Can comfort food be “healthy?”

Diet culture is so pervasive in our society that many believe a meal must be overly restrictive, exclude certain food groups and, often enough, lack flavor and satisfaction in order to be considered ‘healthy’.  

What if we redefine the word ‘healthy’ and reclaim it to mean self-care that supports our body, mind and spirit.  Looking at it from this perspective, comfort food can definitely be healthy.  

I’ll give you a personal example. It was a late fall evening.  Rain was falling gently as my partner, my best friend and I stood out in the backyard around my beloved pet’s newly dug grave.  We spoke words of remembrance for my pet and played “You’ve got a friend” on my phone. After the ceremony, we came inside to warm up and chit chat.  I served steaming hot chocolate in jumbo mugs topped with whipped cream. As the hot chocolate coated my sore throat and warmed my chilled body, my tears dried and I settled into a sense of well-being that could only be considered ‘healthy’.

When can comfort food be healthy?

Historically, food has been used to comfort.  Think of casseroles baked and given to families who have lost a loved one.  Consider the healing nature of your mother’s favorite recipes, whether it was fried chicken, the perfect grilled cheese sandwich, or homemade lasagna.  Chicken noodle soup is a common comfort food to support someone during an illness. 

Highly palatable ‘comfort foods’ release serotonin in the body.  This neurotransmitter regulates mood and can contribute to feelings of well-being and happiness.  We can care for ourselves with comfort food.   

The caveat is that, like in everything, moderation is key.  When comfort food becomes the only food of choice, we run into issues of improper nutrition. So how do you know where moderation ends and unhelpful eating patterns emerge? 

This is a personal question that I invite you to ask yourself the next time you find yourself seeking to be comforted with food.  Is the food an act of self-care or are you using food to numb certain emotions or to avoid an uncomfortable task? (Imagine feeling lousy about a poor performance review at work and choosing to drown your sorrows in mac and cheese.) If you do this, that’s ok too, as long as you have awareness of what is motivating you!  It’s all a part of your journey to a place of healing your relationship with food and self.  Please know that I’m not asking you to quit using comfort food in this way, just to pause long enough to get in touch with your true motives.  

How can you practice self-comfort without food?

We are all unique in our needs, likes and wants so the best thing to do is to experiment with alternate ways to comfort yourself.  Here are a few ideas to try out: 

  • Make a self-comfort playlist
  • Go on a slow walk or sit in nature
  • Snuggle your favorite pet
  • Wrap yourself in a cozy blanket
  • Drink hot tea
  • Light candles
  • Go to a spa 
  • Pray or meditate
  • Reach out to friends or family
  • Journal
  • Color, craft, draw or paint, even if you have no idea how to do it
  • Take a nap
  • Take a bubble bath or a hot shower

Whatever you choose, the key is to find actionable items that work for you and who you are. Make a list of what works for you so you have choices next time you need some comforting.

I invite you to play with this new definition of ‘healthy’, knowing that health includes body, mind and spirit.  Yes, comfort food can be compassionate self-care and therefore can be ‘healthy’ as a way of giving you what you need in the moment, be it care, comfort or relief. But comfort food can be just one choice on our vast list of comforting self-care tools. The goal is to approach your needs from a holistic perspective and make sure you have many avenues at getting the comfort you seek. 

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Interested in learning more? Schedule an appointment with Anna to get support on your journey to holistic and kind health.   

Written by our nutritionists and mental health counselor, Anna Cannata, MS, LMHC, CN

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