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Comfort Food, Calories, and Stress: The Science Might Surprise You
A pint of ice cream after a bad day feels right, doesn’t it? The prescription of sweet or high fat (or both!) foods as a balm in times of stress is firmly entrenched in the collective imagination.
Science, however, says nah.
This 2016 study asked women to eat a wide variety of both healthy and unhealthy “comfort” foods during times of reported stress. They monitored stress indicators such as cortisol levels, mood, and cognitive function after this stress-eating, and the results were clear: researchers found no difference in stress levels, no matter what people ate, or whether they ate at all.
Not only did the lab testing not find any measurable difference, people reported no difference in how they felt. They concluded that reaching for a healthy snack satisfies the urge to eat just as well as a cheesecake in terms of stress.
In addition, a recent study out of Australia showed that in mice, stress eating caused exponentially more weight gain than the same high-calorie foods in times of low stress. “When stressed over an extended period and high calorie food was available, mice became obese more quickly than those that consumed the same high fat food in a stress-free environment.” In other words, comfort foods not only don’t comfort you, they’re worse for your health when you feel bad.
With the cultural pressure to stay thin, you have to wonder whether being overweight could be stressful enough in of itself that it works against efforts to change.
While potentially bad news for the makers of cheesecake and ice cream, this is consistent with a growing body of research that says calories don’t work the way we’ve always thought. In fact, calorie science hasn’t changed much since its inception in the 19th century.
Much like the notion of comfort foods, we all know the “rule” about calories: you need to burn more than you consume. But it turns out the nailing down those terms is tricky. First of all, how do you define a calorie?
The traditional method is burning the food and measuring the amount of heat it produces. However, would anyone argue that 100 calories of lean beef is equivalent to 100 calories of Laffy Taffy? When we stop to consider it, we know it can’t be true.
And science agrees. We are learning that everything from the species of plant or animal, to the way of preparing it, to unique gut bacteria makes a difference in how a person absorbs and uses the calories in a meal. Boiling, sautéing, and baking the same food might result in a different caloric intake.
And there are other curve balls. For example, cooling starchy carbohydrates like rice and pasta and then reheating them cut the number of calories we absorb from those foods. Why? Because cooling and reheating alters the molecular structure in a way that inhibits digestion.
And none of this addresses the fact that there seem to be genetic differences between people who stay slim naturally and many who have to work harder—or find it impossible—to maintain a lower BMI.
With all of these variables, the simple calorie equation is on its way out. In its place, we can prioritize proper nourishment from healthful food sources and self care practices to lower stress. Those will make us feel better than an entire gallon of cookie-dough ice cream.