Do you curl up with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s when you’re feeling sad? Well, you just might want to hold off on that ice cream the next time you’re feeling down in the dumps.
That’s because a new study suggests that so-called comfort foods like ice cream and candy don’t offer much comfort. In fact, you’ll wind up feeling better whether you indulge in your favorite sweet treat or not.
The myth of comfort foods got busted by psychologists at the University of Minnesota. Researchers asked a group of people to pick their favorite comfort food and a food they liked but didn’t feel would enhance their mood.
The participants were then shown a 20-minute video designed to make them feel sad, angry or scared. After watching the video, people were asked to rate their mood and were served their preferred comfort food. The experiment was repeated several times with a different snack—or none at all—each time.
Here’s where things get interesting. All of the participants were in a bad mood after watching the video, but their mood improved after three minutes regardless of whether they had their comfort food, another food or no food at all.
Although the researchers found the results surprising, experts have long noted the difference between foods that contain chemicals that can physically alter brain chemistry and foods that just might make us feel good. Psychological studies have turned up evidence that the comfort foods we crave are really artifacts of our past.
“It’s something that reminds us of happier times, memories from childhood of holidays with family and just good, comforting times,” says Gabrielle Marlow, registered dietitian and program manager of nutritional services in the weight management program at Christiana Care.
But eating comfort food in response to stress—especially chronic stress—is considered unhealthy. Why? Because comfort food is usually low in nutritional value and high in calories and fat.
“Comforting times are times of celebration when we don’t necessarily hold back,” says Marlow. “We don’t find that big plate of raw vegetables at the front of the buffet table.”
Marlow says a little bit of planning can help you avoid making unhealthy choices.
“Figure out what it is about that food that you crave and find a way to make something a little bit lighter,” she says.
If it’s something warm you want, try a healthy soup. If it’s something sweet, try fruit.
Portion control is also important. “If you want a cookie, find a bakery and buy one rather than bringing in a whole bag,” she says.
And remember: Whatever it is that’s upsetting you at the moment, it too shall pass—with or without the help of Ben & Jerry.