science of us

I’ve Been Comforted by a Strawberry

Photo: Rosemary Calvert/Getty Images

Apparently 40 percent of people stress-eat, 40 percent of people stressfully lose their appetites, and 20 percent of people do neither, according to this funny conversation between Vox’s Rachel Sugar and associate professor of psychology and director of UCLA’s Dieting, Stress, and Health Lab A. Janet Tomiyama.

As much as we malign it, stress-eating, or comfort-eating, does apparently do what it’s supposed to: when we stress-eat, we are genuinely comforted. Studies show that stress-eating “seems to be effective,” Tomiyama says. “Not just psychologically, but also biologically — people who do a lot of comfort eating tend to show a reduced level of stress hormones and stress.” (Furthermore: “You’re not doing the comfort eating because you’re some sort of weak-willed human being; you’re biologically driven to do this.”)

While they acknowledge that sugar and fat are the food substances most commonly known to ping the brain’s comfort and reward center, they also discuss the sort of heartbreaking ways we might reconfigure our own brains to be comforted by healthier foods, like strawberries. Here’s Tomiyama:

So in a study that we’re running right now, we’re trying to do a mind hack to get people to be really calmed and soothed by strawberries, or whatever fruit. We’re literally doing Pavlovian classical conditioning: We’re having people do a relaxation exercise and eat fruit at the same time, and we have them do that over and over and over and over again, with the hope that eventually, just the strawberry alone will automatically elicit this relaxation response.

In college I gained weight once by stress-eating fruit. I’d line up a melon, a mango, and a grapefruit, and then eat them all, one after the other, until it felt painful, and then I’d go to sleep, feeling virtuous. Why are we all so insane? We may never know.

I’ve Been Comforted by a Strawberry