Q: Hey Em — can you please write a blog about healthy comfort food? Or foods that have a calming effect?
My friend wrote that to me last week while rockets were falling and things were exploding. I understand she is asking about healthy comfort food, but first want to make a careful distinction:
There is “Comfort Eating” and there are “Comfort Foods” and they are not quite the same. Lest you mistake one for the other, allow me to explain:
If there was one commonality I noticed on Facebook in the past month, first with Hurricane Sandy, then the US elections, and finally war here in Israel, it was admission after admission by people seeking comfort through food. Some people photographed pizza and ice cream binges as part of Hurricane preparedness efforts. Others wrote things like “This election is driving me to donuts!” and among the Israelis, post after post of “Engaging in Baking Therapy!” with drool-inducing photographic proof of the buttery, sugary delicacies prepared.
I had a mentor who called comfort eating “Searching for salvation in the bright white refrigerator light.”
Truthfully, there were a few moments last week when I too found myself opening and closing the fridge and cupboards, looking, looking, looking… Thankfully I was able to remind myself that what I was seeking – comfort, distraction, solace – was not anything I could find within the 4 walls of my kitchen.
And that my friends, is my official answer on Comfort Eating: Don’t Do It! Don’t seek to bury feelings in food! Food is for Hunger, not psychological support.
Wine is for psychological support.
Kidding! (Kind of)
On the other hand…
It would be foolish to deny that food has some sort of psychological effect on us. It is not ALL about the physical satiation of hunger, is it? Are there foods that actually have effects on our emotions? Yes! This topic has been studied extensively and I can strongly recommend the book The End of Overeating by Dr David Kessler if you want a thorough explanation of why we crave the sorts of things we crave – primarily sweet, fatty and salty. But can we get the same comforting results from healthy foods? Can we meet the desire for sweet, fatty and salty without ruining our health?
- Complex carbohydrates, such as brown rice and oatmeal, boost both energy and mood. They raise levels of serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical. Eat them slowly and chew well before swallowing. For example, Rice Noodle Salad with Peanut Coconut Sauce and Banana Whipped Oats.
- Brazil Nuts for selenium, which is a natural mood booster. Go easy, 1-2 raw nuts is all you need.
- Dark green leafy vegetables have been shown to lift the spirit and reduce depressive feelings. Broccoli with Vegan Cheeze Sauce or Dr. Fuhrman’s California Creamed Kale for those of you in Kale countries (sniff)
- As everyone here in the Middle East knows, chickpeas and tahina, the main ingredients in hummus, have both anti-anxiety and anti-depressive properties due in large part to tryptophan and omega 3’s. (Which begs the question, why so much fighting in the Middle East? Me thinks, too many kebabs, not enough hummus!) Ranch-flavored hummus anyone?
- What about chocolate and it’s legendary broken-heart healing properties? Yes, chocolate contains magnesium, which can make you feel better, but so do raw cashews and almonds, bananas, avocados, apples, whole grains and leafy greens which don’t contain the health damaging hitchhikers, sugar and caffeine that come with chocolate.
So remember, healthy food, prepared and served with love in a calm and cozy environment CAN soothe life’s rough edges.
But using donuts, ice cream, and pizza as a stress reducing method ultimately causes you MORE stress from digestive pain to poor health. It is easy to see this when we are talking about drug addiction, but many people use food as the same “soft addiction” with equally deadly results! See my post The Frightening New Normal, for more on the destructive behaviors we as a society have unfortunately normalized.
An important part of stress control and happiness is the ability to employ non-food alternatives to improve our mental state. For example:
- Physical touch (giving and receiving)
- and of course, my personal favorite coping technique: