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Comfort Foods Trigger Brain-gut Reaction To Lift Mood

August 3, 2011

People who turn to fatty comfort foods, such as a scoop of ice cream or a piece of chocolate cake, during times of emotional stress know firsthand how calming these foods can be.  However, new research shows that so-called “Ëœcomfort eating’ really does work at a molecular level to lift our mood, findings that could help explain why so many people spiral into obesity amid long-term stressful situations.

The scientists at the University of Leuven in Belgium concluded that comfort from the consumption of fatty foods does not come solely from the gratifying sensory experience of eating, but also through the gut-brain signaling mechanism.

The researchers used MRI scans of 12 study participants to examine the effects on emotions of injecting fatty acids into the stomach.

The researchers played sorrowful music and showed gloomy images to the participants before giving half of them fatty acids through a feeding tube, and giving the rest a saline solution.

Without knowing which substance they received, the study participants rated their mood on a scale of one to nine before and during their MRI scans.

The results revealed that those who were injected with fatty acids were only half as sad after viewing the glum images and listening to the gloomy music as those who were given the saline solution.

“Eating fat seems to make us less vulnerable to sad emotions, even if we don’t know we’re eating fat,” said lead researcher Lukas van Oudenhove during an interview with the medical research website HealthDay.

“We bypassed sensory stimulation by infusing fatty acids directly into the stomach, without the subjects knowing whether they were getting fat or saline,” he explained.

Although more research is needed, the study has implications for depression, obesity and eating disorders, van Oudenhove said.

The research was published August 1 in the Journal of Clinical Investigation.

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