Volume 14, Number 3
Of the three macronutrients (i.e., carbohydrates, protein, and fat), fat has the most concentrated source of calories. Fat contains approximately 9 calories per gram while the other macronutrients contain 4 calories per gram. Fat is a necessary component of the human diet, and some types of fat are considered healthier than others. Foods that human beings find most palatable tend to be high in fat and therefore high in calories. This predilection for energy dense foods was adaptive earlier in human history when food sources were scarce. Consuming lots of calories, when available, was necessary for survival.
High calorie food is readily available to most persons in the United States, but the desire for energy dense foods is not lessened by its availability. Eating foods with high fat content tends to be pleasurable and satisfying.
High fat foods that persons find “comforting” may be consumed excessively and can pose a challenge for weight management and overall health. The notion of “comfort foods” reflects the interplay between food and emotion. Many people report eating comfort foods to soothe negative emotions and/or cope with stress. While there is variability in what specific foods people find especially satisfying, most comfort foods tend to be energy dense, commonly containing fat and/or sugar. Frequently cited comfort foods include chocolate, ice cream, and pizza.
Consumption of sweet and other high calorie foods have been found to increase the body’s own natural release of opioids and serotonin, both of which can elevate mood. Several years ago, investigators in Belgium conducted an interesting study to examine the impact of fat on mood, apart from the eating process. Participants in whom a negative mood state was induced (sad music combined with viewing sad faces) had either a saline or fatty acid solution infused directly into their stomachs. Those receiving the fatty acid solution reported less sadness than did those receiving the saline solution. Furthermore, compared to the “saline” participants, functional MRI (fMRI) images of the brains of the “fatty acid” participants showed decreased responses in portions of the brain that are indicative of the experience of sadness. The conclusion of the study was that fat can affect mood, independent of the pleasurable experience of eating.
A previous edition (January 2015) of e-quilibrium addressed the topic of comfort foods, summarizing research suggestive that the “comforting” experience of certain foods may largely be a product of illusory correlation. Because certain foods are associated with positive experiences, they subsequently are perceived to be comforting. There have been studies indicating that mood can indeed improve with energy dense foods, but can also improve with more neutral foods.
The association of comfort foods with positive social interactions in the past has been studied. To the extent that preferences for specific comfort foods develop early in life, during childhood those foods were likely provided by a parent or other loving/supportive adult. Therefore, adults may crave comfort foods when experiencing loneliness, and eating one’s preferred comfort food may be associated with a sense of belongingness. One study found that simply writing about comfort food (without eating anything) eased feelings of loneliness, although the results of a subsequent study were less clear.
When stressed or otherwise experiencing negative mood states, a myriad of complex factors affect eating in general and cravings for comfort foods in particular. The anticipation of feeling better is certainly one strong driver of eating comfort foods, and for a variety of reasons, persons do feel better in the short term. However, there can be longer term consequences when the result of too much consumption of comfort food is weight gain and/or poor health.
The satisfying nature of fat consumption appears to be both hard-wired and a product of previous life experiences. Because human beings are creatures of habit, developing other behavioral habits when stressed is an important component of long-term weight management and health. The notion that comfort foods may increase a sense of belongingness suggests that alternative coping strategies that increase the perception of social connectedness are worth pursuing. Direct emotional social support, that is, being with and/or talking with trusted friends or family members, is known to be beneficial in times of stress. The goal is to experience comfort, without overconsuming fatty food.
Paul J. Hershberger, Ph.D.
… is a clinical health psychologist. He is Professor and Director of the Division of Behavioral Health, Department of Family Medicine, Wright State University Boonshoft School of Medicine.
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