The Uncomfortable Truth about Comfort Foods

The Uncomfortable Truth about Comfort Foods

Comfort foods make us feel oh-so-good!  In times of emotional turmoil, we’ll often turn to fried chicken, mac and cheese, grilled cheese dunked in tomato soup or a big bowl of mashed potatoes with gravy to make us feel better.  But have you ever really thought about what you’re eating?

What does science tell us?

Over the years, multiple studies have been conducted on comfort foods, why we crave them and what type of response our body has when we eat them.  Most studies show that eating comfort foods actually activate the “pleasure centers” in the brain, which in turn reduces anxiety, stress and feelings of depression.  To anyone who’s taken that first bite of a hot, salty, crisp french fry and moaned in pleasure, we didn’t need a study to tell us that!

What are the downfalls?

The problem is that many comfort foods are extremely unhealthy. They are the foods that are traditionally high in fat, sugar or salt.  When we turn to comfort foods to fulfill an emotional need, we may get an immediate feeling of satiation.  However, our bodies are left with the fallout from our choices.  In fact, studies show that although comfort foods meet an emotional need, they also show that people who turn to comfort foods are more likely to be obese, have problems with heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure. 

How much does it hurt?

When it comes to turning to comfort foods, if you’re otherwise healthy and don’t have significant health issues, the real issue is not necessarily having a steaming cup of hot chocolate every now and then.  The real issue is “comfort eating” – continuously turning to unhealthy foods to meet emotional needs instead of dealing directly with your emotions. 

And certainly, for those who do have chronic health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, even that small cup of hot chocolate every now and then is probably not a good idea. 

What can you do instead?

If you do regularly turn to comfort foods and you wish to change your habits in order to become healthier, there are some very easy steps you can take. 

  • Deal with your emotions.  If you regularly engage in comfort eating, it’s important to take a step back and really look at what emotional needs you are meeting.  Keep in mind how unhealthy some comfort foods can be and recognize the risk to your health of incorporating these foods into your diet. 
  • Find alternatives.  When breaking a comfort eating habit, many people turn to other activities instead.  For example, instead of turning to biscuits and gravy to elevate your spirits turn to jogging.  Exercise increases endorphin levels which make you feel good naturally.  If you find you eat out of boredom, find a hobby or activity that occupies your free time and keeps your hands busy.
  • Look at your recipe.  If you’re normally healthy and do like that big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs once in awhile, make sure you get the healthiest ingredients.  Choose whole wheat pasta and grass-fed lean ground beef.  It may take a few times to get used to the healthier ingredients, but eventually you will train yourself to like these options instead. 

Look at your portions.  The final tip when adding comfort foods to your diet is to keep the portions small.  Take small bites and savor the foods as well as the feelings you get when eating these