Health · Nutrition

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

Often, people argue that they are “self-medicating” with food, and that stress and anxiety drive them to eat. One study that looked at this connection studied whether those experiencing a negative mood had an increased urge to eat compared with those who were not upset. Surprisingly, no differences were seen between the groups. However, when participants experiencing negative emotions were exposed to food, such as containers of hot fast food or an unwrapped chocolate bar, they had a greater urge to eat than those exposed to food who were feeling neutral. We’ve likely all experienced this to some degree—driving home from work and not even thinking about food until we pass by our favorite doughnut shop or fast food restaurant and finding our car turning into the parking lot.

What can we take away from this research? First, comfort food may be far less comforting than the name implies. While negative emotions can feel very intense and may be alleviated with eating your favorite macaroni and cheese, those emotions would also likely improve with just the passage of time. When the urge to reach for the bag of cookies comes, work on distracting yourself. Give yourself 10 or 15 minutes and see if your feelings improve without indulging.  If you can, take a walk; it will likely brighten your mood, and it’s easier on the waistline.

Finally, do what you can to avoid exposure to those comfort foods, particularly at times of stress. To a certain degree, the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” holds true. Or, better yet, “out of house, out of mind.”  Avoid stashing large quantities of your comfort foods at home, and put what you do have away in the cupboard rather than out on a counter. By keeping those tempting foods a bit out of reach, you can set yourself up for success.

You don’t need to stay away from your comfort foods completely. Adopting a healthier lifestyle is best done by eating in moderation—including a moderate amount of your favorites! However, in times of stress, comfort foods may not provide the relief you are looking for.

Megan Riddle, M.D., Ph.D.



Hendy, H. M. (2012). Which comes first in food-mood relationships, foods or moods? Appetite, 58(2), 771-775.

Loxton, N. J., Dawe, S., & Cahill, A. (2011). Does negative mood drive the urge to eat? The contribution of negative mood, exposure to food cues and eating style. Appetite,, 56(2), 368-374.

Wagner, H. S., Ahlstrom, B., Redden, J. P., Vickers, Z., & Mann, T. (2014). The myth of comfort food. Health Psychol,  33(12), 1552-1557.


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