Comfort Food Good For Mental Health?

This article — Comfort Food May be Good for Mental Health, Despite the Calories — came through my Facebook News Feed. Of course, I was intrigued, so I clicked through and read it.

Second sentence: “The study, carried out at the University of Buffalo, didn’t actually involve eating comfort food, but still showed that it has a positive effect on your mental outlook in times of loneliness.”

Huh?

It went on to explain that feelings of angst were artificially induced by recalling and writing about a fight with someone close to them.

“Half the participants then wrote about comfort food, while others wrote about something more emotionally neutral, before answering questions about levels of loneliness. Participants that wrote about comfort food were more likely to escape the loneliness.”

They admit in the article that it’s not a direct study but it still shows that comfort food can be good for your mental health.

Unfortunately for emotional eaters (and anyone else who thinks this justifies all of the ice cream, cookies, breads, etc. that you consume), there are some pretty significant holes.

  1. As they mentioned, there wasn’t actually food involved.
  2. Often, when people are eating because they feel bad, when they’re done, they feel worse. Food doesn’t fix the problem and it typically creates (or exacerbates) a new one.
  3. There was no group in the study that wrote about something else that was comforting. Would writing about good times with a close friend or relative have had the same pick-me-up power?
  4. Gaining weight does not lift most people’s mood. Yes, yes, comfort food in moderation. But who does that?
  5. If you’re going to “exercise off” what you’ve eaten, you’re likely to need to exercise for a really long time. Might as well skip the junk food and go straight to the exercise. It’s a natural mood enhancer and you won’t need to do it as long.

Be critical when you read, especially when there are a ton of disclaimers, or when the headline and what actually happened in the study don’t exactly match…

What is your go-to for healthy stress management? Have cookies ever really solved a problem for you?

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by nicholh on 14 June 2011 at 08:15

    Comfort food was part of what got me 120 extra pounds.

  2. Posted by Lisa on 14 June 2011 at 16:11

    “Yes, yes, comfort food in moderation. But who does that?”

    Hmm. I do. So do my parents – my mother has enjoyed a small bowl of ice cream pretty much every night for the last 20 or so years. They also eat pasta 1-2 nights a week (major major comfort food for we of the Italian persuasion, of course). Very few days go by that don’t involve me eating at least a cookie or two, but I almost never have more than that in one sitting.

    (Actually, the times that I over-eat aren’t comfort food times at all. They’re special occasion food. Sit me in an Indian restaurant in front of a plate of vegetable korma, rice, and naan and I will eat probably 2-3 times more than I should. I’m not trying to make it out like there aren’t times when I eat too much, but they’re not what I’d call comfort foods.)

    • Yes … but I would argue that if you’re not eating it for comfort, then it’s not comfort food. The food doesn’t change, of course, but the context does, and I think that makes a big difference.

      For example, I like ice cream. I used to eat ice cream whenever I was depressed, bored, lonely, etc. Ice cream was comfort food.

      I still eat ice cream, but not in response to negative emotions (and in moderation). Ice cream is not comfort food.

      Whaddaya think?

      (Edited to add: eating comfort foods certainly isn’t the only time over-indulging is possible!)

      • Posted by Lisa on 14 June 2011 at 19:54

        Ah, I see. Okay, that makes a difference to me. I suppose I was substituting “favorite foods” for “comfort foods.” Or “foods that feel like home.”

        In the end then, what I think it comes down to is that I don’t generally eat in response to negative emotions. On the contrary, when I’m feeling low, I often am a little queasy and am not too likely to reach for a spoon.

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