Diet therapy

Comfort foods that keep us healthy

fries2When you hear the words “comfort foods” what comes to mind?

Is it a chocolate bar, a packet of chips, a big iced bun or bowl of rice pudding?

“Comfort foods “are “feel good” foods. We seek these foods out when we want to heighten feelings of being nurtured, comforted and secure. These foods often carry with then associations with less stressful times in our lives such as childhood and we may seek them out when we become anxious, lonely or bored.

A recent British study found 40% of adults ate comfort foods to mask feelings of sadness, tension or anger. Of the 2000 people studied 47% aged 16-24yrs and 40% 35-44 yrs ate comfort foods when they were bored. The younger group ate when they felt depressed, stressed or were facing relationship difficulties. Women aged 45-54yrs ate comfort foods when they were stressed or after arguing with their spouse or partner.

Possible cues to comfort eating

  • Boredom- uncertain about what to do next
  • Stress- concern about new challenges
  • Loneliness- the need for a trusted companion
  • Disaster- fear of the unexpected
  • Hunger- low blood sugar levels trigger this
  • Hormone fluctuations- may alter blood sugar levels
  • Sleep Deprivation- alters hormones affecting appetite
  • Winter- shortened exposure to daylight increases depression.
  • Food availability- people eat more if they graze.

Gender differences

Research has shown that men associate comfort foods with positive feelings. Women associate comfort foods with feelings of guilt. Men prefer the comfort foods to come as a meal, women prefer them as snacks.

Link to anxiety

In an NOP British poll of 1000 people aged 15yrs and over found:

  • 1/3 of 15-24yr olds ate more chocolate (61%) and fast foods (43%) if they were unhappy. This group also ate more biscuits, cakes, pastry, fatty savoury snacks, crisps and nuts.
  • 63% of this same group felt less attractive if they believed they were overweight
  • 74% said that “they felt better about themselves if they ate healthy food”.

So eating comfort foods may relieve ones feelings of frustration on one hand but create new health problems or anxieties (such as weight gain) on the other

Health risk associated with eating comfort foods

  • Weight gain
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Mental Health issues- Anxiety, Depression, Anorexia Bulimia, Binge Eating

Healthy solutions to comfort eating

1) Modify the calorie load of the “comfort food”

  • Try to lighten up the calorie value of the comfort food you choose by reducing the fat and sugar content and adding more bulk and water.
  • Swap crackers and biscuits for wholegrain bread.
  • Replace a chocolate bar with marshmallows.
  • Have frozen yoghurt in place of ice cream.
  • Swap crisps for popcorn
  • Eat stuffed baked potatoes instead of hot chips.
  • Reduce the meat and add more vegetables to soups and hearty casseroles.

2) Avoid Hunger

  • Eat regular meals
  • Choose foods that have a high “satiety index” as these are more filling
  • Eat a small amount of protein at each meal to delay hunger.
  • Increase your fluid and fibre intake.

3) Seek out other activities that give you pleasure and build self-esteem

  • Do some exercise e.g. go for a walk or bike ride
  • Have a pampering treat e.g. soak in a bubble bath.
  • Take up a hobby
  • Talk to a friend
  • Keep a record of your food and feelings to help you see the problem more clearly.

4) Seek help

  • Talk to a supportive friend, GP or health nurse
  • Contact us today to assess your diet, stop hunger and find alternative foods for you to find comfort in

About the author View all

Lea Stening

Lea is one of New Zealand’s leading paediatric dietitians and also specialises in Sports Nutrition. She has specialised in Paediatric Nutrition for 31 years and in 1985 was the first paediatric dietitian to enter private practice in New Zealand. Lea helps families through her private consultations, public lectures, newspaper and magazine articles as well as television and radio interviews. Read more »

View all posts by Lea Stening »


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