WEDNESDAY, Oct. 7, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- During times of stress, many people will reach for that favorite bag of chips, soft drink or snack cake for a dose of quick comfort -- or so conventional wisdom holds.
But, a new study from the University of South Carolina takes aim at that comfort-food theory and contends that people undergoing significant change in their lives often pick unfamiliar, even healthier foods and lifestyle options.
"I am personally a creature of habit. That's why I am so interested in how people adapt to change," said lead researcher Stacy Wood, Moore Research Fellow and associate professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina. "While comfort foods do have a soothing function and really do make us feel good, we don't turn to them as readily as we think we do."
Wood's research, titled "The Comfort Food Fallacy: Avoiding Old Favorites in Times of Change," was published in the Journal of Consumer Research.
Over the course of several studies involving several hundred students, Wood found that increasing levels of stress and change correlated with an individual's tendency to pick unfamiliar products. These instinctive choices occurred even when the students expressed agreement with the notion that people choose familiar comfort foods when they are undergoing daily stresses or life changes.
In one of Wood's five experiments, she created a fictional student and described the person as being in a stable life situation or in the midst of change, depending on the study group. She then asked the students in each group to predict whether the fictional person would prefer to snack on a popular American potato chip or an unfamiliar British potato crisp. Crisps are the same as chips; in the case of these crisps, they came in unusual flavors like Cheese & Pickle, Camembert & Plum, and Smoky Wiltshire.
The majority of study participants thought the stable person would have more time and energy to try new things and would opt for a new snacking sensation.
In a second study, Wood asked participants to rate the level of change in their own lives and then choose between the classic chips and unfamiliar British crisps. Generally, those experiencing more change told the researcher that they would prefer the newer snacks -- contradicting their own assumption that they would pick the familiar food.
Wood also tested students' choices of non-food items, such as deodorants and rental movies. The pattern between high stress and product choices held true here as well, with those students reporting significant change in their lives opting for more unfamiliar brands and titles, she said.
Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University, was intrigued by the findings, but cautioned that the results may not necessarily translate into the real world.
"I'm not sure that we can say that people will in fact respond in the same way when stressed as when they were surveyed under a projected stressful situation," Diekman said. "I think the important message is that we can't assume stress automatically leads to grabbing comfort foods, and often in large amounts."
More research is needed to explain why the comfort-food theory may be a fallacy. To Wood, however, the study upends notions that people tend to grasp for stability when their lives are undergoing transformation, such as the loss of a job, getting a new job, a relocation or the birth of a child. In fact, she said, these are the times in people's lives when they are open to change.
"It's a case of understanding our own opportunities," she said. "This can be a way to take negative change and then turn it into something more positive, such as joining a gym."
The American Academy of Family Physicians has more on dealing with stress.