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Is it a brownie you really want? Or just a hug?

Most of us think of comfort foods in terms of foods like gooey, chocolate brownies covered with ice cream.  In reality, few comfort foods are that dietetically grim.
People in sad moods are more likely to reach for sugary, gooey foods such as brownies or ice cream. The key is learning how to jolt yourself out of the dumps — without the extra helping of guilt.Kate Sears / They New York Times via Redux Pi
/ Source: contributor

Most of us think of comfort foods in terms of treats like gooey chocolate brownies covered with ice cream. Fortunately, not many comfort foods are that dietetically grim.

Many people struggle with emotional eating — when we reach for food because of the way we feel, not because we're hungry — from time to time. The key is knowing the difference between real hunger and emotional cravings, and learning how to control them.

Read too many supermarket magazines and you'd think that most people gorge on fatty, sugary comfort foods when they are depressed, bored or lonely.

In reality, if you asked people to tell you what their favorite comfort food is and why they indulge, you might be surprised.

When my research team at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab asked 1,004 Americans this question, we discovered 40 percent of the favorite comfort foods people mentioned were actually fairly healthy. Pasta, soups, meats and casseroles were some of the most popular ones. Eating these dishes helped people tap into a feeling of psychological reassurance and the positive memories linked to them.

For the people we surveyed, comfort food was associated with upbeat moods. They were more likely to seek out comfort foods when they were happy (86 percent) or when they wanted to reward themselves (74 percent) than when they were depressed (39 percent) or lonely (39 percent).

Why? These foods help maintain positive feelings or soothe us. When we're in a bad mood, dishes like macaroni and cheese give a quick bump of euphoria, similar to a hug from a loved one. Research has shown that fatty or sugary foods can trigger the release of “feel good” chemicals in the brain and cut the level of stress hormones.

Mood also determines what we crave. Happy folks in the study preferred somewhat healthier foods, such as pizza or steak. People in sad moods were much more likely to reach for sugary, fatty foods such as ice cream, cookies or a bag of potato chips because they were looking for a quick way to perk themselves up emotionally.

Every potato chip and candy bar we eat is basically mainlining fat, salt and sugar. The phrase “a minute on the lips, forever on the hips” rings on hollow ears when you are feeling down and out. What matters is jolting yourself out of the dumps.

Having your cake
However, the diet strategy of saying “I’ll never eat pizza or cake again in my life” is destined for failure. Comfort foods help make life enjoyable. The key is learning how to have your cake and eat it, too — without the extra helping of guilt.

One thing you can do is to indulge with a small amount. Another thing is to have a hot food you like. Hot foods are generally more healthy (except maybe french fries) and they can be satisfying enough to short-circuit the craving. Even pizza, if it’s made with a thin whole-wheat crust and you skip the meat and add a few veggies, .

The basic strategy is to not deprive yourself.

One reason many diets fail before they even really gain momentum is that they deprive us of the food and the lifestyle we enjoy. They also require us to forego our typical way of life and to focus it on calories and on resisting generations of evolution and billions of dollars of food marketing.

The best way to begin changing habits is to do so in a way that does not make you feel like you're sacrificing all pleasure. Keep the comfort foods, especially the healthier ones, but eat them in smaller amounts.

In this case, a little comfort can make you feel a whole lot better.

Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of "," is director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.