We have all done it – a packet of biscuits after a bad breakup, or an entire round of Brie and bottle of wine after a particularly shocking week - comfort eating. Often taught to us as children, after we were soothed with our favourite foods by parents, grandparents or carers, comfort eating can take on a complete life of its own, used frequently as an excuse to overdo the fat, sugar and calories whenever things are not quite going to plan in life.
Unfortunately for many of us, it now appears that the idea of foods bringing us any kind of comfort may be a complete myth. A study published in the journal Health Psychology recently put the concept of ‘comfort foods’ to the test. In 3 different experiments researchers asked study participants to identify their comfort foods before watching different movie clips specifically chosen to elicit negative emotions. After the movie had finished, participants were served their identified comfort food, a non-comfort food, a neutral food or no food. The study found that that while comfort foods did lead to an improvement in mood; this improvement was no more pronounced than the effect of the other types of food served. In real life terms this means that it appears that just eating something when feeling emotional will give as powerful a mood effect as your favourite chocolate, cake or ice-cream!
While this is just one study out of many that have investigated the link between food and mood, the finding serves as a good reminder of the power we often give to food which may not be warranted. Research investigating the link between tempting foods on neural pathways has previously shown that the simple paring of certain foods to emotions regularly, for example, always reaching for a glass of wine or packet of chips when you are under emotional stress, has a powerful programming effect on the brain. In this example, the brain quickly ‘learns’ to look for this same stimuli whenever a similar external stress presents. And now what we may need to consider that it may be this simple neurological pairing driving the perceived mood lifting effect of certain foods, rather than an actual benefit.
While experimental situations cannot mimic life stress in entirety, and there is a big difference between an emotional film clip and the complexity of life stress that can form individual’s reality, it is nevertheless a good reminder for any ‘emotional eater’ to really question their food and mood crutch. It now appears that you may not need to demolish an entire pack of Tim Tam’s to get the same hit as you would from a handful of nuts. And if the nuts just will not do it for you on a bad day, you may just need to reprogram your brain to be happy with an individual chocolate or ice cream rather than using the stress as an excuse to eat far more than you need.
Take control of comfort eating
Rather than reaching straight for the biscuits or ice-cream, take time to consider what emotions you are feeling, and whether you really need to eat large volumes of food you would not usually.
Try not to keep tempting high fat foods in the house.
Practice calling a friend, getting out of the house or doing some exercise when you feel vulnerable to emotional eating.
If you must indulge in a tempting food, keep portions controlled and try not to use your emotions as an excuse to binge eat.