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Study Upends Comfort-Food Theory
Date:10/7/2009

Researcher says people more open to change during stressful periods

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 7 (HealthDay News) -- During times of stress, many people will reach for that favorite bag of chips, soft drink or snack cake for a dose of quick comfort -- or so conventional wisdom holds.

But, a new study from the University of South Carolina takes aim at that comfort-food theory and contends that people undergoing significant change in their lives often pick unfamiliar, even healthier foods and lifestyle options.

"I am personally a creature of habit. That's why I am so interested in how people adapt to change," said lead researcher Stacy Wood, Moore Research Fellow and associate professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina. "While comfort foods do have a soothing function and really do make us feel good, we don't turn to them as readily as we think we do."

Wood's research, titled "The Comfort Food Fallacy: Avoiding Old Favorites in Times of Change," was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Over the course of several studies involving several hundred students, Wood found that increasing levels of stress and change correlated with an individual's tendency to pick unfamiliar products. These instinctive choices occurred even when the students expressed agreement with the notion that people choose familiar comfort foods when they are undergoing daily stresses or life changes.

In one of Wood's five experiments, she created a fictional student and described the person as being in a stable life situation or in the midst of change, depending on the study group. She then asked the students in each group to predict whether the fictional person would prefer to snack on a popular American potato chip or an unfamiliar British potato crisp. Crisps are the same as chips; in the case of these crisps, they came in unusual flavors like Cheese & Pickle, Camembert & Plum, and Smoky Wiltshire.
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