Chicken Soup Feeds Our Hunger for Connection

Just thinking about comfort foods can reduce loneliness

Michele DeMarco, PhD

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Bowl of chicken soup with a spoon on a wooden cutting board

There was never a fall or winter holiday when my mother didn’t make chicken soup. There was never a cold or flu I had when she also didn’t whip up a batch. And there’s never been a time when I’ve made the hearty dish — or even thought about it — as an adult when I haven’t seen her face or felt blanketed in the warmth and safety of my youth.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests there is a strong link between comfort foods and the comfort we get from loved ones.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo asked participants to write about a conflict they had with someone they were close to as a way to induce a sense of social vulnerability or a threat to belonging. Then they directed some in the group to write about one of their comfort foods, while others were instructed to write about trying a new food. Afterwards, both groups were asked questions about how lonely they felt.

The results we compelling: writing about a fight with someone dear to them made people feel lonely. But those who were generally able to form close, secure relationships — something that was assessed before the experiment — were able to pull themselves out of the loneliness through recalling experiences of eating food, often with loved ones and friends.

The authors of the study suggest that the memory of food and a person become intertwined, quite possibly because those foods were originally eaten with or even prepared by them. In essence, food becomes a surrogate for the people who matter most.

Food becomes a surrogate for the people who matter most.

In another experiment, researchers asked participants whether they considered chicken soup to be a comfort food; then they asked some to eat chicken soup and others not. Of the individuals who had previously identified chicken soup as a comfort food, those who ate the soup were significantly more likely to spell words associated with relationships (for instance, like, include, and welcome) then students who had not eaten the soup. The authors suggest this could point to a subconscious association…

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Michele DeMarco, PhD

Award-winning writer, therapist, clinical ethicist, and researcher specializing in moral injury. I talk about the stuff many won’t. micheledemarco.com