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U of O professor on how to avoid being a junk food junkie when you’re stressed

Photos by Menrika Christian, and Remi Yuan

If you’re looking for stress relief, you should look outside the fridge.

A recent study published in the journal Health Psychology suggests that despite what many of us believe, comfort food does not actually help us recover from stress. In fact, results of this study suggest that eating our preferred pick-me-up food has as much impact on our mood as eating nothing.

The study was carried out by first surveying the participants to determine an appropriate comfort food to use in research—to no one’s surprise, chocolate was found to be the most popular. After being shown a stressful video to induce fearful or angry moods, the subjects were separated into three different groups: One group received their comfort food of choice, another was given a food deemed neutral by study participants, and the final group did not receive any food at all.

The verdict? Participants who were allowed to indulge showed no difference in mood elevation when compared with the other groups. But before you decide to discontinue any post-trauma visits to the famed campus hot dog guy, consider what University of Ottawa health sciences professor Tien Nguyen has to say about what’s really behind our relentless consumption cravings.

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While he doesn’t agree nor disagree with the study’s findings, Nguyen points out that the results are unsurprising given the endless options in what we can individually define as comfort food.

“When we talk about comfort food it is so subjective, because comfort food is different for everyone,” he says. “It does not surprise me at all that with all the extraneous variables you would have to account for, that the results came out the way they did.”

Psychologically credible or not, comfort foods, including those on campus, are likely here to stay. It’s a social norm that “transcends borders,” says Nguyen.

“It has to do with reflexes and how we condition ourselves, the environment we find ourselves in, so (like) peer pressure. It is very hard to make independent choices when everyone is eating a certain way.”

He says even with the knowledge that comfort foods may be ineffective, people will likely veer back to them.

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While these scenarios are not always avoidable, insatiable cravings don’t always have to end in a trip to McDonald’s. Students can take that craving and turn it into something positive.

Nguyen previously worked as a strength and conditioning coach, so he has seen firsthand how beneficial healthy food cravings can be. He’s a huge advocate for incorporating exercise into the daily grind, and says an optimal level of body performance is key to clean indulgence.

“When we talk about making healthy choices for comfort food, we would be remiss not to include physical activity as probably the greatest factor in whether or not something in practice will actually become a healthier food choice,” he explains. “People in fitness, when their bodies are at a high level of performance, naturally their bodies crave more fruits and vegetables and clean starches, not heavy fried foods, or foods that have a lot of fat or oil.”

Despite the hectic nature of being a university student, Nguyen suggests we all give ourselves, and our free gym pass, a good workout. It is simply a matter of learning how to react, and to use those cravings to establish a healthier lifestyle, he says.

“It comes down to eating regularly, listening to your body, and as a function of being physically fit, having a greater likelihood to choose more healthy comfort foods.”

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