Redefining Comfort Food

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

For many people, food is more than a source of nutrition. It’s a source of happiness; memories; comfort. Hence the term: “comfort food.”

Comfort food is loosely defined as a food that provides a feeling of consolation, well-being, or nostalgia. Usually (though not always), it’s something home-cooked that’s high in sugar, fat, or carbohydrates – i.e. not healthy.

Based on that definition, you can see why traditional comfort foods get a bit of a bad rap. Few people find that type of comfort in sautéed kale or steamed broccoli. But mac and cheese, pasta alfredo, grilled cheese, cinnamon buns, fried chicken (you get the idea)… now those are what most consider the ultimate in comfort foods.

Indulging in comfort food can be very emotionally satisfying. In fact, it triggers the release of dopamine—a brain chemical associated with feelings of pleasure, reward, and gratification.

On top of that, oftentimes our favorite comfort foods remind us of our youth or are connected to happy memories. They transport us to a simpler time in our lives.

But here’s the main downside of traditional comfort foods: They taste fantastic, they give us a dopamine rush…but once that euphoria fades, what’s left? More often than not: guilt, bloat, heartburn, digestive problems, and maybe an extra pound or two on the hips or midsection.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

I challenge you to redefine what “comfort food” looks like and means to you. It can be done…without taking away what makes food so delicious and emotionally satisfying in the first place.

Can Foods Provide Comfort and Also Be Healthy?

The short answer is, yes!

There are plenty of ways to enrich your body nutritionally while also finding solace, happiness, and nostalgia in those foods.

Remember, what your body really craves is the feeling you get from eating comfort foods…not necessarily the food itself.

Case in point: A colleague of mine isn’t a fan of tomatoes. In fact, she really dislikes store-bought tomatoes. She thinks they taste like cardboard and avoids them at all costs.

But, give her a freshly picked tomato from someone’s backyard garden, and she can’t resist. It’s the only time she enjoys them. Why? Because the taste of a perfectly ripe, perfectly sweet, perfectly juicy tomato takes her back to when she was a kid, helping her mother gather fruits and veggies from the garden every summer. They would sample all the harvest as they picked it, taking huge, sloppy bites of tomatoes, digging into crunchy cucumbers, and popping currants and gooseberries straight off the vine. It’s that feeling of nostalgia that her brain and body respond to when she tastes that freshly picked tomato.

It’s a similar situation for me. The taste and smell of homemade tomato sauce takes me back to the kitchen in my childhood home, where my family bonded over our shared love of cooking Italian cuisine. To this day, the smell of slow-simmering tomato sauce is deliciously intoxicating and brings back the most heartwarming memories (and is what drove me to develop my organic Vervana Marinara and Arrabbiata Sauces).

Vervana redefines comfort food with organic, lower carb, high-protein gluten free pastas and healthy pasta sauces
Organic, gluten-free, high-protein red lentil pasta topped with organic marinara sauce.

These scenarios prove that comfort foods don’t have to be full of fat, carbs, or processed sugar to produce feelings of euphoria or nostalgia.

And even if your comfort food of choice isn’t the healthiest, it can evolve, just as you do over time.

What I mean is, our palates change as we grow older, and we often appreciate “healthier” versions of foods that are not-so-good for us.

Take pasta, for example…The spaghetti you used to eat as a kid (and maybe still do) is made from enriched wheat flour—which means the wheat was stripped of its nutrients during processing, so a bunch of them are added back in. Not only that, the wheat that was grown decades ago is nothing like modern-day wheat. Some has been genetically modified, and most of it is riddled with pesticides – it’s an all-around low-quality product.

Fortunately, you can still enjoy pasta…but the much healthier 2.0 version. Thanks to the rising awareness of gluten allergy/intolerance and Celiac disease, and simply the overwhelming public demand for healthier, lower-carb, higher-protein options, pastas made from chickpeas or lentils are now widely available. These are shockingly similar in taste and texture to traditional pasta, but with a far superior nutrition profile.

So, if pasta (or a pasta-based dish) is your top comfort food, you can still experience the taste, mouth-feel, and nostalgia without sacrificing your health.

It doesn’t end there. Stroll through your local health food store and you’ll find countless options to fulfill your comfort food cravings, without the negative side effects.

What redefining comfort food really boils down to is making logic-based decisions…By choosing foods that nourish your body with micronutrients that help it thrive while not polluting it with processed junk that makes you feel tired or sick, you’re raising your vibration. And when your body feels better, you tend to feel better emotionally too. Not to mention, your mind can be more at ease when you know you’re taking care of your body in a way that sustains it for the long haul. Comfort food becomes that which truly nourishes your body, mind and soul…

If you find it difficult to wrap your brain around this concept, let someone else do the hard work for you! By that, I mean look for cookbooks or blogs where recipe creators recreate traditional comfort food recipes into more nutritious versions….Like here at HeartMD.

One great cookbook option is Eat Pray Get Well, by Erin Porter. After enduring a difficult childhood, Erin struggled with various illnesses for decades. She was finally able to heal when she changed her diet. Her book details this journey and also features exclusive interviews with Carol Alt, Doug Kaufman, Tommy Rosa and yours truly. Of course, it also includes 55 of Erin’s healthy recipes! You can learn more about her book here.

Another healthy comfort food cookbook is Eat What You Love by Danielle Walker, who created grain-, gluten-, dairy-, processed sugar-free versions of her favorite foods after needing to change her diet due to ulcerative colitis.

The Bottom Line

If you’re one of the rare few who finds comfort in kale and broccoli, I wholeheartedly applaud you—keep doing what you’re doing! (I personally find that adding smooth, luscious olive oil, a zesty all-natural spice blend, and some natural salt can certainly make these foods more appetizing.)

But if your ideal comfort foods are on the opposite side of the nutrition spectrum, think about ways to recreate your favorites in a way that not only nourishes your body, but also your soul. Comfort food can be nutritious and delicious, if you dare to think outside the box!

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