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’. These sentiments seem to expand and become somehow even more pervasive around the holiday season. In a time that we are supposed to be focused on family, friendship, and celebration, we are instead worried about how many calories are in our Christmas feast. 

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 well-rounded perspective, comfort food can definitely be healthy.  

I’ll give you a personal example. It was a late winter afternoon. Rain was falling heavily as I ran between department stores, fighting to find the perfect holiday decorations before the guests I had invited over that evening arrived. I was tense. My shoulders were sore from carrying heavy bags around with me, my glasses were constantly fogging up, both because of the mask scrunched up underneath them and from the temperature changes between parking lot & lobby. I felt more and more anxious and annoyed with each parking spot I had to wrestle for. I was starting to feel like a real scrooge and greeted my guests later that evening with a cloud of negativity still hanging above my head. But, as I served us all some steaming hot chocolate in jumbo holiday mugs topped with whipped cream, the hot chocolate coated my sore throat and warmed my chilled body, my frustrations faded 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 parent’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 – how many times has warm soup made you feel more comfortable than cold medicine?

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, or create a spa day in the comfort of your own home
  • 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, as well as a reason to gather and celebrate, 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.

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

Written by the Starkel Nutrition team.