The Surprising New Truth About Comfort Foods

Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
Fans of chocolate therapy might want to check this out before grabbing that trusty Hershey's: New research suggests that, although stress might trigger a desire for comforting foods, it doesn't make us enjoy them any more than usual.
In the small study, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Learning and Cognition, 36 participants were trained using a form of Pavlovian conditioning. First, the participants were told to use a handgrip to manipulate an image. Every once in a while, squeezing the handgrip also released a chocolate scent. So, participants learned to associate the presentation of a picture with squeezing the handgrip and, subsequently, a chocolate "reward."
Then, 18 of the participants were given a stress-inducing task: putting their hands in cold water for as long as possible. They were told that someone would film their facial expressions during this task. Finally, everyone went back to using the scent-emitting handgrips, and the researchers measured how often participants squeezed the handgrips before and after getting random puffs of the chocolate smell.
Results showed that participants who completed the stressful task squeezed their handgrips more often than those who hadn't been stressed out, which indicates they were more motivated to get the pleasant chocolate scent again. When surveyed, though, both groups said they enjoyed the rewarding smell the same amount. This suggests that feeling stressed increases our desire for pleasurable rewards but doesn't do anything to increase our enjoyment of them. In other words: Those of us who rely on mac 'n' cheese to get through a tough day may be putting our faith in the wrong place.
This isn't the first time we've heard this kind of news: A study published earlier this year showed that even if participants ate their preferred comfort foods, their moods improved over time — but not any faster or better than those who didn't eat the foods. At least we can rest assured there's no real reason to forgo that (dark) chocolate bar; it has potential health benefits, even if "comfort" isn't one of them.

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