May 2015 Newsletter: Being comfortable with comfort foods

Some days my go-to comfort foods tug at me. I know many of them are not the best thing in the world for me, but I won’t deny or begrudge myself of a treat now and then.

“Comfort food” can be interpreted in many ways: treats for special occasions, such as birthdays or anniversaries; food to fuel you when you’re not feeling well; breakfast to help banish a hangover; a reward after an achievement. Clearly, comfort food plays a significant part in our lives, whether we realize it or not.

I believe that no food, especially comfort foods, should be totally banned or excluded, because this approach only fuels cravings. The key to a balanced diet is being aware and conscious of what, when, and why we eat what we do, along with some awareness of how much and how frequently we eat. Keeping a food diary or using a Food App, like MyFitness Pal, for a few days can be a useful way to keep track of what we’re eating and drinking, which will help stop us from falling into a trap of eating mindlessly.

One of my favorite comfort foods is khichdi which is traditionally lentils and white rice cooked with assorted vegetables and spices. This dish varies dramatically across many regions in India. I add all my favorite spices (cloves, bay leaf, cumin seeds, and cardamom with coriander, chili, and turmeric) with a mix of seasonal veggies. I often use brown rice instead of white rice, or better still, I use quinoa to give the dish a protein and fiber boost. (White rice is simple carbohydrates stripped of fiber, protein, and micro-nutrients; so it's not an ideal choice for me.) I can even add cashews or a handful of other nuts to my khichdi. Aside from being a great meal that provides sustained energy, the healthy take on this comfort food tastes absolutely delicious and reminds me of my home in India.  

Everyone has different tastes, but whatever they are, comfort food can play its part. Here are my top tips for enjoying comfort foods and still living a healthy life:

  1. Don’t fight cravings. Indulge in your favorite comfort foods, but be mindful of how often you’re eating them. If you crave a sweet dish or a deep fried one, try to eat it as a small part of a larger and healthier meal, rather than as a between-meal snack, to reduce the risk of overeating it.

  2. Don't eat mindlessly. Because we have easy access to processed foods, it’s easy to graze on them at any time of day. This is when it’s useful to keep fruits, nuts, seeds, whole grain crackers, and nut butters at hand. You can smear a tablespoon of a nut butter on celery, an apple, or a banana; have a fistful of your favorite nuts with 8-10 raisins or cranberries; or smear nut butter and fruit spread (the no sugar added variety) on a few crackers.

  3. Don’t eat while watching television or when on the move. Being distracted sometimes means you eat more. Savor and focus on the flavor and texture of what you eat; consider what’s in it and where it’s coming from.

  4. Keep trying new and different foods from each of the food groups because no single food can provide all the nutrients our bodies need. It's easy to become stuck in a rut and habitually eat the same foods week after week, so don't be afraid to break the routine.

  5. Don’t feel guilty. There’s a place for your favorite comfort food, and it’s okay to treat yourself every so often, whether it’s a delicious veggie or meat burger or a slice of cake. Enjoy that food for what it is, savor the moment, and continue to embrace a balanced diet enjoying nutritious foods every day.