December 2, 2005

Study Discusses Personal Comfort Food Preferences

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A new study co-conducted by a Cornell professor found that people have differing definitions and uses of comfort foods.

Prof. Jordan LeBel, hotel administration, and his colleagues from McGill University, published their findings, entitled “Affect Asymmetry and Comfort Food Consumption,” in the journal Physiology and Behavior.

LeBel said that he has “always been very interested in food” and he “grew up around food and in kitchens.” He read much literature on comfort foods but said that “people have different personal definitions of comfort foods.”

The study looked at things that “previous research had not covered,” said LeBel. For example, said LeBel, “the study used open ended questions” and “examined comfort foods in terms of associations and emotions formed with those foods.”

The study was based on an internet survey of 277 subjects. The results showed that men and older adults associate positive attitudes with comfort foods while women and younger adults associate negative attitudes with comfort foods. The study also revealed that eating such foods often induced feelings of guilt in women. However, the differences between men and women were not tremendous. There was only a 5 percent difference between men and women and 60 percent of the time women do not consume high fat or high sugar foods as comfort foods.

Maddie Sterling ’08, said that she “agrees with the study, and she personally prefers carrots, apples or other crunchy foods over more stereotypical comfort foods when stressed.”

LeBel found that many people, especially young adults, do enjoy baby carrots as a comfort food because, said LeBel, “they have texture, they are playful, they can be manipulated and they are an interactive food.”

The difference in comfort food consumption can also be seen in the types of foods that are used as comfort foods. Calorie dense foods were utilized more often by women whereas protein dense foods were utilized more often by men.

The study found differences between the subjects in terms of gender, age and culture. However, the implications of the study are not about society and stereotypes but about finding greater satisfaction in food and eating comfort foods in a healthy style.

LeBel said that he “is looking for ways to put pleasure back onto the dinner table and to have people stop worrying and stressing and start enjoying.”

Reuven Shapiro, ’08, said that “the findings parallel what people see in the movies. We are accustomed to women eating a pint of ice cream or chocolate when they are depressed. We are also used to seeing men celebrate after a victory, like winning in a sports game. So these findings may be based on social expectations.”

LeBel will be conducting further work on the subject aimed at looking at people’s emotions associated with favorite comfort foods. The study will look at the context in which people eat their comfort foods and if factors such as utensils, location or dress influence the eating. The findings will be out by early spring.

The comfort foods study was recently featured on NBC’s Today show. LeBel said that he is “a big fan of looking at how people eat and Cornell is a great place for conducting studies.”

He recommends his recipe for chocolate cake, saying that “it’s a really high sugar, high fat, high chocolate kind of cake and with a little portion you are all set.”

Archived article by Dana Mendelowitz
Sun Staff Writer