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Does Comfort Food Really Provide Comfort?

If “comfort” food didn’t really bring you comfort, would you be as likely to eat it or eat as much of it? We’ve come to believe that foods which are high in fat and sugar boost our mood by activating the brain’s reward system. But what if that’s not actually the case?

According to recent research cited in “Comfort food may fall short on the comfort” by Jan Hoffman (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 1/6/15, p. 26E), Kelly D. Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, concludes that “…the assignment of the word ‘comfort’ to [high-calorie foods] implies there is a relationship between ‘comfort’ and ‘food’ that may not exist.” The article describes comfort food as giving substantial pleasure and elevating a blue or blah mood. It says that women most often choose sweets and that men generally select “heartier, more savory items.”

The article highlights a Minnesota study funded by NASA to ascertain whether giving astronauts “comfort” food would boost their mood, thereby reducing stress on their missions. First, subjects took a food survey and identified their “comfort” foods. Then they watched mood-depressing movies and took a mood-questionnaire. Finally, one group was served large helpings of a comfort food, another a food they liked but didn’t consider a mood booster, and another a granola bar, rated as neutral, and another received no food. The results of a mood questionnaire three minutes later was that “While they all felt better, there was no appreciable difference among the groups who ate comfort food, other foods or no food at all.” Who woulda thunk it, huh?

How does this research apply to you? Do you automatically expect that eating “comfort” foods will make you feel better? If that’s what you choose to lift your mood, you must expect that it’s going to work. Do you ever stop and assess if you really are feeling better after eating comfort food, that is, do you test out your hypothesis or simply repeat the behavior because you think it will help? Maybe you’d feel better if you ate an apple or a dish of asparagus, or drank a glass of water, or—gasp—didn’t eat anything at all.

The truth is that moods often shift without us doing a darned thing to shift them. One minute we’re feeling okay, the next we’re down in the dumps, then suddenly we’re feeling better again. How often do you pay attention to that dynamic? I bet not often enough. Next time you’re aware of feeling blue, give yourself time to let your mood pass by itself, at least as much time as you’d spend buying, preparing and eating a “comfort” food. And do remind yourself that your “comfort” food may not be comforting you at all.

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