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Healthy Comfort Foods
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Healthy Comfort Foods

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What is Comfort Food?

"Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul" - Dorothy Day

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Comfort food finds reference as early as 1966. The Palm Beach Post mentions "Adults, when under severe emotional stress, turn to what could be called ‘comfort food’—food associated with the security of childhood, like mother’s poached egg or famous chicken soup.” Emotional eating is resorted to, in order to increase or celebrate positive feelings and moments; and/or to release negative psychological effects; and/or to get rid of stress. University at Buffalo research team found that, people eat comfort food to cope up with rejection, isolation and loneliness.

Eating comfort food celebrates relationship with the person, with whom some incidence related to the food is associated. Comfort food helps one feel socially connected. People choose comfort food for the following reasons:
Healthy Comfort Food
  • Cope with stress, worries, conflict and tension
  • Release negative emotions
  • Relish positive feelings
  • Cherish positive moments
  • Cope with loneliness or boredom
  • Merely indulge
  • Provide physical comfort
  • Consume easily available food
  • Suppress guilt
  • Cope with victim mentality
Comfort foods are high caloric foods generally loaded with fat, sugar, and are easy to cook and digest. This involves mindless eating catering more to emotions than to actual hunger. Childhood habits and social gatherings lead to more indulgence in comfort food.

Common Comfort Food

Though the diverse cuisine across the world offers a different and varied palate of comfort food, some common comfort foods are
  • Ice cream
  • Cheese sandwich, burgers
  • Pastries
  • Pizza
  • Chicken roll
  • Lasagna, Gratins, Bakes
  • Macaroni and cheese
  • Chocolates
  • Spaghetti and meatballs
  • Mashed potatoes,
  • Popcorn
  • Sweets like waffle, gulab jamuns, pudding, crumble and other deep fried goodies
  • Meat-based dishes like sausages and bacon
  • Fried snacks
  • Cold drinks

Comfort Food Revisited

Comfort food is associated with tradition, childhood habits, nostalgia. However, it is seen that in a fast paced life, people prefer new and unfamiliar products to adjust and to adapt to change. During both stable and traumatic moments people seek out the unfamiliar. Times of change, as well as turmoil can be good times to break away from detrimental comfort zone of junk food or drinking. People avoid familiar and favorite items in times of change.

Comfort food is associated with distress and alleviation of emotional imbalance. However, emotional comfort may not be merely about food. People also indulge in music, trip to malls, movie watching and sports to escape from a negative situation.

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In contradiction to the traditional wisdom, during stressful situations, like exams, people resort not to cravings but to foods that they are habitual with, whether or not it is healthy. The research was co-authored and presented by David Neal at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Expo.

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati under the aegis of Ann Egan, studied the murine model and inferred that compared to water, sugary drinks helped both male and female rats to lower stress hormone response to the stressful challenge. However in female rats, stress response reduced only when the estrogen was high.

Thus the association of comfort foods and people are complex and depends on many variables. Comfort foods could be healthy or unhealthy. They could be based on habits or the unfamiliar; convenience or exploration. Comfort could go beyond food as well.

Healthy Options to Comfort Foods

De-stress without Food: Do not use food to mitigate pain or stress. Resort to breathing exercise, activities or meditation to cater to the emotional bounces. Mindful eating and awareness of one’s emotions and food nutrition can help weaken the association to comfort foods.

Eat Small Portions: Eating ice-cream and chocolates can boost general health as well as mental health. Consume them in small portions and only when you are hungry. Cheese and meat based foods should also be taken in small portions. Most mid meal cravings can be satisfied with fruits or whole wheat savories with healthy stuffing.

Consume Comfort Foods in Small Portions Keeps You Healthy

Healthy Fat: Choose foods which contain monounsaturateds fatty acid over saturated fats or trans fat. Dishes that incorporate olive oil, sunflower oil, avocado butter, nut butter are preferable over deep fried savory and sweets. Study by Lukas Van Oudenhove and team published in 2011 in Journal of Clinical Investigation shows that fatty acid attenuates neural and behavioral effects of sad emotion in humans. Dietary recommendation for fat is 30% of total energy intake.

Drink Water: Drink sufficient amounts of water before taking a bite into your comfort food. Earlier research on murine model has shown that, not just sugary substances, but even water can blunt pain and reduce a rat's response to a hot stimulus. This proves that any palatable food can help alleviate discomfort. Therefore choose healthy drinks and foods to distance yourself from physical as well as emotional pain. Certain foods can restore gut microbiome balance.

Yogurt: Yogurt drinks and desserts can be chosen over high sugary drinks and ice creams. Research proves that probiotics help combat harmful bacteria, reduce inflammatory responses and manage stress-based intestinal problems. Imbalance of gut microbiome can negatively impact the immune system. Lactobacillus rhamnosus bacteria and other proteins found in probiotics help to heal the intestinal epithelial cells.

Healthy Option to Comfort Foods - Opt for Yogurt

Healthy Versions Of Your Favorite Comfort Foods

Comfort FoodsAlternative Foods
Chocolates Dark Chocolates [small portions]
Saturated FatMUFA/PUFA
SweetsFruits - Apples, pineapples or any other fruit
Potato chips, mashed potatoesSweet potato / Sweet potato salad 
Cold drink Detox water
Fried snacksSprouts 
Cheese Cottage cheese or tofu
Canned foodHomemade sauce, soup
PizzaWhole wheat bread base and moderate cheese
Meat Fish, lean meat
Food for Stress: The gastrointestinal (GI) tract, is often referred to as the second brain. A study by P.C. Konturek and colleagues proves that stress alters the brain-gut interactions or the "brain-gut axis" and can lead to gastrointestinal disorders. Eating high fat or sugar laden food during stressful events can slow the body's metabolism and contribute to weight gain. Fermented foods are good options to relax stressed gut. Foods for stress induced gut can include amazake, drinks made from fermented rice, pancakes made from fermented rice and pulses, snacks from fermented chickpea splits, chass (buttermilk), chutneys, condiments, such as salsa and mayonnaise, natto, olives, fermented soybean paste, fermented fish and other. Avoid foods high in fat, sugar, and made of refined flour.

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Healthy Comfort Food Recipe

Olive Oil Chocolate Walnut Avocado Brownies

Ingredients
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • ½ -1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 3/4 cup sugar preferably brown sugar
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 avocado, pureed
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • 100 grams dark chocolate chunks
Olive Oil Chocolate Walnut Avocado Brownies

Preparation
  • Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease a square glass baking dish with oil or butter.
  • Sieve all the dry ingredients in a bowl including the flour, cocoa powder, salt and baking powder.
  • Blend the olive oil with avocado puree in a blender. Add sugar and whisk it till the sugar melts.
  • Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients.
  • Add lime juice.
  • Fold in the nuts and dark chocolate chunks.
  • Pour the batter into the glass baking dish and bake for 15 – 20 minutes until the inserted toothpick in the center comes out clean.
  • Serve or store in refrigerator after cooling.

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