When life gets stressful — and when doesn’t it? — it’s easy to turn to foods that provide a short-term sense of comfort, even though those foods can challenge your long-term health, including your goal to manage your weight.
When we’re stressed, we tend to crave foods that are packed with fat, sugar, and sodium, which makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.
Why? Because fat serves as a long-term energy source and helps to insulate and protect our bodies, sugars from an evolutionary perspective came from fruits and vegetables and were important sources of vitamins and minerals including electrolytes, and sodium is an essential electrolyte for survival.
Comfort foods can take our cravings for these foods to a whole new level because of our relationships with these foods.
For example, you may associate chicken noodle soup with your mother taking care of you when you were sick and how good that felt. You may associate ice cream with celebrating a win after a baseball game, which made you feel happy. You may associate homemade mac n' cheese with meals spent with your grandparents — and you may associate pot roast with family meals in the evening.
But except for the chicken noodle soup, most comfort foods make it harder to meet our health and nutrition goals. Yet we may crave them for physiological or psychological reasons — or both — and we believe they’ll make us feel good, relieve stress, lighten our mood, etc.
Here are a few resources I use to find healthier alternatives for our traditional comfort foods.
Websites like eatingwell.com and cookinglight.com provide lots of healthier versions of traditional favorite comfort foods, such as this baked mac n' cheese recipe from Eating Well, or these oven-fried chicken recipes from cooking light. Eating Well even has an entire collection of healthy recipe makeovers that includes healthier versions of lasagna, meat loaf, chocolate chip cookies, grilled cheese, and cheesecake. Finally, Ellie Krieger is a renown dietitian who wrote an excellent cookbook filled with comfort food makeovers.
Here are some of the underlying emotions that sometimes drive our cravings for comfort foods:
- Are you really just bored? Instead of eating something unhealthy, maybe take a short walk around the block or tackle a quick task on your to-do list.
- Are you sad? Try listening to some soothing music or comfort yourself by reading a favorite book or quote.
- Are you excited and want to celebrate? Treat yourself to a massage or take a hot bath.
- Are you lonely? Reaching out to a friend is bound to cheer you up.
There are lots of ways comfort foods can be our go-to response for dealing with difficult emotions, but if you can identify the underlying emotion, you can choose a healthier way to address it. Because more often than not, food will just be a transient fix and ultimately you’ll feel the same way you did before.
One book I recommend to people who are working to identify their underlying emotions and need help to identify healthier ways to address what they’re feeling is “50 Ways to Soothe Yourself without Food” by Susan Albers, PhD.