Do you snack when you're stressed? Do you crave comfort foods when you're sad?
We've likely all eaten our feelings at some point.
But does this actually make us feel better? What does science have to say about it?
Research into stress and comfort eating is still in its early stages, but recent studies have shown that eating comfort food can lower your stress levels. At the same time, it's unclear whether it can improve your mood.
Eating before or after a stressful event might tamp down your stress levels, according to research by Janet Tomiyama, director of the UCLA Dieting, Stress and Health Laboratory.
She says there is a strong body of research showing that when rats are continually put in stressful situations and given access to comfort foods – which in their case could be Oreo cookies or Crisco mixed with sugar – that "the comfort eating over time actually dampens down their physical stress responses." The researchers could make that conclusion because the rats generated less of the hormone they produce in response to stress.
But Tomiyama and her colleagues were the first to test whether comfort eating is linked to lower stress levels in humans.
They recruited a group of mothers experiencing a wide range of stress, where some had chronically ill children and some had healthy kids. The ones who had high levels of stress had a tendency to stress eat. Mothers who had lower levels of stress reported less stress eating.
All of the women underwent a stress test in the lab. The researchers measured their levels of cortisol - a hormone that increases when we're stressed - before and after the tests. They found that after both groups underwent the stress test, the women in the higher-stress group produced lower levels of cortisol, meaning the tasks generated less stress for them.
Tomiyama says her research indicates that, like rats, humans who regularly eat during stressful situations experience lower levels of stress. That raised a quandary for her.
"Comfort eating could potentially be a double-edged sword," Tomiyama says. "You're getting all these benefits in terms of stress reduction, but are there drawbacks in that it might harm your metabolic health?"
There's a long-held assumption that comfort food is, by definition, unhealthy, she says. In her next experiment, she'll investigate whether eating healthy foods can also lower stress levels.
Participants will undergo a stress test, then they'll be randomly assigned to eat either an unhealthy food of their choice or a serving of fruits or vegetables of their choice. Afterwards Tomiyama will measure their stress levels.
So what does this research mean for the rest of us?
Since her research shows comfort eating appears to have some stress-reduction benefits, Tomiyama suggests trying to do it in a healthier way: "See how you feel if you eat strawberries after a stressful event," she says. "Maybe you might feel better."
She also suggests using stress eating strategically, as a technique for the most stressful moments.
"Really save that brownie or that ice cream for your worst day this month," she says. "Really strategically use comfort eating as a way to manage your emotions, rather than as a habit thing that you do everyday."
Meanwhile, another researcher has found that when people are in a bad mood, comfort food doesn't improve their mood any more than any other kind of food, or even no food at all.
"Comfort foods are the foods that we desire when we feel bad, but that doesn't mean ... they actually improve our mood when we feel bad," says Traci Mann, a professor in the University of Minnesota's psychology department and author of "Secrets from the Eating Lab: The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again."
Mann conducted a study in which participants watched 18 minutes of movie clips designed to make them feel sad, angry and anxious. Afterwards, the participants ate their favorite comfort foods. Her results indicate that comfort foods don't lead to mood improvement beyond what would have happened naturally.
Comfort food doesn't make people feel worse, she says. "It just doesn't do anything special. People are giving comfort food the credit for mood improvements that would have happened anyway."
Mann adds that whether comfort food is effective might depend on the cause of your sadness or bad mood.
She says one of her graduate students, Heather Scherschel, studied what happens when people are made to feel left out of a game. She found that in this situation, comfort food is more effective in improving a person's mood.
So while Scherschel's research found that "comfort food helps with bad moods when they're about relationships, when they're interpersonal," Mann says "it certainly wasn't helpful in our research in terms of people experiencing anxiety, sadness or anger."
So what's the takeaway here?
Tomiyama's research certainly suggests that comfort eating can reduce stress. Meanwhile, Mann says that, given the differing results from her study and Scherschel's work, more research is needed "to start untangling" which emotional states can be improved by comfort foods.
Mann has one final thought: As researchers delve deeper into whether comfort eating may improve our moods, she says it's important to remember that "people don't need a justification to enjoy their comfort foods. People should be allowed to enjoy the foods they like."
What do you eat when you're feeling stressed or sad? Tell us about it in the comments section below or e-mail us at Impatient@scpr.org.