November 18, 2005

Comfort Foods: Women Like Sugar, Men Meat

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Comfort food for women often means snuggling up with tub of mint chocolate ice cream to wallow in their blues. But for men, comfort foods serve as a reward when life is looking rosy.

Just what triggers people to turn to "comfort foods" - and which foods they pick - often depends on whether you're asking a man or a woman, according to a new study by Cornell University researchers.

It turns out women are slightly more likely to eat comfort foods high in fat and sugar like cakes and ice cream - along with a hefty serving of guilt, loneliness and depression.

Men, on the other hand, are more likely to turn to soups, pasta and steaks as a reward when they're feeling upbeat.

That's significant because those who associated comfort foods with positive emotions were more likely to pick healthier fare, according to the study recently published in the medical journal Physiology & Behavior. The study was conducted with researchers from McGill University in Canada and was drawn from a Web-based survey of 277 participants.

Researchers promoted the one-time online survey through mass media, primarily seeking out single people. Of the total respondents, 196 were female and 81 male.

"Comfort foods don't have to be high in fat and sugar. Comfort foods can be healthy," said Jordan LeBel, a Cornell professor and lead author on the study. "This shows we can re-educate people so that comfort foods aren't always about negative emotions."

Foods high in sugar and fat content are more efficient in alleviating negative feelings, according to the study. That finding is supported by numerous past studies, including one by researchers at the University of California in San Francisco that found rats tended to consume fat-packed foods when confronted with high-stress situations.

But the Cornell study also found that those who named comfort foods low in calories - like soups, fruits and vegetables - were more prone to associate them with positive emotions.

"Not everyone uses comfort foods to alleviate stress," LeBel said.

For example, women were 50 percent more likely than men to admit feeling guilty about indulging in comfort foods. At the same time, 40 percent of female respondents picked high-calorie sweet foods, while the same was true for 35 percent of men.

The steaks, pastas and pizza men gravitated toward aren't necessarily optimal choices, but in general are better than the sugary fat-traps women lean on, LeBel said.

Another section of the study examined which comfort foods people picked when they were restraining their caloric intake. Like women, those on the strictest diets tended to associate comfort foods with negative feelings. And they were also more prone to pick the most nutritionally deficient foods. That section of the study has not yet been published.

That might explain why women are more drawn to high-fat, high-sugar foods when in need, LeBel said - since they are more likely to be more preoccupied about weight gain. So when they're down in the dumps, the head straight for forbidden foods.

"The logical extension is that if you stop worrying, you'll naturally make healthier choices," LeBel said.

Among the other findings were that older people were also more likely to report higher positive emotions after eating their favorite comfort foods than women and younger adults.