The truth about comfort food

When you’re midway through a slice of pizza or a handful of potato chips, you may indeed feel a little less edgy. “Comfort food distracts us from our problems, tastes good and stimulates the brain’s reward system, so you get a hit of pleasure,” Albers explains. But as a true stress-relief tool, unhealthy treats are actually no more effective than fruit or vegetables or no food at all, says Traci Mann, a professor of psychology and food researcher at the University of Minnesota. “There’s nothing wrong with having a treat when you’re stressed. But we’ve found that if you’re eating comfort food to improve your mood, you’d be just as well off eating a bowl of broccoli,” she says.

Sound like a stretch? Know this: In 2018 researchers at UCLA conducted a study in which they monitored participants’ stress with sensors while they delivered a five-minute impromptu speech (subjects were told it would be evaluated by a committee) and then took a five-minute mental arithmetic test. After the ordeal, participants received one of the following: their favorite unhealthy comfort food, their favorite vegetables or fruits, or no food at all. Throughout the process the researchers assessed subjects’ moods with a standard questionnaire, and in the hour after the tests, they collected cortisol at three different times to see whether the groups differed in their ability to recover from stress. “Neither unhealthy comfort food or healthy food had any effect on stress recovery or mood, so if you feel like eating when you’re stressed, it makes sense to try having healthy food, like blueberries or avocado, first,” says A. Janet Tomiyama, study coauthor and director of the UCLA Dieting, Stress and Health Lab.

How to limit the impact of stress on your diet

Before you whip up some mac ‘n’ cheese at the end of a challenging day, ask yourself whether your craving is coming from your belly or your brain. “Rate your hunger on a scale of 0 to 10,” suggests Jenny Taitz, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and author of End Emotional Eating. If you’re on the lower end of the range, think of ways you could deal with anxiety more directly, like listening to uplifting or calming music, going for a brisk walk, calling a friend or snuggling with your dog, Taitz advises. Just delaying eating gives that feeling of urgent need time to pass.

It also helps to pay attention to your food choices throughout the day. “A healthy diet, with plenty of vegetables, fruits and protein, can keep your body and mind on an even keel, whereas sugar and caffeine cause more ups and downs in your mood and energy and exacerbate stress,” Albers says.

And here’s a comforting thought: As long as you’re not a compulsive stress eater, one way to make peace with occasional cravings is to accept that stress eating can be part of a normal, healthy diet, says Rebecca Scritchfield, a Washington, D.C.–based nutrition counselor and author of Body Kindness: Transform Your Health from the Inside Out and Never Say Diet Again. “If you don’t look at comfort food as ‘forbidden,’ you’re more likely to be able to enjoy the experience periodically and not overdo it.”