Is Comfort Eating Actually Comforting?

Jul 9, 2014, 9:00 AM, Posted by A. Janet Tomiyama

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.

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.

The implications of this are enormous. If comfort eating functions in the same way in humans (the human literature is in its infancy, but my research and that of others offers preliminary evidence that comfort eating is associated with dampened HPA activity), then we need to substantially shift the way we think about stress eating.

Stress eating is currently treated like a villain, a negative health behavior that we should intervene to eradicate at all costs. The science of comfort eating, however, indicates that we may be engaging in this behavior for very good reasons, and that eating that brownie might mitigate the negative health effects of stress hormones—which may be even more harmful in the long-term than a few extra calories.

The upshot of all of this is that we might need to be more nuanced when designing interventions to combat negative health effects of stress. It appears we are evolutionarily wired to use food as a comfort strategy, so our current practice of telling people to stop stress eating might be an uphill battle. Perhaps we can exploit the power of comfort food to help ameliorate in-the-moment stress, and somehow do so without damaging long-term metabolic health. Science has yet to tell us what foods are most effective at comforting, so the door is potentially open for healthy foods to comfort us.

The ultimate goal in our pursuit of a Culture of Health should be sustainable health behavior change, and harnessing the power of comfort eating as a stress-reduction strategy could be a promising—and delicious—strategy.

Learn more about the new NPR/Robert Wood Johnson Foundation/Harvard School of Public Health poll.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Human Capital Blog. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors.