Comfort food is traditionally an easy-to-digest meal, soft in consistency, and rich in calories, nutrients, or both. Comfort food may be specific to either the individual or a specific culture. Many comfort foods are flavorful; some may also be easily prepared. Comfort foods may be consumed to positively pique emotions, to relieve negative psychological effects or to increase positive feelings.
Comfort foods usually come with a steep nutritional price tag: they’re generally high in fat, saturated fat, calories and, sometimes, sugar.
So is the answer to simply resist comforting ourselves with these foods we crave? Not if you listen to Dr Rebecca Reeves, a dietitian and obesity researcher at University of California at San Francisco.
“I do not believe we should deny ourselves these foods which we have emotional attachments to,” says Reeves. “If we do deprive ourselves, we’ll just want to eat more and more.”
Instead, Reeves suggests that we indulge in our comfort foods in moderation, especially when these foods are high in calories and fat.
Can any good come from eating comfort foods? The answer is yes! There are at least two ways in which comfort foods can actually help your body:
Many popular comfort foods offer significant nutritional value, especially when they’ve been adapted to be lower in fat and sugar and higher in fibre and other important nutrients. Healthy comfort food options include higher-fibre breads, lean meats, and stews and casseroles containing vegetables.
One study found some evidence that comfort foods really do function as stress reducers. “However, comfort foods are addictive,” notes one of the UCSF researchers, Dr Mary Dallman. “If eating them becomes a habit after the stress is over, then there is a downside, because these extra calories are primarily directed into the unhealthy abdominal fat pads.”
Four ways to enjoy comfort food without guilt
It is possible to comfort yourself without consuming all those extra calories and fat. Here are four tips for enjoying comfort food without doing a number on your diet:
Whenever possible, prepare a version of your comfort food that’s lower in calories, fat, salt and sugar (the internet has more healthy, updated recipes for your favourite foods than you ever thought possible).
Eat your comfort food when you’re truly hungry, and stop eating when you’re comfortable – not stuffed.
To make it less likely that you’re eating for emotional reasons, enjoy your comfort food as part of a regular meal and not as a snack eaten on impulse.
Pump up the nutritional volume on your savoury comfort foods by adding vegetables or pulses when possible. For sweet comfort foods, add more fruit, decrease the sugar (or use half sugar substitute), reduce the fat ingredient down a third or so (and use mashed bananas or apple pure