child need to explore their environment, or do they need to return to familiarity for comfort? Similarly, in relation to food, we can think of where we are ‘on the plate’. Comfort food is a familiar safe haven, which restores our sense of felt security. Accordingly, Troisi and Gabriel (2011) found that securely attached participants experienced less loneliness after writing about their comfort food, but not after writing about a new food. Food neophobia has been defined as reluctance to eat and / or avoidance of novel food, and is considered to be protective in a potentially hostile food environment (Pliner and Hobden, 1992).

So although we need novel foods for diversity in our diet, the unfamiliar can create anxiety. Rozin (1977) describes this relationship between new foods and anxiety as the ‘omnivore’s paradox’ which results from the dilemma of needing to both approach and avoid novel foods. This contradiction represents a ‘double bind between the familiar and the unknown, monotony and change, security and variety’ (Rozin, 1987, p.278). New foods can therefore never be comfort foods because they tend to evoke feelings of anxiety. But this does not make new food bad food. Once again, perhaps it is best to take advice from Nigella Lawson, where the best recipe for food and feelings comes from ‘mixing the comfort of the familiar with the exuberance of the new, and believing in balance’.

The kitchen as the jungle 

Sometimes however, cooking is far from comfortable; it can be stressful enough to activate ‘fight-or-flight’ responses. On MasterChef, tears, fearful wide eyes, sweaty brows and shaky hands carrying plates to the judges for reckoning are commonplace. Why and when did the kitchen become the jungle? When it comes to cooking for others, Nigella tells us that ‘the most important thing is to remind yourself that people are coming to have a good time, not to judge’ (Lawson, 2017), and she draws our attention to a key issue when it comes to cooking: judgment. Fear of negative social appraisal has been associated with home cooking in a range of ways, from using pre-prepared ingredients to feelings of obligation and duty about being a ‘good’ parent or partner (Costa, 2013; Daniels et al., 2012).

So if the context has the potential for judgment, then cooking can be stressful – our social self, as well as the food, is plated. It is exactly this uncontrollable threat of our social self being judged negatively that the Trier Social Stress Test uses to activate the HPA stress system. The signature stressful ingredient when we cook is the food potentially being judged by others; if the cooking itself is not judged, then our body’s stress system is not triggered – there is no change in cortisol (Osdoba et al., 2015). Other research has shown that when we cook just for ourselves our body’s other stress system, which is more associated with excitement and other forms of positive arousal, is turned on instead. One study demonstrated that when it is just us, our heart rate goes up during ‘crunch time’ moments of a recipe e.g. adding the curry paste and taking a bite at the end – in other words, moments that are emotionally significant, but not threatening. And it is not just our body that talks during these emotionally salient moments when we cook for ourselves – they feel more exciting and pleasant (Brouwen et al., 2019). Perhaps it does not always have to be the Trier Social Chef Test. And perhaps Nigella is right (again), after all. 

Some take-away points

If comfort food has the power to comfort without even being eaten then that says something significant. It is not about calories, but nourishment of a different sort, provided by those we hold close – the person who opened the cupboard at the very beginning, or who cooks for us in the kitchen, or who sits with us at the table. Both researchers and cooks appear to agree that comfort food serves to restore our sense of felt security, and thus helps to regulate our attachment behavioural system. Bowlby said that ‘to suppose that nutrition is in some way of primary significance and that attachment is only secondary would be a mistake’ (Bowlby, 1982, p.249). It seems that Bowlby had much in common with Nigella Lawson.

BOX: ‘When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love’ 

‘It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.’ Food writer, M.F.K. Fisher, 2017, p.2

A relationship with the caregiver is a by-product of ‘the early simple path between eating and feeling happy’. Essayist and writer, Adam Gopnik, 2011, p.6

‘This is the sort of cake you’d want to eat the whole of when you’d been chucked. But even the sight of it, proud and tall and thickly iced on its stand, comforts.’ Food writer, Nigella Lawson, 2011, p.47

‘When I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it … and it is all one.’ M.F.K. Fisher, 2017, p.2

- Andrea Oskis is a Senior Lecturer in psychology at Middlesex University, London, and a UKCP-registered attachment-based psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. This article is an abridged version of her chapter ‘Food and Feelings’ in Attachment, Relationships and Food: From Cradle to Kitchen, published by Routledge.

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