Category Archives: Nutrition policy

Jul 9 2014

Is Comfort Eating Actually Comforting?

A. Janet Tomiyama, PhD, an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program (2009-2011), is assistant professor of psychology and director of the Dieting, Stress, and Health (DiSH) Lab at the University of California, Los Angeles. She was recently named the 2013 recipient of the Early Career Investigator Award from the Society of Behavioral Medicine. Her favorite comfort food: potato chips.


What’s your favorite comfort food? Ice cream, pizza, chocolate—everyone’s got a preference, whether they’re from Los Angeles, London, Sao Paolo, or Tokyo. Stress eating is as universal as eating itself; indeed, even Cervantes in his 1605 classic Don Quixote addressed the practice with the line, “All sorrows are less with bread.” Humans seem to reach for food as a way to soothe negative emotions, and that food is often high-fat, high-sugar, and high-calorie. That’s why comfort eating is often blamed as one reason stress is bad for health—because stress causes us to find comfort in a dozen cookies.

A. Janet Tomiyama

If you’re like me, you’ll be surprised but delighted to know it’s not just humans that engage in comfort eating! Eating high-fat, sugary foods in response to stress is a behavior that we see in non-human species like rodents and primates. Under chronic stress conditions, for example, rats will shift their food intake away from standard food pellets to the rodent version of “comfort food” (researchers often use Crisco mixed with sugar).

Even more amazing: it works. These comfort-eating rats showed dampened biological stress reactivity in a stress system called the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis. Sustained over-activity of the HPA axis is associated with poor health, and these studies suggest that comfort eating is playing an important role in managing an organism’s stress levels.

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Mar 16 2012

Helping Low-Income Shoppers Access Fresh, Healthy Foods at Farmers' Markets

Alison Buttenheim, PhD, MBA, an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health & Society Scholars program and assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing, is lead author of a study published online this week by the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. It finds Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants redeem their benefits at higher rates at farmers’ markets when there are more vendor-operated wireless point-of-sale terminals. Read the study and listen to the authors talk about the findings.


Human Capital Blog: Why is it important that SNAP (food stamp) participants are able to get food at farmers’ markets? Why should we want redemption rates to increase?

Alison Buttenheim: There’s been a lot of research into the quality of diets for SNAP participants and it’s pretty clear that there’s room for improvement. They often don’t have access to fresh, affordable fruits and vegetables and other healthy food options. We’ve seen considerable policy interest in how we might change the diets of this population. One approach has been to focus on individual behavior change, but more recently there’s also been a focus on changing the food environment to increase access to healthy food in underserved neighborhoods, in the hopes that this will encourage better diets.

HCB: Why are SNAP redemption rates lower at farmers’ markets?

Buttenheim: Food assistance used to be paper coupons that you literally tore off and handed over to vendors, which made it quite easy. Now SNAP is all electronic, and participants get a card—like a credit card—that they use to redeem their benefits. Brick-and-mortar stores that participate in the SNAP program get a free point-of-sale terminal to process these transactions, and fees associated with the transactions are subsidized. But farmers’ markets rely on third party providers to supply wireless terminals and process transactions, and these providers of course charge wireless service fees and transaction fees. It’s costly. In 2009, only 900 of the 5,200 farmers’ markets in the country participated in SNAP.

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