As the weather turns colder and the holidays draw near, it’s natural to seek comfort wherever you can find it. For a lot of people, that means food.
"The foods we tend to lean toward for comfort are often high in fat and sugar," says Sayde Beeler, MSW, RDN, a registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health. "Those types of foods stimulate the brain's reward system, the same pleasure center that gets activated when you take drugs."
Comfort Food Basics
A variety of factors converge to signal your brain to crave specific foods. Some people gravitate toward sweet foods. Others lean toward warm and hearty foods, particularly when the weather is cold. In each case, a combination of psychological and physiological factors drives the craving.
"Food can be a sort of antidote to messy, painful emotions," Beeler says. "People turn to food when they're feeling lonely, depressed or guilty, and to celebrate success and achievements. During the pandemic, people may be eating to self-medicate. You want foods that help you feel safe, comfortable and warm." And sometimes, food just provides us with a hit of nostalgia.
The drawback, of course, is that food doesn't address the emotion that triggered the craving. "If you're feeling guilt, sadness or grief, food may help numb those emotions in the moment, but then the feeling returns," Beeler says. "And if you're overconsuming foods that are high in fat and sugar, that can lead to increases in blood pressure, cholesterol and triglycerides over time."
Cleaning Up Comfort Foods
Comfort foods don't have to be high in fat, sugar or salt. They can be wholesome and savory, too. Plus, there are things you can do to clean up your menu and develop a healthier relationship with food.
- Check in with yourself. If you're turning to food for comfort, take a step back and assess your triggers. Are you reaching for ice cream when you're sad or depressed? Diving into a bag of salty snacks when you're excited or anxious? "Figure out what's causing the desire for that particular food and decide what you need in that moment," Beeler says. Maybe you really need a certain comfort food. Or maybe you just need to address the emotion.
- Find a distraction. Cravings often stem from a need to soothe uncomfortable emotions. Instead of turning to food, choose another activity that improves your mood. Get outside for a brisk walk, do 15 minutes of yoga or pick up the phone and call a friend. "When you're craving comfort food, it could be that you're hungry and the food tastes yummy, but it could also be that you're not feeling good in that moment and you want relief," Beeler says.
- Write it down. Take time to identify what you're feeling before, during and after your comfort food craving. Were you hungry or anxious? Were you happy or depressed? "After a few days, you might be able to find a pattern that can help you develop a healthier relationship with comfort food," Beeler says.
- Slim down comfort foods. Learn some healthy hacks to slim down your favorite comfort foods: Slash the amount of cheese or butter in half, opt for Greek yogurt instead of sour cream in recipes and use a low glycemic index sweetener instead of straight sugar. The key is finding healthy and tasty substitutes for less healthy ingredients.
- Give yourself grace. If you want a particular food, allow yourself a reasonable portion and enjoy it. Better yet, pair that comfort food with a healthy option that's loaded with nutrients. Craving peanut butter cookies? Eat one with an apple. Want dark chocolate? Eat a small square with a plate of berries or Greek yogurt. "If you pair the food you’re craving with other foods that have fiber, healthy fat and protein, you're more likely to fill up without overindulging," Beeler says.
Looking for some healthy comfort food options? These healthy options are perfect for the next time you find yourself with a craving:
- Sweet Potato & Black Bean Chili
- Pot Roast Shepard's Pie
- Slow Cooker Minestrone Soup
- Banana Ice Cream Three Ways
- Mushroom Meatloaf
- One-Pot Turkey, Cheese & Pasta Bake
Eating what you're craving isn't necessarily a bad thing. But if you're regularly indulging in a pint of ice cream to manage loneliness or grief, it may be time to get some help. Make an appointment with a behavioral therapist or a registered dietitian nutritionist. Sometimes a little professional insight is all you need to get back on the right track.
Sayde Beeler, MSW, RDN, specializes in nutrition counseling and health coaching for the Henry Ford Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.