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Comfort Foods Aren't as Comforting as You Think

Fitday Editor

We've all been there. A carton of ice cream after a bad breakup. A dish of homemade macaroni and cheese after a long week. A ring of crackers and a bottle of wine after a stressful day. Comfort foods. We all have them.

Often taught to us as children, after we were soothed with our favorite foods by parents, grandparents or caregivers, comfort eating can take on a complete life of its own. Often, they are used as an excuse to overdo the calories whenever life is not quite going according to plan.

So what if I told you to step away from that ice cream?

While many people seek out their own preferred comfort foods when they are in a negative mood, a new study published in the journal Health Psychology showed that comfort foods are no more effective at lifting your spirits than any other food - or in that case, no food at all.

Traci Mann, psychologist and head researcher at the University of Minnesota, conducted a series of four experiments. Participants first completed on introductory online questionnaire to indicate their comfort foods and a variety of comparison foods that were close but did not quite make the cut.

In the next stages, participants watched short videos composed of clips that were meant to elicit "feelings of anger, fear, anxiety and/or sadness." After the movie had finished, participants completed a short survey to indicate their mood. This was followed with either a helping of their identified comfort food (chocolate and sweets being by far the most popular), a non-comfort food (nuts, granola bar, etc.) or no food at all. This last group simply sat quietly for three minutes. Afterwards, all participants filled out the mood questionnaire for a second time.

The researchers found that participants' mood did improve over time. However, this improvement happened to the same extent no matter which type of food they ate, or whether they even ate any food at all. This finding held no matter how much food they consumed, nor how initially confident they were that their selected comfort food would be effective in lifting their spirits.

While this is just one study out of many that investigated the link between food and mood, the finding serves as a good reminder of the unwarranted power we often give to food. Undoubtedly, there is a big difference between watching an emotional film clip and the complexity of life stress that can form an individual's reality. But even though experimental situations cannot entirely mimic life stress, it is nevertheless a good reminder for any "emotional eater" to question their possible food crutches.

So, it seems you may not need to demolish that entire pint of double chocolate cookie dough ice cream after all. Rather than reaching straight for comfort food, take a little time to consider what emotions you are feeling. If you find you must indulge in a tempting food, keep portions under control and try not to use your emotions as an excuse to binge eat.

Just know that the feeling will pass - with our without the help of a Hershey's bar.


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Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.

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