When it comes to comfort food, nothing quite seems to quell the blues like a spoon in one hand and a vat of chocolate ice cream in the other. Sweets and other high calorie foods are often where people turn when they're feeling stressed out. But now a new study out of the University of Chicago has discovered a healthier alternative which is just as effective: water.

According to the researchers, many animals experience pain relief when eating or drinking as a natural way of avoiding distraction while rehydrating or consuming scarce food. Unfortunately for modern humans, who have ready, easy access to high calorie food, that evolutionary response can instead lead to overeating and obesity.

Previous studies have proven that eating sweets like chocolate do help to reduce sensitivity to pain, but researchers wanted to see whether the same effect could be had without the high calories.

To experiment, they put rats in a pen with a heat lamp below the floor, which caused them pain in their paws when switched on. The rats were then fed either chocolate, sweetened water or regular water to see how their pain response was effected by what they were consuming.

Surprisingly, the study found that all three items showed the same pain-numbing effect on the rats. "This really shows it has nothing to do with calories. Water has no calories, saccharine has no sugar, but both have the same effect as a chocolate chip," said neurobiologist Peggy Mason. "It's really shocking."

Of course, this is good news for those who tend to rely on comfort food when they're feeling stressed out or depressed. But water is also a good replacement for the practice of using candy to calm children, especially in the case of that ambiguous lollipop at the dentist's office.

"Ingestion is a painkiller but we don't need the sugar," Mason said.

Indeed, a long, stressful day is no longer an excuse to pick up that spoon. It's better to battle the blues and the bloat by drowning your sorrows in a glass of water instead.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Water is as good a comfort food as chocolate, says study
Like water for chocolate? Researchers now say that water may be just as effective a comfort food as chocolate, but without the calories.