Saturday, April 24, 2010

Comfort Food

My weapon of choice.

A friend of mine mentioned that he'd had the kind of morning "that makes you want to eat a whole box of donuts." Not being into sweets, I asked, "Dude. Why the high carb load?". A discussion ensued about the definition of "comfort food" and its effects on the body and mood. Do all comfort foods necessarily contain carbohydrates, as he maintained, or do people choose their "comfort food" due to pleasant associations with comforting, delicious dishes from their pasts, as I contended?

His argument was that when people refer to "comfort food", they have snacks and meals high in "feel good" carbohydrates in mind. Indisputable tastiness aside, there may be another good, objective reason for reaching for that donut (or box of donuts, if you're having a day). It turns out that eating carbohydrates raises serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter which "facilitates sleep, diminishes pain, and reduces appetite " (more on this later!) as well as "elevates mood" according to research from MIT back in the 1970s.

Dr. Richard Wurtman and Dr. John Fernstrom discovered that a person must consume sweet or starchy carbohydrates with minimal or no protein for the brain to make serotonin. You hear that, loves? You now have proof from Science that you can engineer your good mood with chocolate chip cookies. Also, point one to friend.

*warning* excess consumption may cause obesity, but who cares? you'll be happy.

*I* happen to love a different kind of comfort food. Give me a good, hot medium -rare ribeye, or a plate of perfectly roasted chicken and baked potatoes, and I'm golden. My friend claimed those dishes were not your classic "comfort food" choices, to which I respond now with my secret weapon, Dr. Brian Wansink.

Dr. Wansink, a professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University, defines "comfort food" as "a specific food consumed under a specific situation...a food a person eats to obtain a degree of psychological comfort."  The definition of "comfort food" does not require a certain kind of food, but it does require that the food fulfill an emotional need. Point one for me.

His studies show that choosing a "comfort food" is more complex than just reaching for something "high carb". For example, there are definite differences in choice along gender lines. Men and women seem to crave different foods; these differences are potentially based on personality traits and cultural attitudes.  Men will typically choose hot, prepared meals; a steak, pizza, or pasta, possibly because they're thought of as "manly fare". Women indulge in ready-to-eat snack foods such as chocolate, possibly because they're sick of cooking said "manly fare".

In the interest of full disclosure, his work did state that the number one comfort food reached for by both men and women was ice cream. Is it the high carb content (around 16-20 g per 1/2 cup)? Is it the care-free childhood memories associated with licking strawberry ice cream off your sugar cone in summer? It's the perfect nostalgic package, and it proves both my and my friend's points.

Happily, consumption of carbohydrate-rich food is actually necessary to remain slim, because its effect on appetite is to make one feel full before one's stomach is actually full. So, eating carbs helps you not overeat, and it keeps your mood levels in the socially acceptable zones.  Bingeing on the carbs isn't so hot, but doctors and scientists like the two fabulous Dr. Ws will keep up the good research and keep us consumers out of trouble.

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