“But it makes me feel better!” Sacrificing dietary health goals for emotional comfort


  • H. Scherschel
  • T. Mann


Background: When experiencing social isolation, individuals seek out and consume their comfort foods. Does the decision to consume a comfort food improve emotional health at the cost of maintaining dietary health? Methods: In a preliminary online survey, 101 participants rated 93 foods on a 7-point scale based on their belief that the food would provide emotional comfort. The top ten food choices (m=5.92) were high in fat (i.e., bacon), high in sugar (i.e., ice cream), or both (i.e., grilled cheese sandwich), providing evidence that individuals’ comfort food preferences are at odds with maintaining a healthy diet. In a lab-based study, participants (n=146) were socially excluded during an online game (i.e., Cyberball) and then received their comfort food (i.e., chocolate bar or potato chips) to consume or as a gift, either before or after the social exclusion task, or they received nothing. A two-way repeated measures ANCOVA was conducted on negative mood scores. Findings: Participants who consumed a comfort food after being socially rejected were less distressed compared to those who received nothing during the study t(223.52) = -3.4, p = .0004, d = .41, those who ate their comfort food before the distressing task t(223.52) = 4.83, p < .0001, d = .65, and those who received a gift after the task t(223.52) = -3.52, p = .0003, d = .47. Discussion: Therefore, consuming a comfort food improves emotional well-being but interferes with our ability to maintain a healthy diet, especially if this coping mechanism is frequently relied on.