Comfort Foods Without Guilt
How Comfort Foods Really Do Make Us Feel Better
Nearly everyone craves some yummy, creamy, savory or sweet, high fat delicacy that makes them feel so good. Comfort foods carry nostalgic or sentimental value either personally or as a culture. For many Americans, the list includes apple pie, macaroni and cheese, baked beans, beef brisket, chicken and dumplings, fried chicken, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, pasta, bread and cheese. Some, like the Thanksgiving Green Bean Casserole, are so culturally embedded that we only crave them at holidays.
The food you crave may also depend on your gender or age group. Studies have suggested that men yearn for warm, hearty foods, such as steak, casseroles, and stews, while women crave foods that are salty or creamy such as pretzels, chocolate and ice cream. Moreover, younger people want snack-related comfort foods compared with baby-boomers who look for the traditional cuisine of the 1950's.
Because they harken back to a time before “heart healthy” and “low carb” were in our cultural consciousness, the foods we seek for comfort are usually high in fat, sugar (starch) and/or salt. And we eat them, even though, for some of us, they contain a generous portion of guilt. Is it hard to see why obesity is reaching epidemic proportions?
But comfort foods do, in fact, comfort us. Researchers have identified several specific physiological mechanisms that respond to fat, sugar and salt to make us feel better.
Chronic Stress elevates the hormone, ghrelin, which sends hunger signals to neurons in an area of the brain known to be associated with pleasure and reward behaviors. This causes many of us to seek foods containing fat, sugar and salt and can lead to overeating and obesity.
Comfort foods make us less vulnerable to sadness and buffer our body’s responses to stress. In one study, researchers injected various nutrients directly into the stomach of participants and then measured the stress response. In those who had the fatty acids, the stress response was significantly lessened.
Another study from Georgetown University measured the stress response in mice. Those who tasted sugar or a sugar substitute were more social. Taste was all it took. They did not get the same response when the sugar was administered in a way that bypassed the taste buds.
Still another study published this year in the Journal of Neuroscience examined the relationship between salt and stress and found that rats with higher salt intake had not only a lessened reaction to stress, but more oxytocin, commonly referred to as “the love hormone”.
Regardless of the reason, we know that comfort foods make us feel good. As one friend put it, “I want comfort foods whenever I’m in the mood for them”.
As we learn more and aspire to better health, there is a trend toward making comfort foods more nutritious and guilt-free. Some of the big media Chefs are getting in on it, including Emeril Lagasse, Rocco Dispirito, and Rachel Ray. Popular books on the topic abound.
So how can you satisfy your culinary desire yet stick to a reasonably healthy diet (i.e.: heart healthy, low carb, low sodium…)? Substitute, don't sacrifice. Here are ten ideas to create delicious, healthy and nutritious recipes that don’t skimp on flavor or quality:
- Add whole grains. Use whole grain breads or pasta instead of enriched; and brown rice instead of white. Substitute half the enriched flour with whole wheat Whole wheat pastry flour works wonders in cakes, muffins, and other soft-crumb baked goods.
- Replace 1/3 to1/2 the fat in baked goods with fruit purees such as applesauce or prune puree.
- Use fat-free dairy products in place of the full fat variety, such as fat free half and half, fat free sour cream, plain non-fat yogurt, etc. Yogurt and sour cream have the same flavor profile and are interchangable in most recipes.
- Substitute 2 egg whites or ¼ cup low-cholesterol liquid eggs for each whole egg in the recipe.
- Experiment with reduced calorie mayonnaise and salad dressings in salads and marinades. Use wine, balsamic vinegar, fruit juice or low fat broth to replace oil.
- Use evaporated skim milk instead of the fatter versions.
- Reduce the salt and increase herbs and other salt free seasonings to add flavor.
- Use low salt ham or turkey bacon instead of higher salt and/or fattier versions.
- Increase flavor, texture and color in recipes by adding fruit or vegetables.
- Cut the sugar in baked goods by 1/3 to ½. Add vanilla almond extract or sweetening spices like cinnamon, clove, allspice and nutmeg to increase sweetness without extra calories.
Have fun and experiment! Try some or all of these tips to satisfy your cravings without serving up guilt.