A self-described “huge foodie,” Janet Tomiyama, a Rutgers psychologist, is interested in why we diet, the social stigma attached to weight, and what happens to us psychologically when we diet.
Recently, while a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California-San Francisco (as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health and Society Scholar), Tomiyama and colleagues Elissa Epel and Mary Dallman discovered that comfort food, while it may add to the waistline and contribute to some health problems, really does lower the physiological and psychological effect of stress. Comfort food, it turns out, is called that for a reason.
With the holiday season approaching, and great piles of stress and good food getting ready to collide, Rutgers Today asked Tomiyama about the relationship between comfort food, stress and health.
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.