Comfort Food: Guilty Pleasure?

Choosing Healthy Fats

In moderation, fats in foods boost energy when you're sluggish and help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins. There is growing evidence that one of the healthiest edibles is the vice you're supposed to avoid: fat.

Not just any variety will do. You want the healthy, omega-3 fats found in nuts, olive oil, avocados and cold-water fish like salmon and mackerel, rather than the saturated, trans-fatty acids found in beef, butter, chips, cookies and many other foods. When it comes to fat, it pays to read the labels.

Two recent studies, one from Penn State, the other from Harvard University, found that comfort foods alone won't tip the scale. To the contrary, researchers at Penn State reported that a diet rich in peanut butter, of all things, can both help shed pounds and prevent heart disease.

Why can't we resist comfort foods? Their lure has both chemical and emotional triggers. "Some foods work on serotonin levels in the brain to produce a calming effect," Diekman says. "Adjusting your blood sugar levels by not being hungry can relax you."

Bernadette Latson, a dietitian and assistant professor at the University of Texas, Southwest Medical Center, says women may be more susceptible to stress eating because of the peaks and valleys in estrogen during the menstrual cycle and brain chemicals that regulate hormone and insulin levels.

Premenstrual changes can push women to eat more chocolates, chips and other foods associated with serotonin and insulin because their blood sugar is falling.

"Stress ... triggers a drop in serotonin and leads to a craving for sweets and starches, which help you cope," says Latson. "Because they help improve your mood and trigger happy memories, it's a learned response to eat chocolate, cookies and cake when under stress simply because we associate them with a sense of security."