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Are Comfort Foods a Myth?

We talk about “comfort foods” all the time. Most of us like ‘em creamy, full of fat, and sweet to beat the band. Although our choice of comfort foods vary, we all have some image in mind when we think of them. And we all base eating them for comfort on the assumption that they, and only they, are the foods which will make us feel better.

Not so, is the surprising conclusion of “The Myth of Comfort Food” (Wagner, Heather Scherschel; Ahlstrom, Britt; Redden, Joseph P.; Vickers, Zata; Mann, Traci, Health Psychology, 8/18/14, retrieved from APA PsycNET 9/5/14).This study looked at whether so-called comfort foods actually provided psychological benefits to people, in particular, enhancing their moods better than other foods or no foods at all. Study participants completed a questionnaire specifying their comfort foods and various comparison foods. Then, after viewing films that triggered negative affect, they were divided into four groups which received: 1) comfort food, 2) an equally acceptable non-comfort food, 3) a neutral food, or 4) no food at all. Their mood was then measured to assess the effects of these options on their mood.

This study had some unanticipated conclusions: “Comfort foods led to significant improvements in mood, but no more so than other foods or no food. Although people believe that comfort foods provide them with mood benefits, comfort foods do not provide comfort beyond that of other foods (or no food).” Wow, huh!

Now, I have no idea whether this was a small or large study, whether it was randomized or double-blind, etc. I’m not even saying that its conclusions are replicable and valid. But it is interesting to consider that there may be a self-fulfilling prophesy going on between emotional eaters and “comfort” foods. According to this study, it’s likely that they’ve convinced themselves that only certain foods will make them feel better when, actually, other foods might do as well or—drum roll, please—not eating anything might also lead to a better mood. The problem is that emotional eaters don’t give this final possibility a chance. They simply tell themselves they need this or that food and dive in.

Think about it, maybe a walk really could make you feel better, or playing with the dog or doing a Sudoku puzzle. Maybe, if you think you must eat something, an apple would suffice as well as that left-over piece of apple pie. Maybe time simply passing will do the trick. Maybe it’s about the brain’s pleasure center anticipating eating certain foods and releasing dopamine, not actually eating. Just food for thought.