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The Science of Comfort Food

The Science of Comfort FoodAs we hit the height of holiday celebrations, comfort food plays an increasingly prominent role in some people’s lives. But there’s an actual science behind why we perceive certain foods to be more “comforting” than others.

Food psychology expert and Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think author Brian Wansink describes comfort foods as “high calorie foods people consume when stressed and that are believed to relieve negative moods and evoke a state of pleasure.”

Last week I had the opportunity to appear on the San Diego PBS show Mid-Day to discuss the science behind comfort food. I was interviewed alongside Jordan Troisi, a psychology professor from Sewanee. Dr. Troisi’s research on comfort food was recently published in the journal Appetite, and his most recent paper found that:

  • Comfort food provides us with “social utility”
  • Our social needs are important in driving non-social factors (such as eating)
  • We have a need to exhibit social connection and can do so by choosing foods with certain associations

Although most comfort foods are of the higher-calorie, higher-fat nature, there are a few tips for keeping comfort foods in check this upcoming holiday season:

  • Eat unhealthy comfort foods less often or in smaller portions
  • Balance intake of less-than-healthy comfort foods with increases in physical activity
  • Make healthier swaps to lighten up comfort foods that preserve the integrity of the dish

Some ideas for healthier comfort food swaps this season:

  • If you’re a mashed potato maven – try subbing cauliflower for half of the mashed potato to cut calories without compromising taste
  • Mac & cheese your comfort food of choice? – use whole wheat pasta and reduced fat cheese or lower fat dairy ingredients in your home-made dish
  • For chilis and stews that warm your heart – swap in extra lean ground meat, bulk up with the beans and serve over whole grain pasta or brown rice for a nutritious bump

For more information on healthy comfort foods, check out these great comfort food recipes from Cooking Light and the PBS interview on the science behind comfort foods available here.

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