Comfort Food: Guilty Pleasure?

Top Picks: Salt, Sugar, Fat

Comfort food preferences seem to vary by gender but salt, sugar and fat are consistently top picks.

In a survey of 1,005 consumers, Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois/Champaign, found that men and women both chose ice cream as their favorite. Women listed chocolate and cookies as their second and third choices, while men picked soup and pizza or pasta. "With the exception of ice cream, males generally claim they received more comfort from hot meals and from main meals than females," Wansink reported.

There are other gender differences. Diners who suppress their appetites and engage in emotional eating to relieve stress may each be especially vulnerable to poor eating habits: Researchers at the University College, London, found these behaviors are more common in women than men when they measured the eating attitudes and food preferences of 68 male and female study subjects.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: stressed or unstressed. The stressed group were given 10 minutes to prepare a four-minute speech they were told must be delivered after lunch. The unstressed group listened to a neutral presentation before the meal. At lunch, researchers found that emotional eaters in the stressed group ate more sweet, high-fat, energy-dense foods, such as cake and cookies, than unstressed and non-emotional eaters.

The bottom line, says Diekman, is that it's okay to splurge on sweets and fats, sort of. "Don't get hung up on eating a candy bar if most of the time it's not part of your daily routine. If you say you're going to treat yourself once or twice a week and make healthy choices the rest of the time, the little treats may make you eat more healthy."