- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 1, 2007

Healthy grapes or buttery popcorn? The melancholy among us grab the popcorn, say behavioral researchers, eating twice as much of the goodies as happy-go-lucky peers. And surprise: Men are more sensible about their comfort food than women.

“It’s a real mood-food connection,” said Brian Wansink, a Cornell University marketing professor who joined forces with nutritionists at the Universities of Mississippi and Pittsburgh to plumb the mysteries of comfort food.

“When we’re sad, we want an immediate bump of euphoria to regain a good mood, and what better way to do that than hot, salty, buttered popcorn?” Mr. Wansink asked. “On the other hand, people who are relatively content just want to retain their good mood. Grapes may just do it for them.”

The researchers monitored 38 volunteers under such mood-altering influences as tear-jerker movies, humor stories, mindless tasks and soul-searching self-examination, pairing the activities with choices of popcorn or grapes. Careful measurements revealed that depressed participants scarfed down twice as much of the popcorn as happier ones, who spent considerable time “popping grapes,” Mr. Wansink said.

Meanwhile, a distinct divide exists between the sexes when it comes to comfort food.

“Guys crave meal-related stuff. A plate of pasta, steak and mashed potatoes, hot soup and good bread. We found that it makes him feel like the center of attention,” Mr. Wansink said.

Women tend to associate such fare with work, not attention.

“They want snack-related goodies — chips, chocolate, ice cream, cookies. Women associate anything meallike with preparation and cleaning up, and that’s not particularly elevating,” Mr. Wansink said.

The ladies, however, are more subject to winter blues, at least according to a Harris poll of 2,384 adults released Jan. 5 that said almost half the female respondents reported getting depressed in cold weather, compared to 39 percent of the men.

California-based dietitian Deralee Scanlon advises eating atypical “mood-boosting foods” — fish, protein-heavy dishes and leafy green vegetables to help winter depression.

Some blame Americans’ preoccupation with comfort foods on alarming times. In a survey conducted after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the District-based American Institute for Cancer Research found that 20 percent of respondents craved more comfort foods than usual, specifically citing mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese.

The chronic stress of modern life also releases damaging hormones in the body, which in turn prompt “pleasure-seeking behaviors,” according to research from the University of California at San Francisco.

“Our studies suggest that comfort food applies the brakes on a key element of chronic stress,” said lead author and physiologist Norman Pecoraro, noting that relentless traffic, job pressures and marital problems can all contribute.

“There has to be a brake on the system, and for some, it’s chocolate,” he said, adding that comfort food is a way to “self-medicate.”

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