Comfort food doesn’t offer comfort during transitions

Contrary to the belief that people seek comfort food during times of stress and turmoil, new research suggests that instead of being tried and tested, individuals try new things during times of change like the current credit crunch.

Consumers may believe that they are more likely to rent their favorite movies, listen to familiar music, and engage in eating habits (eg, smoking, a daily latte) when they are otherwise surrounded by many new or changing environmental factors.

But new research overturns this commonly held intuition, or “lei theory,” showing that comfort food choices are the opposite of what we predict.

In a prediction study, participants predicted that a variable time person would choose a highly familiar version of a snack (American chips), while a stable person would choose an exotic unfamiliar version of the same snack (British crisps).

They explained their predictions by saying that the stable person would have more time and energy to try new things, and the person experiencing change would be more inclined to choose a familiar or “sure thing” option.

But, in a separate choice study, participants were asked to rate the degree of change and ups and downs in their own lives and then, in a subsequent task, were given the opportunity to choose either the familiar American chip or the unfamiliar British crisp.

Contrary to prediction, participants who experienced more change were less likely to choose the old familiar choice and more likely to choose the new and unfamiliar option.

Thus, this result is called the “comfort food fallacy” effect.

That’s not to say that comfort foods aren’t enjoyable, just that we don’t seem to find them when we think we should.

Contrary to our expectations, comfort foods seem to be chosen more often during comfort times.

The researchers replicated the choice study with non-food alternatives (such as downloading songs from new artists from favorite artists or watching a favorite movie versus a new and never-before-seen movie).

The results again showed the same comfort food fallacy effect—those who experienced more change were less likely to choose old choices.

The researchers explain that in times of change, we can find ourselves in a “change mindset,” automatically more attuned to new options in our environment.

This study suggests that a time of change (new job, new city, new situation) can be an ideal time to adopt desirable changes because we are then naturally more open to new options.

Times of change and turmoil can be surprisingly good times to break away from unhealthy comforts like smoking or junk food.

Acknowledging comfort food distractions can help us better manage the positive new changes we make in our lives.

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