March 3, 2008

Study: Gender Affects Comfort Food Choice

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Most individuals can think of at least one favorite comfort food. A study by Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab shows these choices may actually be determined not only by taste, but also by gender.
Researcher Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, explained in his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, the correlation between gender differences and comfort food preferences.
“When we gave people a long list of comfort foods and asked them to circle the ones they personally found comforting, men and women might as well have been from Mars and Venus,” Wansink wrote in the book.
Results showed most men prefer hot meals to snacks. According to the study, most women considered their favorite comfort foods to be ice cream, chocolate and cookies. The three foods most men considered to be their favorite comfort foods were ice cream, soup and pizza or pasta.
“Many [men] said that when they ate these foods they felt ‘spoiled,’ ‘pandered,’ ‘taken care of’ or ‘waited on.’ Generally they associated these foods with being the focus of attention from either their mother or wife,” the book stated.
Women, on the other hand, seem to have the opposite preference for a similar reason.
“Although [women] liked hot meal comfort foods just fine, these foods did not carry the associations of being ‘spoiled,’ ‘taken care of’ or ‘waited on.’ In fact, quite the opposite. When women thought of these foods they were reminded of the work they or their mothers had to do to produce them. These foods did not represent comfort, they represented preparation and clean up. For women, snack-like foods — candy, cookies, ice cream, chocolate — were hassle-free. Part of their comfort was to not have to make anything or clean anything up.”
Other than gender differences, the study also looked into when people eat comfort foods. Contrary to popular beliefs, people do not only eat comfort foods when they are in happy, elevated moods.
“Among the 1,004 North Americans we surveyed, we saw quite the opposite. They were more likely to seek out comfort foods when they were happy or when they wanted to celebrate or reward themselves than when they were depressed, bored, or lonely. People were almost twice as likely to reach for a comfort food when they were happy than when they were sad,” Wansink stated.
According to the study, one’s mood may also determine the nutritional value of the foods he or she will reach for.
“People in happy moods tended to prefer healthier foods such as pizza or steak. People in sad moods were much more likely to reach for less healthy foods, like ice cream, cookies or a bag of potato chips.”
Overall, it appears that comfort foods are “eaten to either help maintain a positive mood or to repair a negative mood,”Wansink stated.
The study acknowledged that comfort foods should be eaten in moderation.
“Like any food, there is always a happy medium. The problem with comfort foods is that we eat them to soothe ourselves,” explained Prof. David A. Levitsky, nutrition. “Food, although delicious to the palate should be consumed because we need it, not because we want it.”
Bonnie Taub-Dix, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, told USA Today, “We eat [comfort foods] not because they taste so fantastic, but because of what they represent.”
Wansink’s research supported this statement. In his book, he explained that one of the main reasons why foods are considered to be comfort foods is an association between food and a past occurrence.
“Past associations with foods are the most common reason a food becomes a comfort food. Some of these associations can be linked to specific individuals or specific events. They also come to be associated with specific feelings that one likes to recall or wants to recapture,” he stated. “In all instances, the general feelings evoked — feelings of safety, love, homecoming, appreciation, control, victory, or empowerment — are ones that pull us to these foods.”