The New Comfort Food
’Tis the season to turn to food! Cold, dreary weather often has us reaching to food for comfort. Whether we are happy, sad or bored, somehow food seems to be the answer. Lasagna, apple pie and big bowls of chili can feel like a warm hug on a winter day. Opening a bag of chips and crunching away is our remedy for a stressful day at work. A piece of cake, or maybe an entire cake, holds the happiness we desperately need when feeling sad. Why is that? Why does food, something that is meant to sustain our physical bodies, have so much connection to our emotions and mood?
Many of these preferences start in childhood. For instance, your love of ice cream may be linked to fond memories of spending time at the beach with family. If your favourite comfort food is a warm bowl of homemade soup; you probably have happy thoughts surrounding it. Perhaps, your grandmother cooked up a fresh pot and served it to you when you came in from building a snowman. Comfort foods can be nourishing as well as comforting, but not always. Most people identify their top comfort foods as ice cream, chips, cookies or other processed foods*. Indulging in these foods once in a while can be fun and enjoyable, but a habit of it can become damaging to both body and mind. Not only are we ingesting preservatives, sugar and other ingredients that are harmful in excess, we can be missing out on a variety of nutrients that our bodies require for optimal functioning. Yet, sometimes we are in emotional survival mode and we do our best. This past year has been challenging for everyone in one way or another. Stress eating or other coping strategies may have been what helped you make it through each day. Maybe eating was the only thing you felt you had any sense of control over.
Instead of reaching for chocolate when feeling stressed (I can be guilty of this), try some deep breathing, relaxation techniques or have an accountability partner on speed dial. Stress alone can raise cortisol levels and promote abdominal weight gain. Pair this with unbalanced eating and our hormones can really get out of whack!
Comfort foods can also be problematic when they lead to mindless overeating. Sitting down with a friend and truly enjoying a dessert can be a healthy choice. When you are bored, scrolling through social media and polishing off a bag of chips by yourself, not so much. Stress eating can be a major contributor to what we eat. I don’t know about you, but when I am stressed, a salad just doesn’t cut it! It is proven that we crave fat and sugar when we are stressed. Our
bodies feel endangered and feel the need to load up on energy to engage in fight or flight. Fortunately, most of us do not need energy reserves for a time of famine. We have food ready to be eaten around every corner, and our stress eating usually occurs on a regular basis. This is when we especially need to be eating foods that nourish us and help to counteract our stressful lives. We need to be eating a variety of foods that promote a healthy nervous system. Stress and nutritional deficiencies can affect our nervous system by damaging the myelin sheath (a fatty substance that protects our nerves). Essential fatty acids and B Vitamins are especially crucial to maintain this protection.
The body uses EPA and DHA to produce myelin, which can be found in fish. Consuming fish, or ingesting a fish oil supplement, is an excellent source of EPA and DHA. Options for individuals with a plant-based diet would be flax or algae oil. Eggs, spinach, whole grains and yogurt can be good sources of B vitamins. The key is balanced eating; consuming a wide variety of foods that come straight from the earth, not in packaging. If you are vegan, talk to a nutritionist to ensure you are getting adequate B12 and essential fatty acids in your diet.
Good, healthy, delicious food can still be comforting, yet without the guilt! Healthy eating does not need to be boring, but it may take a shift in perspective. Steamy hot cocoa, big bowls of chili, and even pie are foods that can be comforting and nourishing to your body at the same time. It truly is all in the ingredients. Take-out is fine every once in a while but even ‘healthy’ foods at restaurants are usually loaded with salt and sugar. If you don’t like cooking and would rather get take-out; I get it! I always dreamed of being able to hire a personal chef to cook all the healthy and delicious meals my heart desired. I guess that’s only a reality for the rich and famous. Marrying someone who cooks is as close to that dream as I will ever get. This doesn’t let me off the cooking hook completely. When I became a Nutritionist seven years ago, before my first child was born, I didn’t give up much of the foods I was eating; I just learned to cook healthy alternatives. Since having children this has become even more important to me, as I don’t want them to feel deprived or left out. I want them to enjoy the food they eat and be nourished by it.
You don’t have to be a professional cook or even like cooking to be able to feed your family well. Nourishing winter foods can be as easy as roasting vegetables. Tossing some sweet potatoes, beets, Brussels sprouts, carrots or any of your family favourites in coconut oil and herbs and roasting them up is sure to be a crowd pleaser. Grab a farm fresh rotisserie chicken to go along with your roasted veggies and you have yourself a simple yet nourishing meal. Learn how to tweak some of your regular recipes to make them healthier. When making your chili next time; try adding extra veggies and if you are making it meat based opt for grass fed beef. I love adding some canned pumpkin puree for an extra boost of antioxidants. It adds thickness and sweetness too! Homemade muffins can be made ahead of time and frozen for quick snacks. Try using healthier flours such as kamut, buckwheat or almond meal.
You can have your cake and eat it too. If you make it with the right ingredients, you can eat it without the bloat or sluggish feeling afterward. Quinoa, oat flour, black beans and avocado can all be used in dessert recipes instead of refined flour. If you have a sweet tooth stick to alternative sweetener options such as dates, coconut sugar or even stevia.
Simply giving up certain foods usually backfires. It begins with a mind shift. You will do it when you have the desire to feed your body well. I can imagine that even more of us need a fresh start this year. Every time the new year rolls around, many are inspired to cleanse their bodies by starting a diet, going on a juice cleanse or restricting themselves from a long list of foods. You most likely won’t last too long if your plan consists only of smoothies, raw veggies and salads. Come summertime this way of eating can feel refreshing, but in the cold weather our bodies need warmth. Instead of starting your day with a smoothie, try a turmeric latte, homemade cocoa steamed with coconut milk, a cup of bone broth or even a bowl of soup. Food should be enjoyed, so learn to enjoy it in a way that feels good and nourishes your body within. Each meal is an opportunity to be grateful for your life.
*Wansink, B. (2017). Engineering Comfort Foods. American Demographics; Detroit 22.7 (Jul 2000): 66-67