Why Comfort Food Isn't so Comforting

by Keri Gans, R.D., author of The Small Change Diet

Comfort food makes a bad mood worse, according to a new study.Comfort food makes a bad mood worse, according to a new study.Having a bad day and reaching for "comfort" foods goes hand-in-hand for many women. Angry with your boyfriend, you grab a bag of chips. Your parents are annoying you, you reach for the pint of ice cream. Work stresses you out, you run to the vending machine and buy a candy bar. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. But eating to bust a bad mood may only deepen your funk, a recent study says.

Penn State researchers asked women who were concerned with their diet, weight, and self-image (but who did not have any history of eating disorders) to track their eating behaviors and feelings. They discovered that moods worsened when the participants ate poorly to alleviate their negative feelings.

From counseling woman for many years in my private practice, these findings were not at all shocking to me. So many times my patients say, "I know I shouldn't have, but I was in a bad mood." They have a pepperoni pizza or a cheeseburger with fries when they were trying all week to eat healthy, only to feel worse afterward.

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So what can one do? First come to the conclusion that comfort foods really are not comforting at all. Instead of eating, call a friend and talk about what is bothering you, or try journaling-maybe putting your thoughts on paper and getting them off your chest will help you feel better.

And find other ways to improve your mood: go to the gym, take a yoga class, go for a walk, or find some other physical activity that you enjoy. Let the endorphins from exercise work their magic and help to lift the dark clouds. Have healthy snack options (such as nuts, fruit, Greek yogurt, single-serving cheese, raw veggies, and hummus) on hand in the office so when you are feeling depressed or stressed, you reach for something smarter.

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You could also try to turn your usual comfort foods into healthier fare. For example, order your pizza with lots of veggies, no pepperoni, whole-wheat crust, and ricotta instead of mozzarella to save fat and calories. Have your burger, but lose the cheese and the bun to make room for your fries. Learn to make healthier versions of mac and cheese and mashed potatoes instead of completely avoiding them.

Making a choice to eat something healthier can be empowering, and that alone could help lift your mood. And if all else fails, buy something new: A lipstick or nail polish could do the trick. They are not expensive and, most of all, calorie free-a win-win.


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