A new study confirms what we already know: comfort food makes us feel better. The part of the study that is new is the proof that comfort foods change us on a biological level. This study was recently discussed in a CNN article (see here for article by Anne Harding and my original comments on the study). Basically, it's not just the pleasant sensations we get from licking a cold ice cream cone or the memory of being a kid eating mac and cheese that make us feel good. There are actual biological changes happening inside that lift your mood.
To summarize this study, researchers took away the sensory cues attached to comfort eating. In other words, the subjects skipped the fun part. They didn't actually eat comfort foods. A saturated fat solution, which comfort food is made up of, was injected directly into them. It's like bypassing your stomach and placing comfort food directly into your stomach. This takes out the variable of positive feelings attached to certain foods like mom's cinnamon rolls and removes the sensory pleasure you get from taste. Then, they made the subjects sad.
Van Oudenhove and his colleagues, the researchers in this study, reported in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, that the control group (just given saline) was more depressed by the sad movies and depressing music than the group given fat. And, functional MRI scans showed that the control group had more activity in the part of the brain that experiences negative emotion.
Why does this study matter? Perhaps it suggests that at the moment your brain is locked into this equation: Feel Bad + Comfort Food=Feel Better. If you continually pair feeling bad with food over and over again, it is likely that you will strengthen this connection in your brain. Also, eating for comfort on a very stressful day begins generalizing to sort of stressful days to any minor bits of stress etc.
In small ways, comfort eating isn't such a terrible thing. But, the more you turn to food for comfort over and over again; it becomes a habit and often an ingrained one. It is likely that what underlies a lot of weight issue and mindless eating is actually difficulty finding healthy ways to comfort yourself versus lack of nutrition knowledge or portion control. So, in addition to eating healthier foods, finding ways to calm and soothe yourself may be what you really need to begin to eat mindfully.
This study brought us one step closer to understanding why we eat to cope with stress. But, we still have a lot to learn about the complex inner workings of comfort eating. The exact internal biological reaction that kicks off the good feelings is still a bit of a mystery. Also, consider what comes next. How long does it take for this positive feeling to fade? Right behind the feel-good-comfort-food-feeling is sometimes a mixture of regret and guilt. How does that happen?
In my book, 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, I give many examples of how you can turn comfort eating around. Taking active steps to replace comfort foods with healthier options will benefit your overall health and waistline in the long run. The good news, if you are skeptical, is that there are many, many things that can make you feel better on a stressful day besides mashed potatoes and chocolate.
Susan Albers, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic specializing in eating issues, weight loss, body image concerns, and mindfulness. She is the author of But I Deserve This Chocolate!: The Fifty Most Common Diet-Derailing Excuses and How to Outwit Them, 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food, Eating Mindfully, Eat, Drink, and Be Mindful, and Mindful Eating 101 and is a Huffington Post and Psychology Today blogger. Her books have been quoted in the Wall Street Journal, O, the Oprah Magazine, Natural Health, Self Magazine and on the Dr. Oz TV show. Visit Albers online at http://www.eatingmindfully.com.