Rutgers Today: What is “comfort food,” for purposes of your research?Tomiyama: To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart’s famous remark about pornography, I know it when I see it. I think we all intuitively know what we crave when we’re stressed; but my next phase of research is designed to understand exactly what works to comfort us at a biological level. Is it sweet food? Maybe. But I don’t think any of us would be comforted by just a candy cane. Is it high fat, sweet food? That seems closer – I’m sure most of us would nominate donuts, ice cream, and brownies as their favorite comfort foods. But what about high fat, salty foods? Will mashed potatoes and gravy do the trick? These are fun questions to think about, but it’s also important to understand from a scientific perspective what works best to comfort us. Then we can use this knowledge to help people cope with stress. And if it turns out that relatively healthy foods work just as well as unhealthy foods, that would be wonderful information - to be able to increase health at the same time that we lower stress.
Rutgers Today: How are "comfort food" and stress related?Tomiyama: Stress makes us reach for comfort foods. That much we knew. We also knew that comfort foods tended to soothe us emotionally. But then researchers discovered that other species eat comfort food in response to stress. They discovered that rats found comfort foods – lard mixed with sugar instead of regular rat food – biologically soothing, meaning their stress systems weren’t as active. My latest study tried to see if we could find evidence of this biological dampening-down of the stress system in humans. We found a group of very highly stressed women who were caring for partners with dementia and looked at their stress system in many different ways. We found that these high-stress women reported more comfort eating than low-stress women, and that they in general had lower biological responses to stress including lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Rutgers Today: Finally, is eating "comfort food" in response to stress an entirely bad thing?
I don’t think it helps anyone to divide the world into “good” and “bad” things, and comfort eating is no exception. My research indicates that comfort food might actually serve to dampen down our biological stress system. I think this is good knowledge to have so that people won’t feel the need to beat themselves up about eating relatively rich or unhealthy foods to comfort themselves. At the same time, if you find yourself constantly stressed and therefore constantly eating comfort foods, it is probably worth it to try combating the sources of stress that kick off this process in the first place. But in the meantime, if you’re stressed and feel better after you’ve eaten a donut, take a moment to savor and appreciate what that snack has just accomplished.