ColumnComfort food might not have the effect you think it does.
It’s fall, which means it’s the season of comfort food. While in summer months you can happily get away with a tomato and cucumber salad, there’s something about the colder months that kicks your body into “I want something fatty and carby!” mode.
Seriously, you’re craving a dish of macaroni and cheese right now, aren’t you?
But does eating certain foods really make us feel better than others?
A study was recently published in Healthy Psychology titled “The Myth of Comfort Food.” Studying a group of students and assessing their mood levels after watching different sad, scary or anxiety producing films and looking at how different foods affected those mood levels, the researchers concluded that, “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).”
Which means that your plate of macaroni and cheese isn’t the reason you’re feeling better after you eat it.
“We found no justification for people to choose comfort foods when they are distressed,” the researchers conclude. “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,” concluded the researchers.
That’s an interesting conclusion given the amount of research that goes into looking at why we eat what we eat.
Is it that we crave comfort foods or is it that we’re addicted to certain things like sugar, salt and fat? There is an ongoing debate about whether we should be talking about “food addiction” or “eating addiction.”
“Sitting in the room with clients, you never hear people say, ‘Oh my god, I came home after a hard day and I was just craving broccoli and cauliflower so bad that I had a massive binge on these vegetables,'” Ashley Gearhardt, Ph.D. told the Huffington Post. “That’s part of the reason I think it’s important to recognize that not all food is problematic — it’s a certain class of foods that people seem to struggle with the most.”
But some people don’t agree. A new study holds that “eating addiction” might be better suited to describing our health problems than “food addiction.” As the researchers write, “similar to other behaviors eating can become an addiction in thus predisposed individuals under specific environmental circumstances.”
It’s important to point out that the fact that we’re even having this discussion is indicative of what kind of food culture we currently live in. Whether it’s a food addiction or an eating addiction, the fact that many of us in the Western world overeat is a new phenomena – Your great-great grandmother wasn’t debating on super-sizing her meal, now was she? She was just worried about putting enough food on the table to feed the entire family – and when we look at these studies it’s important to take all factors into account.
Look at our diets today and compare them to 100 years ago. There’s no denying that something has changed, and over the course of the last century we’ve ended up with a very unhealthy relationship to what we eat, both physically and mentally.
Food should be enjoyed. It should bring comfort, in the sense that sitting down to a good meal with friends and spending time talking, laughing and eating makes us feel good. It shouldn’t give us comfort because we come home from work stressed and gorge ourselves on chips in order to mask a more deep-rooted problem.
Any food can be comfort food, even that plate of broccoli. So let’s start rethinking why we’re eating certain foods and how they’re making us feel. We may just end up with a healthier relationship to food in general in the process.
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This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’ weekly column at EcoSalon: Foodie Underground, an exploration of what’s new and different in the underground movement, and how we make the topic of good food more accessible to everyone. More musings on the topic can be found at www.foodieunderground.com.