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

The majority of study participants thought the stable person would have more time and energy to try new things and would opt for a new snacking sensation.

In a second study, Wood asked participants to rate the level of change in their own lives and then choose between the classic chips and unfamiliar British crisps. Generally, those experiencing more change told the researcher that they would prefer the newer snacks -- contradicting their own assumption that they would pick the familiar food.

Wood also tested students' choices of non-food items, such as deodorants and rental movies. The pattern between high stress and product choices held true here as well, with those students reporting significant change in their lives opting for more unfamiliar brands and titles, she said.

Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University, was intrigued by the findings, but cautioned that the results may not necessarily translate into the real world.

"I'm not sure that we can say that people will in fact respond in the same way when stressed as when they were surveyed under a projected stressful situation," Diekman said. "I think the important message is that we can't assume stress automatically leads to grabbing comfort foods, and often in large amounts."

More research is needed to explain why the comfort-food theory may be a fallacy. To Wood, however, the study upends notions that people tend to grasp for stability when their lives are undergoing transformation, such as the loss of a job, getting a new job, a relocation or the birth of a child. In fact, she said, these are the times in people's lives when they are open to change.

"It's a case of understanding our own opportunities," she said. "This can be a way to take negative change and then turn it into something more positive, such as joining a gym."

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