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Comfort Eating May Be Hard-Wired

August 23, 2010

Frozen Cotton Candy

Journalist Richard Alleyne, Science Correspondent for the Telegraph, has been talking with some Israeli research scientists who believe they have found an “anxiety gene” in the course of research done at the Weizmann Institute. It appears that this gene is also responsible for the phenomenon known as comfort eating.

This gene controls a “stress switch” that not only causes stress, but makes us crave comfort food. The condition of stress leads to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and now, it seems, to obesity and diabetes. The workings of this gene have a profound effect on the entire metabolism.

Dr. Alon Chen, whose field is neuroendocrinology, is quoted as saying,

This mechanism, which appears to be a ‘smoking gun’ tying stress levels to metabolic disease, might, in the future, point the way toward the treatment or prevention of a number of stress-related diseases.

People deal with feelings in different ways. Stress eating is more active, and is more likely to involve crunching and chewing as a way to displace and disperse energy and work through feelings. It’s more expressive. Comfort eating is more repressive, for the type of person who prefers to stuff feelings down, smother them, and numb them.

Dr. Pretlow defines comfort food as any food that soothes unpleasant emotions, typically a pseudo-food that is sweet and creamy, and probably fatty. In some cases, a comfort food might even be bland, if its most important feature is the sentimental, emotionally reassuring connection to childhood. But, much more often, comfort food is pretty much synonymous with junk food, and it tastes really, really good — hedonically good, in fact. What Dr. Pretlow calls “comfort food science” is working overtime to create tastes so pleasurable that they are literally addicting.

The creation of comfort food is both an art and a science. Packaging it is both, too. Marketing comfort food is definitely a science and an art. The ads are full of enticing come-ons that promise happiness, fun, bliss, goodness, delight, smiles, joy, heaven, and of course, comfort.

That’s a heavy load for a doughnut to carry, and it takes a heap of marketing research to help it out. But, as Liz Snyder reminds us, in regard to what she colorfully calls “crap-in-a-wrapper,”

For 50 years, the food marketing industry has known (and exploited) what nutritionists either overlooked or ignored: that eating is all about how food makes you feel, not how food fuels your body.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation emphasizes the fact that comfort eating can be like an addiction: see “Slide 25,” a video clip in which a young boy talks touchingly about his problem. The Weigh2Rock website respondents also express the same sentiment in post after post.

Also, check out “Slide 83,” which confirms what many people feel, that ice cream is the most comforting food of all. And if they don’t already feel that way, advertisers stand by ready to convince them. That is a bit counterintuitive. Ice cream is, after all, cold, while the most comforting food of all — mothers’ milk — is warm. The old-fashioned British habit of meeting every crisis with “a nice cup of tea,” warm and sweet, is probably the closest adult equivalent of seeking the comfort of mothers’ milk.

Stacey Moore tells us that an astonishing 87% of Americans keep ice cream in their freezer, and apparently a large proportion of them likes to eat it while watching the forensic technicians of the TV show CSI do their grisly work. Also, women are twice as likely as men to be ice-cream comfort eaters. Other sources state that the average American eats 23 quarts of ice cream per year.

In a typical ice cream commercial, such as this one from Tillamook, children are of course the endorsers of the product. Various terminally cute children intone such phrases as, “I could eat it any time… Better than everything… It’s creamy, it’s thick…”

One boy, after declaring his preference for vanilla and chocolate, adds with modest precocity, “The classics, they just don’t die.” For the more sophisticated parents in the viewing audience, the implication is, “Feed your kid our brand of ice cream, and he will turn out as bright as this one.”

Nothing is legally wrong with any of this, of course. It’s all standard advertising practice. Kids are the main target of the pitch, and they tend to listen to their peers. Parents want their children to be high achievers, and the subliminal message to the grownups is an extra, “value-added” embellishment. It makes us nostalgic for the old days when the ads claimed, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” And reminds us of the unfortunate losers who literally do scream for their fixes — namely, hard-drug addicts.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Scientists find anxiety gene that also makes you comfort eat,” Telegraph, 05/06/10
Source: “Real Food, Real Kids, Real Love: 10 (surprising!) ways to raise a healthy eater,” Ieatreal.com
Source: “What’s Really Causing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic? What Kids Say,” Weigh2Rock
Source: “The Scoop On Americas Ice Cream Habits,” FoodEditorials
Source: “Tillamook Ice Cream Commercial,” YouTube
Image by LaurenV., used under its Creative Commons license.

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