Are You Eating Comfort Food? Stop! Here's What Really Works

People often turn to comfort foods as mood enhancers or stress reducers. But new research shows that these foods have no special psychological benefits whatsoever. And even pushing away from the table might have the same positive mood effects as indulging in a favorite snack.

Participants in the University of Minnesota study completed an online survey to help identify their favorite comfort foods and a variety of comparison foods. Later, participants were shown videos designed to induced a negative psychological affect on them.

Afterward, participants were either served their comfort food, served another food, or given no food. Researchers then measured short-term mood changes to identify if comfort foods provided biochemical impact on mood based on their particular components, such as sugar and nutrients.

The researchers found that while the mood of the test subjects significantly improved after eating comfort foods, their moods improved similarly after they ate the other foods. Moreover, the people that were served no food also had comparable mood improvement.

“Negative moods naturally dissipate over time,” wrote Traci Mann, the research team’s lead psychologist. “Individuals may be giving comfort food credit for mood effects that would have occurred even in the absence of the comfort food.”

The researchers believe that a better understanding of what we eat ― and its psychological benefits — may lead to people developing healthier relationships with food.

The study involved 100 students who watched videos that evoked feelings of fear, anxiety, anger, or sadness. In the first session, they were given a generous portion of their self-described comfort food (chocolate, ice cream, and cookies were particular favorites). In another session, they were given other foods that they enjoyed that were not described as comfort foods, such as nuts or granola. In a third session, the participants simply sat for a few minutes, without eating, after watching the videos. After each session was completed, the subjects filled out the mood survey.

The moods of the participants improved over time regardless of the food that they ate, or whether they ate any food at all. This finding held true no matter how much food was consumed.

Among the test subjects, there was a widespread belief that their favorite comfort foods would help improve their mood. Eighty-one percent of them either agreed or strongly agreed to the concept that a comfort food would help improve their mood.

“We found no justification for people to choose comfort foods when they are distressed,” said the study. “Removing an excuse for eating a high-calorie or high-fat food may help people develop and maintain healthier eating habits, and may lead them to focus on other, food-free methods of improving their mood.”

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