The American election has the entire world reeling. Everyone is handling the news a different way. Some are protesting, some are drinking, some are meditating. Some are celebrating. Some are sweating out their feelings at the gym, others plan to eat their feelings instead.
It’s hard to deny the appeal of drowning emotions in carbs and dairy, but before you dive face-first into a vat of mac and cheese, there’s something you need to know about comfort food.
In times of physical and emotional stress, your brain yearns for comfort, safety, and happiness. You seek out foods you believe can rapidly improve your mood – often foods that are high in sugar, fat, or salt, which stimulate the dopamine/reward pathways in the brain. It’s a natural instinct to evade discomfort, and indeed, comfort foods do provide some temporary relief. But there’s a catch.
Research published in the journal Health Psychology found that eating comfort food does improve mood after a stressful event, but it doesn’t do a better job than eating any other kind of food. Consuming “neutral” food and eating no food were just as effective at alleviating negative emotions.
Participants in the study were asked to list the comfort foods they favoured (chocolate was the most popular), then watch an 18-minute video designed to make them anxious, afraid, and depressed. After the video, they were either given their preferred food, a neutral food (a granola bar), or no food. Their mood was then measured.
In all cases, the participants’ felt better afterwards. “Comfort foods led to significant improvements in mood, but no more than other foods or no food,” said the study authors. “Although people believe that comfort foods provide them with mood benefits, comfort foods do not provide comfort beyond that of other foods (or no food).”
So why does your brain think some foods are special, if science says they’re not? It’s a cognitive illusion, likely driven by dopamine and the difficulty your brain has making rational decisions under stress. Happiness is actually achieved by a much less exciting method: waiting. It’s time, not food, that heals wounds and boosts mood.
“You don’t need comfort food to feel better; the mind will do the trick all on its own if you give it time,” said the researchers.
“Removing an excuse for eating a high-calorie or high-fat food may help people develop and maintain healthier eating habits, and may lead them to focus on other, food-free methods of improving their mood,” they added.
Comfort food is a lie, but go ahead and eat that Kit Kat if that’s what you need right now. Then get educated on what science says can actually make you happier.