Health · Nutrition

Dr. Pat Consults: Emotional Eating—the Myth of Comfort Food

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Dear Dr. Pat:

Every year I resolve to lose weight, and every year I fail. At this point, I’d just settle for not gaining weight, as the pounds just creep up despite my efforts. It seems that each time it’s the same story: I start off with the best of intentions to stay away from all those unhealthy foods. Then a few weeks go by, work gets stressful or the kids are bouncing off the walls, and I reach for my comfort foods—basically anything sweet, but chocolate is definitely my “drug” of choice. Before I know it, every day feels stressful and I’m regularly rewarding myself with these favorites. It completely sabotages my dieting attempts. Any suggestions for sticking with my diet and not falling for those comfort foods?

Susan

 

Dr. Riddle Responds:

Dear Susan:

Comfort foods! We all have our favorites: Whether it’s a bowl of mashed potatoes or a plate of chocolate chip cookies, eating comfort foods is a habit that many of us fall back on, particularly when our days aren’t going as we’d hoped.  For many of us, there is the unspoken sense that comfort foods provide just what the name implies—comfort in stressful times. It can be so easy to reach for the box of cookies or carton of ice cream at the end of a hard day, looking for relief in the bottom of the bowl. We cling to the idea that the food will help alleviate our uncomfortable feelings.

However, emerging research suggests that we should rethink our beliefs about such emotional eating. A recent study took a closer look as to how people’s emotions are affected by food. In this study, after watching sad and distressing movies that caused people to be upset, the research subjects were given traditional comfort foods, well-liked foods that they did not consider “comfort foods” (like nuts), neutral foods (like a granola bar), or no food at all.  The researchers looked at how their mood changed each scenario. If comfort foods were really working as advertised, we would expect that eating chocolate or ice cream would lead to improvement in mood, while consuming a granola bar would not. Instead, the researchers found no difference between the groups: yes, mood improved for those who ate comfort food, but no more than for those who had granola, or even for those who ate nothing at all. Rather, simply with the passage of time, the negative emotions abated.  

While this study looked at mood over a relatively short time span, having the participants assess their mood within minutes of eating, another study examined how mood was affected by diet over the course of days. Here, they found that eating more calories, saturated fat, and sodium—key ingredients in most comfort foods—was associated with a worse mood two days later. While we cannot say that the food choices caused people to feel more negative in the coming days, it does raise interesting questions about the relationship between food and mood.

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