No doubt about it, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream is my go-to staple when I’m feeling sad. Tonight Dough, Peanut Butter Half-Baked, Candy Bar Pie… well, you get the point. An informal survey of my friends, though, made me realize that we all reach for different comfort foods when emotional. So I took a quick look at the research to see what other people like, and why.
Comfort foods are defined as “foods whose consumption evokes a
psychologically comfortable and pleasurable state for a
person.” Interestingly, as shown in the included Table 1 from a published survey of over 1400 men and women, people list a variety of comfort foods: snack-related foods such as potato chips, ice cream, candy and cookies, and meal-related foods such as pasta, steak, casseroles, and soup. And while 60% of people in this dataset preferred snack-related foods, 40% listed a favorite comfort food that was more substantial and nutrient-dense. This suggests that comfort foods can actually comprise healthy meal-related options for many people, which was surprising to me. In addition, authors of this study also found that females and younger adults prefer more snack-related foods whereas men prefer more nutritious meal-related foods. For example, females rate the comfort food value of candy and chocolate much higher than men, whereas men prefer meals such as pizza and pasta when reaching for emotional indulgence.
Moreover, there are also gender differences in WHY we eat comfort foods. In another study looking at the triggers for comfort food consumption, researchers from McGill University and Cornell University found that “…men’s comfort food consumption was motivated by positive emotions whereas women’s consumption was triggered by negative affects. Consumption of comfort foods alleviated women’s negative emotions but also produced guilt… Foods high in sugar and fat content were more efficient in alleviating negative affects whereas low-calorie foods were more efficient in increasing positive emotions.”
So put another way, women reach for snack foods containing sugar and fat when they experience negative emotions. While this makes them feel better, it also makes them feel guilty. Men, by contrast, reach for nutrient-dense, meal-type foods when experiencing positive emotions. And, if these are healthy, low- calorie foods, they enhance happiness and well-being. So the take-home message is that women may be reinforcing negative emotions such as sadness, frustration and anxiety by their comfort food preferences, whereas men may actually be reinforcing positive emotions with a very different approach! Something to think about next time I open that freezer door…