Comfort foods help women when they're blue, but increase male highs, food study finds

Jordan LeBel
Robert Barker/University Photography
Hotel School Associate Professor Jordan LeBel samples his half-baked chocolate cake with whipped cream. A study he co-authored showed that women seek comfort food as an antidote to negative feelings, while men consume it to enhance positive emotions.

Picture your grandmother's homemade applesauce – or a steaming cup of cocoa with marshmallows – or a double-dip super fudge chunk ice cream cone with rainbow sprinkles. Comfort foods all, but equally so to men and women?

A new study from a Cornell University professor and two colleagues shows that while women comfort themselves with such foods when they are feeling down in the dumps, men indulge as an enhancement when they are feeling their best. The findings may lead to a better understanding about food choices that lead to weight gain or, conversely, promote a healthy lifestyle.

Said study co-author, Jordan L. LeBel, associate professor at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration: "In the past comfort food was considered primarily as a strategy to alleviate stress, sadness and other negative emotions. Ensuring emotional well-being is still the goal, but pleasure and positive emotions can also determine food choice, especially in men."

A study by LeBel and his co-authors, Laurette Dubé, professor of consumer psychology, and Ji Lu, a Ph.D. candidate, both of McGill University, "Affect Asymmetry and Comfort Food Consumption," has just appeared in the journal Physiology & Behavior (Vol. 86, No. 4).

While the study confirms that comfort foods can be effective in alleviating negative emotions, the authors show that they can also enhance positive ones -- but not for everyone. Men and older adults were more likely to report higher positive emotions after eating their favorite comfort foods than women and younger adults. The study also showed that for women particularly, comfort foods can produce feelings of guilt.

Another finding: Foods high in sugar and fat content are more efficient in alleviating negative feelings, whereas foods with fewer calories are more efficient in increasing positive emotions. Men's comfort foods include protein-dense foods (e.g., steak), whereas women and younger participants prefer high-calorie sweet snack foods like chocolate and ice cream.

Finally, older people and people whose cultural background is French or Francophone seek out comfort food when they are feeling positive, whereas younger people and people with British Anglophone backgrounds get the munchies for food that comforts when they are feeling negative.

LeBel, who is French Canadian and an expert on one essential comfort food – chocolate – recommends his recipe for half-baked (molten) chocolate cake as a cure-all for negative emotions and an enhancer of positive ones.

The study's findings were drawn from the results of a Web-based survey completed by 277 participants.

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