or life has you anxious and stressed out,
do you immediately start craving a bowl of creamy macaroni and cheese, or a cozy meal of fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy?
Do you have certain comfort foods you turn to in these situations?
And, do these "comfort" foods have unique mood-improving abilities that other foods do not?
The answer may surprise you!
We all know, comfort foods seem to sooth negative feelings and improve our mood. And for some of us, these foods may have a nostalgic or sentimental appeal, like the chicken noodle soup our parents served us when we were sick as kids, or maybe a food that our grandparents always made for Thanksgiving dinner.
Why do certain foods seem to provide more comfort than others?
As we discussed in our coaching tip, "This May Be Harming You More Than You Think," when we experience stress, our adrenal glands release cortisol, which affects our appetite. And, what types of foods do we crave? Of course…the highly-processed foods that are typically high in fat, sugar, salt and carbs. These “comfort” foods earned their name for a reason…they seem to provide comfort when we are angry, upset or stressed out.
These comfort foods will obviously vary from person to person, but some of the most common mood-enhancing foods include casseroles, burgers, chips, chicken fried steak, chili, cookies, grilled cheese sandwich, ice cream, lasagna, macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, pizza, soups (like chicken noodle or tomato soup) and more.
Do these foods really have a special ability to boost our mood?
Let's just say that the research doesn't support any "magic" in these comfort foods that provide benefits beyond other food choices we might make.
Rather than view this as bad news, we encourage you to see it a GREAT NEWS!
This means you can get the same benefits by turning to nutritious and delicious REAL food instead of the less healthy alternatives!
In fact, turning to good-for-you (and still great-tasting) REAL food will likely be EVEN BETTER for your mood.
Because after you've over-indulged, now you are even MORE worried about your weight, diet and health, which causes even more stress...UGH!
What a vicious, never-ending cycle!
What can we do?
Fortunately, there are some things we can do to deal with urges for unhealthy comfort foods:
- Anticipate and plan! In most cases, you can probably anticipate when you are going to have a stressful day or when the weather is going to change. Plan for these situations by preparing healthy REAL food meals that will also provide the comfort you will be looking for.
Just a few great ideas include:
- Be mindful! Make it a habit to stop and ask yourself..."Am I really hungry?" or “Am I eating this to try to numb my pain or stress?” or "Is there something else I can do right now?". Often, we are not physically hungry, but our adrenaline and cortisol trick us into thinking we are. If you are truly hungry, have a healthier option on-hand as a “go-to,” such as popcorn, nuts, dark chocolate, fruit salad, or homemade granola (to satisfy the salty or sweet craving). Keeping a constant stash of cut vegetables with a dip, such as hummus, is an excellent way to snack, and ward off chip indulgences.
- Have a warm drink! Many of us find warm drinks to be comforting. Even the simple act of holding a warm drink in your hands can provide a sense of comfort. Give one of these lattes a try...and hot tea is an ideal option too!
- Find a friend! Often, loneliness can be a trigger for comfort foods. Rather than turning to food for comfort, get together with (or just call) a family member or a friend, or take your four-legged friend for a walk! A healthy meal or snack, along with a good discussion with a loved one, will enhance your mood far more than simply turning to a box of mac and cheese!
- Indulge in small portions. Especially when you are trying to break the cycle of stress eating, go ahead and indulge, but in smaller amounts and with different foods. This can be a helpful strategy. For example, if you have a habit of indulging in chocolate ice cream at the end of a stressful day, try a piece of dark chocolate instead. You can still get the “comfort” and satisfy the sweet craving while maintaining your good health.
Do you have "go-to" comfort foods?
We love a good challenge -- please let us know if there is one you would like us to try to "healthify!"