It’s fun to joke about turning to a tub of Ben and Jerry’s when we’re sad or lonely, but new science says that food actually probably doesn’t have the comforting qualities we think it does.
The recent study from University of Minnesota found that your go-to comfort food probably doesn’t have the ability to improve your mood any better than other foods.
The research team led by psychologist Traci Mann set out to determine how food effects our emotions by first asking a group of 100 students to identify which foods they were most likely to turn to when upset or in a bad mood.
Later on, the students were subject to two separate lab sessions where they viewed videos designed to induce a “negative affect.” For the first session the participants were served their comfort food of choice afterwards and for the second they received an “equally liked noncomfort food,” a neutral food or no food.
Following both sessions the researchers measured the students’ short-term mood changes in order to determine the psychological effects of each food, and they found that compared to the other foods and eating nothing at all, the comfort foods didn't have a greater ability to improve the participants’ moods.
“Although people believe that comfort foods provide them with mood benefits, comfort foods do not provide comfort beyond that of other foods,” the study’s authors wrote.
What does this mean for health-conscious people who want to maintain healthy eating habits?
There’s no real justification for indulging in comfort foods just because you’re upset. Of course it’s OK to eat your favorite “less-nutritious” foods (guilty pleasures, if you will) every now and then, but making a habit of using them as a source of security or stress reduction is likely ineffective.
“We found no justification for people to choose comfort foods when they are distressed,” the researchers are quotes as concluding in Pacific Standard magazine. “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.”