We all know what comfort foods are – at least for ourselves. They are foods that satisfy an emotional need rather than a physical one. But did you know that the phrase “comfort food” is actually quite new? The first dictionary citation of the term is said to have occurred in Merriam-Webster in 1977. Of course, nourishment is associated with comfort from birth on, when babies are held and fed by caregivers – and this has been true from time immemorial. However, in our increasingly busy and stressful culture, our ability to connect directly and regularly with family and friends over meals (and thus meet some of our emotional needs through communally shared food) is curtailed. The favorite foods often associated with good memories, childhood, and home cooking are co-opted by commercially available “comfort” in the form of fast, prepared foods that are high in fats, sugar, and refined flours.
Certain smells are often associated with comfort foods as well – especially baking! We’re actually being drawn in by a chemical reaction called the Maillard reaction which takes place when proteins and sugars are heated together and a browning occurs. I remember when I used to do a lot of wilderness trips – after 2 weeks in the backcountry I almost always craved French fries as I returned to civilization. Food cravings are a result of our bodies asking for certain nutrients, in this case fat! So why are comfort foods so addictive? Because they affect our moods in positive ways (and often quite quickly). Certain foods help us to feel good, seem to make pain go away, and offer us a sense of well being, due to an increase in serotonin in our intestines. The foods we are drawn to are usually high in fat and sugar content, so we feel satisfied and soothed almost immediately. (Think of that wonderful hot fudge sundae with whipped cream and nuts!!) But often the foods accessible to us when we are sad or stressed are those that harbor unhealthy fats. In fact, we may actually crave foods to which we are intolerant when we are frazzled by the busyness of our lifestyles — but cutting them out brings on withdrawal-like effects! And sadly, indulging in them often brings on feelings of guilt. So the “cure” just sets off a new round of emotional turmoil.
While on the Camino trail we didn’t have access to our usual comfort foods, yet we quickly developed new ones! Morning croissants (especially chocolate filled ones!), fresh baked bread, pimientos de padron, Tarta de Santiago (almond torte), freshly squeezed orange juice, and of course that dark chocolate bar with almonds or hazelnuts stashed away in our packs for emergencies (and most often eaten when there was no emergency at all!!)
To give you an idea about our current comfort foods here at home – we love miso soup with fresh herbs and greens added, maple syrup in or on almost anything, coconut whipped cream with fresh berries, chocolate mousse made with avocado and cacao, garlic mashed potatoes – both home grown, to name just a few of our passions of the season. And when in need of chilling out or comfort you’ll often find one of us sitting in the middle of the garden chomping away on fresh herbs, veggies, and edible flowers! Some of our comfort foods are a bit atypical (i.e. they don’t all fall within the usual food groups of high fat and sugar), and we are guessing that’s because we are used to eating a diet atypical in our culture and have already made some of the major changes in terms of what we find satisfying.
Ideas on how can we (and you!) can satisfy our comfort food cravings in healthier ways:
- Find recipes that replace sugars and fats with healthier alternatives: use apple sauce or banana to sweeten; chia seeds or avocado for healthy fats :).
- Give yourself some time before you reach for the “comfort foods” you know. The cravings will likely pass. It is the impulse eating that leads us where we’d ultimately rather not go – either for mental or physical health.
- Go for the natural form – Food scientists create flavours that mimic what we would normally crave in nature. These foods do not provide nourishment to our bodies. In fact they rob our bodies of nutrients. So when you are craving a strawberry flavored pop tart, go for the real strawberries instead!
Consider that the healthiest goals in relationship to comfort foods might be to understand what we reach for in times of need and why this is so. Depending on what you discover, you might then want to engage in a quest to find delightfully satisfying new recipes that include the elements you love and yet nourish and support the body, mind, and emotions. You might be surprised at how easy it is to make this change when what you are changing to tastes beyond delicious!