What makes a bowl of ice cream after a bad day seem like such a great idea? Research reveals the answer has to do with both mood and food.
Comfort Food Craving
When you hear the term “comfort food,” you might visualize mashed potatoes, biscuits and gravy, or macaroni and cheese. Perhaps followed by a scoop of ice cream. But do indulgent foods really give us comfort? Or does such intemperance provide fleeting sensory pleasure followed by guilt over blowing our diet?
Research reveals that although some guilty pleasures will indeed make you feel good in the short term, your desire to reach for a piece of chocolate instead of a carrot might also depend on your mood.
Comfort Food Provides Comfort
People who turn to comfort food for solace are often seeking to satisfy emotional needs, not hunger. Jordan D. Troisi et al. (2015) conducted two studies to explore the circumstances leading to comfort food eating. They found in the first study that securely attached individuals preferred the taste of comfort food (potato chips for example), after experiencing a belongingness threat. In the second study, they found that securely attached individuals ate more comfort food in response to “naturally occurring feelings of isolation.”
Troisi et al. begin by acknowledging prior research explaining the phenomenon and preference for comfort food. They define comfort foods as foods people eat in response to specific circumstances, in order to feel pleasant or psychologically comfortable. They note that many people eat comfort food in an effort to escape negative emotion, even though the effectiveness of such attempted self-medication is questionable.
They note that comfort foods can produce feelings of relational connectedness, a result that is particularly pronounced in people who are secure in attachment (who have strong social ties). Comfort food eating is apparently related to context, experience, and “relational associations with the food.”
They acknowledge a wealth of prior research demonstrating what many people recognize instinctively, that people turn to foods that provide emotional comfort as a form of self-medication when they are under psychological stress.
More Than Mashed Potatoes
Although we think we have a pretty good idea based on experience, the question remains, at least for research purposes, what qualifies as comfort food? Are all people “comforted” by the same dishes?
Despite the stereotypes, Troisi et al. note that comfort food does not equate to junk food. Simply put, comfort food is food that produces a pleasant emotional state. Self-reported definitions of what constitutes comfort food emphasize the consumption experience and context, as well as the associations and relational ties to the particular food.
For some people, however, comfort food is not about menu selection, but mindset.
Mood Influences Choice of Food
In an article entitled “Better Moods for Better Eating?: How Mood Influences Food Choice” (2014), Meryl P. Gardner et al. explored the link between food and mood.
They began by citing research to document the reality that many people eat to deal with negative emotions such as frustration, fear, boredom, stress, or anxiety. They note that foods used to counteract such negative affective states are usually sweet, fatty, carbohydrate-rich, and indulgent, because such choices provide immediate satisfaction, and can even have psycho-physical benefits.
How do positive moods impact food choice compared to negative mood? Through four experiments, Gardner et al. found the answer was tied to the pursuit of long term versus short term benefits. They found that positive mood cues long term goals such as health, resulting in healthier food choices, while negative mood drives a desire for more immediate mood management, resulting in a preference for indulgent foods.
Healthy Food Provides Comfort Too
Some healthy foods actually provide “comfort” by decreasing stress and anxiety. According to an article by Jessica Shelton entitled “8 Foods that Help with Anxiety and Stress,” these feel-good foods include avocado, almonds, turkey (think: post-Thanksgiving dinner food coma), blueberries, asparagus, yogurt, kale, and salmon — which Shelton suggests you can substitute for steak.
Shelton, who cites a number of research studies in her article, suggests that food swaps may increase emotional well-being. These include substituting lean turkey for fried chicken, having blueberries instead of sugary sweets, and pairing yogurt with your cereal instead of milk.
Talking Is Carb Free
Clearly, there are healthier ways to respond to anxiety and stress than carbo-loading or chasing a sugar high. Many experts advise that one of the best ways to process negativity, fear, or situational anxiety is not through eating, but talking.
One potential solution then is to reach for the phone instead of the cookie jar. Talking through thoughts and feelings can reduce the desire to seek less beneficial forms of comfort, allowing you to maintain healthy thoughts, as well as a healthy lifestyle.
This post was originally published in Psychology Today.
Wendy L. Patrick is a career prosecutor, named the Ronald M. George Public Lawyer of the Year, and recognized by her peers as one of the Top Ten criminal attorneys in San Diego by the San Diego Daily Transcript. She has completed over 150 trials ranging from human trafficking, to domestic violence, to first-degree murder. She is President of the Association of Threat Assessment Professionals San Diego Chapter and an ATAP Certified Threat Manager. Dr. Patrick is a frequent media commentator with over 3,00 appearances including CNN, Fox News Channel, questsin, and many others. She is author of "Red Flags" (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller "Reading People" (Random House). On a personal note, Dr. Patrick holds a purple belt in Shorin-Ryu karate, is a concert violinist with the La Jolla Symphony, and plays the electric violin with a rock band. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.