We all know we have our favorites. Mom’s creamy Tuna Casserole. Grandma’s Cheese Sauce. Mashed Potatoes with Cream Gravy. Cookies. Ranch.On.Everything. Pie. Any Fried Foods. Donuts. Chocolate. PIZZA. CHEESECAKE. Anything rich and delicious. They have been viewed as something unhealthy, and from a nutrition standpoint, that is still true for most average comfort foods.
I know when I’m sick, if I haven’t completely lost my appetite, I just want mashed potatoes or something sweet. Or when I’ve had a really stressful week, I’ll go to our favorite pizza place (an hour a way) and eat a veggie pizza – yes with cheese – and I don’t even feel bad afterward. Just because we crave something, doesn’t mean our bodies “need” something from it. There is nothing on that a huge plate of cheese fries that my body “needs”. Or does it?
“Benefits” Of Comfort Foods and Why We Crave Them
First is the obvious, it makes us feel good. Foods high in fat, sugar, and salt activates the brain’s reward system which increases pleasant feelings and can reduce the tension our stressful lives bring on.
Food association is a thing. We associate certain foods with memories, people, family and so on. We might need comfort and security if we are feeling lonely or isolated. For example, if you move away from home that is far enough away that you can’t see your family on a regular basis, you might start craving family foods or cultural foods that are hard to find so you have a sense of comfort.
Aside from making us feel good with our reward system and help with feeling less lonely, comfort food can increase the levels of good-feeling hormones in the brain like dopamine, endorphins, etc. They can make us have a more positive state of mind, increase our motivation, reduce stress and anxiety, and makes us have a sense of euphoria. These foods our brain knows will help it produce what we need to balance out somethings in our life. And there is always a need for that.
I’ll use myself as an example. If I don’t have some sort of comfort food periodically, I won’t stay on my healthy routine. I save those foods for when I do feel like I need a “reward” after a long and busy stressful week – out of the ordinary. Or I save it for girls night, or vacation. If I completely voided myself of those foods like mashed potatoes, I could last a good few months, but then I’d break and there I’d be eating comfort foods all the time. Your brain can’t be all work and no play. Comfort foods are it’s vacation foods.
Keep in mind you still need to be in control and keep your balance.
Food addiction is something to realize and admit. You still need to keep your habits in check. For me every few weeks, going to get some pizza isn’t going to throw me off. Others might be different. Like with my husband James. He’s always had sodas in his diet. Processed sugar was an addiction for him. Getting off of it took weeks and months. Trial and error. But once he did get away from it, he knows he can’t go back to it. If he had a coke, he’d have 4 glasses without blinking an eye, but an small piece of homemade chocolate cake wouldn’t turn him to the other side and he would be able to get back to his routine. Everyone is different with what they can handle. Some foods for some people they just can’t go back to.
If you are an emotional eater/stress eater, realize where it’s coming from. Yes after a hard day you might be wanting a huge slice of cheesecake (oh man!) but know where and why you are eating those things and realize that although it might bring you momentary relief, it’s not going to solve anything. Keep your balance. Know that although you might be having this food right now, it doesn’t mean it’s okay to have it everyday.
Allow yourself a break. Like I said before, your brain can’t constantly be in work mode all the time. “Vacation” foods, as I like to call them, are a good break and rest here and there throughout your life. Just stay mindful and know when and how much of a “vacation” you actually need.
With that being said, I usually try to have healthier alternatives before going straight for rich and sugary foods. But sometimes that still just doesn’t cut it. A lot of times it does. Find a healthier recipe to what you are craving and your brain won’t let you forget so that your reward system will be triggered, but not in excess or in an overdose. Here’s some ideas.
- French Fries
- Baked Potato and still have a small amount of butter, chives, even a small amount of cheese
- Macaroni and Cheese
- Chocolate Cake
- Few squares of Dark Chocolate
- Ranch On Everything You’re Eating
- Make a Low Fat Yogurt Ranch
- We use comfort foods for comfort. There are times for that.
- We use them to feel closer to ones that we love and comfort foods can help us to feel less lonely.
- Comfort Foods trigger our reward system which can help in stressful situations.
- Be mindful of food addictions and what you can handle yourself. Some foods you might not be able to go back to.
- Be mindful of emotional and stress eating and when it’s happening.
- Try having healthier alternatives before diving into the unhealthy.
- Your brain needs a “vacation” sometimes too. But same with vacation, it only happens sparingly.