Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Science Bit: Studies Reveal the Motivation Behind Eating Comfort Food

I was browsing on the internet when I discovered a study, by Professor Brian Wansink, which delves into the world of comfort foods and when we are most likely to eat them. Which got me thinking. What have studies shown us about comfort foods and why they are eaten? The results are very interesting.

Potato chips were the most popular comfort food
Brian Wansink surveyed over 1,000 Americans and found that potato chips came out on top as the most popular comfort food, while steak, pasta, salad and soup also rated highly.

Women were most likely to choose snacks for comfort
When men were asked to name their top comfort foods, they chose pizza and pasta, soup and ice cream. Brian Wansink interprets the fact that men chose more "meal-type" options because it makes them feel "spoiled and taken care of". Women, however, chose comfort foods readily and immediately available as snacks, including ice cream, chocolate and cookies. It's thought that women don't generally go for the meal-type foods because it reminds them of the work gone into making them.

Eating comfort foods when we are sad or depressed
Contrary to what many might think, 86% of respondents said that they eat comfort foods when they are in a happy mood. Only 36% admitted to comfort eating when they were depressed. This reinforces the idea that comfort foods are eaten as a reward. This article also cites an opposing study where secretaries were shown one of two movies - one had a happy theme and the other a depressing one. Those watching the depressing film ate 38% more buttery popcorn than the 'happy-film' group.

Food cravings linked to a 'desire' and not a 'need'
A French study by Lionel Lafay found that food cravings were linked to psychology rather than nutrition. He said "in our study, food craving was related to a 'desire' and not to a 'need' for a majority of subjects, which confirms the important role of psychological function".

We crave salty foods when we are hungry
The same French study also found that subjects craved salty foods when they were hungry and sweet foods when they weren't.

Eating 'junk food' comfort foods could reduce stress
An Australian study indicated that eating junk food could reduce stress levels - in rats. Researchers separated baby rats from their mothers, noted their stress levels and then fed one group of rats junk food. The rats that had been fed the comfort 'junk food' showed reduced stress levels than the other group.

Both men and women chose ice cream as a favourite comfort food (Photo credit: Lotus Head, Wikimedia Commons)

Comfort food choices stem from childhood
Ever wondered why you reach for a bowl of tinned tomato soup and plastic white, buttered bread when you're feeling ill? It might be down to your childhood. More research from Brian Wansink found that comfort food choices could be traced back to what was eaten in childhood, or associated with favourite meals of friends or family. 

What do you think? Why do you eat certain comfort foods over others? Do you eat them when you are happy or sad or do they remind you of what you ate as a child? Would love to read your comments!


  1. The one about choosing comfort food which reminds you of your childhood totally resonates with me.
    Fascinating post - you obviously put a bit of work into that.
    I wonder if the reduction in stress levels in baby rats theory has been tried with humans. It would tend to make some sense, wouldn't it?

  2. I totally agree with you about the childhood foods. My favourite comfort foods are more likely to be fishfingers, chips and beans - foods my Mum cooked for us - than anything fancy. And it is interesting about the rats - but with humans I would wonder if it was more a case of a 'reminder of a treat' than a chemical thing... don't think many rats go out for a treat to the burger bar! I got really into it all to be honest, really interesting. Crikey I'd better hang up my polka dot apron and get out a lab coat! lol!