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Comfort Food Doesn't Give You Comfort


You just had yourself one hellish day. Your boss is on your neck about those misplaced TPS reports, at least five joggers passed your car on the gridlocked commute home, and the kids painted the dog blue. All you want to do is fall deep into the folds of your couch and bask in the soothing glory of your favorite comfort food.

The only problem is that science says that bowl of ice cream or sleeve of cookies isn't going to do anything to change your mood.

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The mellow-harshing study comes courtesy of researchers at the University of Minnesota. They began the study by having their participants complete a questionnaire asking them to choose from a list of twenty comfort foods. They also provided additional information if their comfort food was something extremely specific.

"We would try to provide, as specific as possible, their comfort food," said Britt Ahlstrom, one of the study's researchers. The most common comfort foods were the usuals, such as ice cream and cookies, but there were a few unique answers as well. "A surprising number of participants had chosen almonds, which we just didn't expect."

A week later, participants came into the lab to watch one of two 18-minute videos designed to elicit feelings of anxiety, fear, anger, and sadness. "We included clips from movies such as 'Precious,' 'The Hurt Locker,' 'Across the Universe,' 'Sophie's Choice,' 'The Ring,' and 'Armageddon,'" Ahlstrom said. In other words, these are scenes that tend to stick with you weeks after watching them. After that mood-destroyer, participants were given either their comfort food, their chosen "normal" non-comfort food, or nothing at all. The researchers then tested how the participant's mood changed a few minutes later. And?

"We found that the comfort food didn't help any more than the non-comfort food," Ahlstrom said. "This really surprised us."

So much, in fact, that the team replicated the same test using a more middle-of-the-road neutral food (granola bars, specifically) to see if the results would remain consistent. They did. In short: Food doesn't change your mood.

That said, researchers saw a weird effect to "comfort food." Eating it before you're in a bad mood might leave you feeling not-so-down later. "We found that participants who ate or received chocolate prior to watching the film were significantly less upset by the film immediately after watching it," said Ahlstrom. However, as the study puts it:

Any effect of eating or receiving chocolate before the film disappeared by the final mood measure, however, in which no between group differences were found.

Also, it's difficult to predict when you're going to be in a bad mood, so that result doesn't help a whole lot.

So, where does this all leave those of us who enjoy popping in a pint of Ben & Jerry's Chunky Monkey after a long work week? "It doesn't seem to alleviate negative mood, but as to what else it might do, it remains an open question," Ahlstrom said. "Maybe it isn't the most effective way to alleviate negative moods, but I still eat ice cream."

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