If there were EVER a time when we want comfort food, it’s now. Sure, we want nutrition, but “in these challenging times” (getting overused!), we want what we know will make us feel better, even if just for a while.
What makes a food a “comfort food”?
There’s no single comfort food; everyone has their own. They can be specific (“my mother’s meatloaf”) but can also be a category of foods: “any kind of cheese.”
How a food becomes a “comfort food” is as diverse as each person. Registered dietitian-nutritionists (RDNs) like comfort food, too, so I asked some registered dietitian-nutritionists what their fave comfort foods are, and their responses might surprise you:
Leslie Bonci has an arsenal of comfort foods. “To me, comfort food is sense-surround with eye appeal, aroma, flavor and texture,” she said. Her comfort foods range from spicy chili with crushed tortillas, to a bowl of pasta fagioli with crispy onions on top, or a season-specific pumpkin pie with a gingersnap-orange zest crust.
Any time of year she’s up for sharp cheese, crispbread, pickles and grapes. I’d bet the feature photo (courtesy of Aliona Gumeniuk) would be VERY comfortable for Bonci!
Nicole Rodriguez believes whatever food you like can be worked into your healthy eating style (Go Nicole!). “When I think comfort food, it has to be something unfailingly satisfying. And for me, that’s a cheeseburger! Combining beef, dairy, grains, and maybe just a smidge of vegetables (pickles and ketchup count, don’t they?), this American classic never fails to please.”
Rodriguez doesn’t leave home for her comfort food, either. “Instead of it being a restaurant indulgence, I prepare them at home with a side of roasted vegetables or a salad.” She also has a hack for keeping the indulgence in check by keeping it all about the cheeseburger, not the fries. “The fries have become an unnecessary afterthought.”
Comfort Food Brings Memories
All of Barbara Baron’s comfort foods take her back to childhood and her Italian heritage, and family food experiences. Like Bonci, Baron has several comfort foods. “Shucking FRESH cranberry beans in their shells/pods and preparing them with green beans, garlic, olive oil and tomato sauce, as every good Italian dish starts.”
That healthy “Holy Trinity” of garlic, EVOO, and tomato sauce pop up in the Swiss chard her mother made, “adding some cubed end chunks of Parmesan, if they were around.” She loved how the cheese would remain firm on the inside but melted on the outside and she looked for these specially. “It was like finding Waldo amid the Swiss Chard,” she said.
Baron can go more indulgent for comfort food, too, noting, “Great family gatherings of making homemade potato gnocchi with my grandmother. When I see them on the restaurant menu it brings a smile to my face and a flood of memories of making these in my grandmother’s kitchen with my aunts and uncle. It was a full-blown family affair!”
Eating For Comfort: What Does the Research Say?
Readers of this column know I like evidence. Is there a health or emotional benefits from eating your comfort food?
The evidence suggests some people get more benefit from comfort food than others do. This paper reviewed the research on comfort food and concluded that people scoring higher on tests of emotional eating were more likely to find immediate benefit from comfort food. Not surprising, but it’s normal to sometimes find yourself eating to feel better or cope with some stresses of life. Most of us do that at least once in a while.
No Comfort Food? It Happens!
Not everyone heads to food when they need some TLC. Some people do just the opposite – they turn away from food when stressed. There seems to be a gender difference also. This study found that women experiencing stressful events such as the deaths of family or friends, relocation, or job changes are more likely to gain weight and see increases in body mass index (BMI).
This doesn’t mean that men don’t get stressed from life events, only that they may be less likely to head to food as a coping mechanism.
The effect of comfort food is immediate, but not long-lasting. If you find yourself overdoing the comfort food, it’s time to cultivate other ways to cope with everyday stress. Developing “non-food” interests that give us satisfaction, is a must. Physical activity gets those brain endorphins hopping too, making us feel a little (or a lot) better and more able to handle what comes our way (and burns off some of those comfort calories!), but hobbies, a hot bath, or spending some time playing with your pet are other examples. Especially in “these challenging times” have as many varied ways as you can to push that comfort button.