Redefining “Comfort” Food
If you struggle with moderation, considering how a food makes you feel beyond the first bite can help you navigate any dinner (or dessert spread).
For many of us, the food on the family dinner table gets us more excited for the holidays than the gifts under the tree do. Grandma’s empanadas; a table full of cookies, puddings and pies from every aunt and cousin. And while the memory of eating any one of those delights probably fills your mind with pleasure, your body might remember it differently.
That’s the thing about comfort food: It’s supposed to make you feel good. But often it leaves you feeling bloated, blah and, sometimes, bad about yourself.
What Counts as Comfort Food
According to Kristin Olenik, a certified health coach and the founder of Kristin Olenik Wellness in Los Angeles, comfort foods are the sweet, salty and fatty foods we associate with positive feelings and experiences, like celebrating with friends or family. Chips and dip could count because you used to enjoy them with your college crew while watching the game, or gyros because you loved them as a kid, or cake because, you know, birthdays.
“Eating comfort foods can make us feel a little better when we’re stressed, help us feel secure when we’re lonely, and rouse specific memories when we’re feeling nostalgic,” says Shahram Heshmat, PhD, the author of “Eating Behavior and Obesity.” This is emotional eating, and while fairly common, when it happens excessively, it can lead to negative mental and physical consequences, says Dana Gruber, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans.
“Eating comfort foods can make us feel a little better when we’re stressed, help us feel secure when we’re lonely, and rouse specific memories when we’re feeling nostalgic."
PhD, author of “Eating Behavior and Obesity"
The other issue, of course, is that the ingredients that make a food sweet, salty and fatty (sugar, salt, cream, cheese and butter, among others) tend to be bad for you in large amounts, says Olenik. And let’s be honest: How often have you gone to the gym, on a date, or back to your workload after eating a doughnut or huge burrito and felt comfortable?
That doesn’t mean you can’t eat rich foods, it just means you may need to adopt a healthier approach to doing so. The first step is practicing mindful eating, or “slowing down the process of eating and focusing on and savoring the foods so that smaller amounts feel more satisfying,” says Gruber. The second step to finding a balance — where you relish every bite of, say, Dad’s famous sundae without regularly overdoing it — is redefining what comfort food means to you. Here’s how.
1. Get to know what feeling good really means.
Comfort is more about the state of your body after, not while, you’re eating, says Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD, the director of curriculum at Precision Nutrition. “You should feel a calm and sustainable focused alertness, not a temporary numbness — or ‘food coma’ — or an amped-up feeling,” she says. You want to feel like you’re sitting on your balcony with a cup of coffee on a Sunday morning, not lethargic or jittery.
To find true feel-good foods, check in with your body immediately after eating, one hour afterward (as your body has started to digest), the morning after, and up to a couple of days later, recommends Scott-Dixon. Uncomfortable fullness and stomach distension might be instant, but other red flags, like increased bloating, gastrointestinal (GI) issues or fatigue, can take 12 to 24 hours to show up, she explains. Those are signs you may want to retire that “comfort” food.
2. Stick to foods that are rich in more ways than one.
Instead of choosing treats that are high in saturated or trans fat, have empty calories, or are loaded with added sugar, choose foods with a better nutrient profile. Swap avocado in for butter, for example, to score a healthier type of fat and similar creaminess. Or try an antioxidant-rich “cheese” made from almonds and cashews, says Olenik. And stick to fruit (like berries and dates) instead of refined sugar whenever possible. Whole, nutrient-dense foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, etc.) can not only help you feel good physically, they can comfort your mind too, says Olenik.
3. Mind your gut.
Experts call it the gut-brain connection: The bacteria in your GI tract, aka your gut, send signals to your central nervous system. Which is why eating not-so-healthy foods can throw your bacteria out of whack, making you more stressed or sad than usual, research suggests. Eating foods that promote the good bacteria in your gut, like fiber-full whole grains and lentils, fats rich in omega-3s (walnuts, or flax and chia seeds), and fermented products (kefir, sauerkraut or kimchi), on the other hand, can benefit the body and mind, says Olenik. That’s because this kind of diet, and potentially even a daily probiotic, says Olenik, could help balance your gut bacteria, leaving you more likely to feel good mentally and physically.
If you stick to these tips, you should be able to find a new kind of comfort at the dinner table, the kind that comes from knowing that you’re looking out for future you.