Americans love their comfort foods, from macaroni and cheese to chicken noodle soup. But a new study suggests it isn't actually the taste of the food that we crave, but rather a reminder of an emotional bond we shared with the person who made the dish for us in our youth. University of Buffalo researcher Shira Gabriel explains in a press release that "comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children." After about 100 participants tracked their feelings and eating habits in a diary for two weeks, Gabriel and her team found those with positive associations with their caregivers or parents tended to chow down on comfort foods more often when feeling sad or lonely. "You don't think 'I'm having mac and cheese today because I'm feeling lonely and I need my mom,'" she tells the Washington Post, "but that's actually part of what's happening."
Researchers also conducted an experiment: They reminded half of the participants of a time they felt lonely or isolated, but gave the other half of the group no such reminder. When all were served potato chips, those who had revisited feelings of loneliness reported enjoying the snack more than the others. "Comfort food is especially appealing when we're lonely," says Gabriel. "But if you didn't really get along with your parents, these sorts of foods probably aren't going to make you feel better." She says the study explains why people eat certain foods even if they're dieting or already full. The trouble is, "Although comfort food will never break your heart, it might destroy your diet," Gabriel says. In a previous study, Gabriel found people tend to eat soup when they feel lonely, perhaps because it brings back memories of being sick and cared for by someone when they were young. (Another study found comfort food isn't actually comforting.)