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Published October 23, 2009, 12:00 AM

Does eating comfort food reduce stress?

“I hadn’t heard of ‘hot dish’ until I moved here! We called it casserole,” one of the college students remarked.

By: Julie Garden-Robinson, INFORUM

“I hadn’t heard of ‘hot dish’ until I moved here! We called it casserole,” one of the college students remarked.

“I hadn’t heard of it, either. I really like hot dish, though,” the other student said.

“Yeah, I do, too. I could really go for some hot dish right now,” the first student said.

I couldn’t help but grin as I overhead this conversation about one of the menu staples of my childhood.

Some people label hot dish a “comfort food.” Hot dish is warm and often positively flavored with nostalgia.

Brian Wansink and associates at Cornell University have defined comfort foods as those foods “whose consumption evokes a psychologically comfortable and pleasurable state for a person.”

What’s your comfort food? Some people may seek comfort in the familiarity of their favorite childhood hot dish. Others may seek out cake, ice cream or potato chips when they’re stressed.

However, results of a study surprised researchers by predicting that people may not always gravitate toward familiar foods during times of stress.

A South Carolina University study conducted with hundreds of college students tested the theory of whether people choose familiar “comforting” products during times of change.

In one part of the study, the researchers assembled groups of eight to 15 students and provided a scenario about two fictional students. One of the fictional students was in the middle of major life changes and the other was in a stable situation.

Then the participating college students had to predict what type of snack the “stressed” fictional student would most likely pick given the choice of an unfamiliar, unusually flavored British “crisp” or a typical American chip.

Surprisingly, the students thought the student in the midst of a lot of change would choose the unusual food, not the familiar comfort food.

As the students in the study indicated, changes in your life can be seen as opportunities to try new things.

Changes of all kinds, good or bad, can leave us feeling stressed. We have many outlets for managing stress. However dealing with stress by stuffing ourselves with chips or cookies isn’t the best stress management technique, nor is it the best for your overall nutrition. Try some of these techniques instead:

  • Prepare as best you can for events you know may be stressful.

  • Go for a walk.

  • Munch on a crunchy apple or another nutritious snack.

  • Get sufficient rest.

  • Talk with a trusted friend, relative or a counselor.

  • Participate in something that you find enjoyable, whether that is listening to music, watching your favorite sport or doing your favorite craft.

  • Set realistic goals for yourself.

Since I have a deadline for this column, I’m feeling a little stressed. All this talk about comfort food, whether it’s really comforting or not, has made me hungry for a good hot dish to enjoy in moderation.


Layered Spaghetti Hot Dish

1 tbsp. butter

2 medium onions, chopped

1 medium green bell pepper, chopped

1 pound lean ground beef

1 28-ounce can of tomatoes, diced

1 4-ounce can mushroom stems and pieces, drained

2 tsp. Italian seasoning (or substitute half oregano and basil)

12 ounces penne pasta, cooked according to package directions

2 cups shredded cheddar cheese

1 10-ounce can reduced-sodium cream of mushroom soup, mixed with:

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta as directed on package; drain. In a large pan, melt the butter. Add onions and peppers and sauté until soft. Add ground beef and brown. Drain fat.

Add tomatoes, mushrooms and spice to the meat. Simmer uncovered for 10 minutes.

Place half the cooked pasta in a 13- by 9-inch baking pan. Top with half the meat mixture. Sprinkle with ¾ cup of cheese. Repeat layers. Spread the mushroom soup and water mixture over the top and sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

Bake uncovered for 35 minutes.

Makes 10 servings. Each serving has 370 calories, 17 grams (g) of fat, 34 g of carbohydrate and 420 milligrams of sodium.


Julie Garden-Robinson, Ph.D., L.R.D., is a North Dakota State University Extension Service food and nutrition specialist and associate professor in the Department of Health, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences.

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