The researchers conducted two experiments to test their hypothesis. In the first, they wanted to see whether eating comfort food would make people think about close relationships. Half of the participants ate some chicken noodle soup as part of a taste test, and then all participants filled out a word completion task where they completed word fragments with whatever word first came to mind. Some of the possible word completions were relationship-relevant, such as "include" and "welcome." The results showed that among participants who had indicated previously that they considered chicken soup to be a comfort food, those who ate some during the experiment completed more fragments with relationship-relevant words than those who didn't eat any soup.
In the second experiment, the researchers tested the hypothesis that merely thinking about comfort foods could reduce loneliness. Half the participants wrote about a fight in a close relationship (this was meant as a threat to belongingness), and then half of these participants then wrote about an experience with either a new food or a comfort food. Within the belongingness-threat condition, participants who wrote about a comfort food reported less loneliness than those who wrote about a new food, but this was only true for participants with a secure attachment style (that is, those who had more positive associations with relationships). The researchers also conducted analyses to show that comfort food didn't just reduce loneliness because it made participants feel happier, or because the types of foods were any different than those chosen in the "new food" condition. In other words, almost anything can be a comfort food, as long as it's associated with social comfort. And that association can be very personal.
So why do these results matter? First, they provide one explanation for emotional eating - food feels good because it feels like company - the researchers refer to the "embrace" of a familiar food. In addition, the fact that just thinking about comfort foods was comforting suggests that just imagining or remembering eating a delicious chocolate cake might work almost as well as actually eating it. But thinking about food too much can also be dangerous, leading people to be more tempted to overeat when the opportunity arises, or to over-rely on food for comfort. People who engage in binge eating may be especially likely to use food for comfort. Though food might sometimes provide short-term emotional benefits, it is unlikely to be a sustainable substitute for supportive social interactions.
Troisi, J., & Gabriel, S. (2011). Chicken Soup Really Is Good for the Soul: "Comfort Food" Fulfills the Need to Belong Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611407931