Comfort food is always a buzzword in the cooler, darker months. Go to any restaurant and there will be a section marked ‘comfort foods’ to choose from: sticky ribs, meat pies with gravy, steamed puddings. And UK supermarkets probably get most of their money at this time of year from sales of such classic comfort foods as macaroni cheese, pizza, and mashed potatoes.
Genetically we are programmed to crave high-calorie, high-fat and high-carb foods when times get tough, our mood is low, or when natural light levels are waning. In Scotland light levels are exceptionally low during the winter months: yesterday, the 10th of January, the sun set in Edinburgh at 3.59pm. And it was raining.
Many of us grew up consuming foods like this – or whatever is our cultural equivalent – in times of personal need. Eating things like a baked chocolate pudding or pastry-wrapped anything does indeed help with the release of the soothing brain hormone, dopamine. But, as we have become more aware of the health disbenefits of having classic comfort foods as a mainstay of our diet – the latter possibly in response to chronic stress – more of us are finding less comfort and more guilt. Or, if not guilt, then a nagging suspicion that the calories and fat from a triple decker cheese sandwich literally outweighs the comfort of that first, blissful bite.
Although in times of stress our body tells us we need that whole bag of chocolate covered macadamia nuts, this kind of self-medication only works for us in the short term: the stressy rush of cortisol is quelled by calming dopamine, but picks up again if the source of stress (or lack of light – for light helps us with “happy hormone” production, too) is not addressed and dealt with.
The new and always improving information on the link between food, behaviour and health doesn’t have to mean the death of the doughnut, or put the kibosh on cake. But we need other strategies too; ones not always involving an overdose of calories.
Lately I have been addressing my stresses with more exercise. Despite having been a member at several in my lifetime, I have not always been a fan of gyms, thinking they are for posers and those with more money than sense. But recently I joined a new one near work and have found it to be just what I need. I’m glad I allowed myself to open my mind to a new way to get much needed physical activity back at the forefront of my life. After doing my programme (and free styling a bit too) I feel calmer and more mentally focussed. Although I didn’t join the gym to address stress, I have found how I feel after an hour and a bit’s workout is an added bonus that I look forward to as much as the physical benefits. I feel comfort from my new routine. And I sleep a bit better too, which also helps control stress and appetite hormones.
Stress rather than mere taste is often the reason we reach for high-calorie foods, so finding a way to deal with it can help make eating chocolate covered macadamia nuts a mindful rather than stress-driven choice; a small handful rather than a big bagful. Yoga, taking a walk in an interesting area, meeting a friend for a coffee (and maybe splitting a piece of cake), taking up a new hobby or re-discovering an old one, reading a life-affirming book, having sex with a loving partner, writing up a positive plan to deal with a specific problem – these can all bring comfort. Some stresses we can’t completely control – horrible exes, lack of money to pay bills, long-standing mental and physical health issues – but learning more positive strategies to deal with stress than working our way through family bag of crisps has got to be a good thing.
As for comfort food itself, I am finding that more and more I am less drawn to wanting a large portion of a high calorie option, and more to foods that have an element of classic comfort – a couple of squares of good chocolate curled up on the sofa with my cat; a bowl of sriracha-butter popcorn whilst watching a movie with my family; a touch of gooey cheese in a wholesome pasta dish eaten out of the pan with a big spoon. I find that by enhancing my environment (e.g. with candles, cut flowers in a jug, freshly washed sheets, snuggling with my family on the sofa) – or appreciating the best in any environment that I am in – ups the comfort quotient considerably.
The need for comfort food will always be with us, but the new thing we can add is to make it good for us, too. A comfort to the spirit, mind and body.
What is your favourite comfort food? What non-food comforting strategies do you have?
Self-Saucing Cheese and Roasted Vegetable Pasta Bake
Choose any gooey cheese that you like (the comfort element!), but be aware that if you are a vegetarian, many melty cheeses – especially French ones – may not be suitable, so check the label or the brand’s website.
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
200g mixed cherry tomatoes, washed and patted dry
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced (divided use)
2 red chillies, sliced or whole (optional)
12 mini, mixed colour sweet peppers, halved and de-seeded or sliced into thick rings
1 tsp thyme leaves
Sage leaves. I used about 10 small leaves from my garden. This is about three supermarket ones. Tear these
150g rainbow chard, Swiss chard or other sturdy greens, washed and sliced into ribbons
200g favourite pasta shapes – I used wholegrain spelt pasta
180-200g soft, melting round of edible-rind cheese like Brie or Camembert – I used one from Saint Felicien
Lemon zest and a little of the juice of the lemon
Salt and pepper, to taste
1. Preheat oven to 200C/400F.
2. Toss one tbsp of the oil with the tomatoes, peppers, most of the garlic, chilli and herbs. Spread the vegetables in a smallish roasting tin, season with salt and pepper. Bake the vegetables for 30 minutes. Once cooked remove from the oven and turn on your oven’s grill.
3. Meanwhile cook the pasta until al dente, adding the greens (I used rainbow chard) for the last five minutes. Drain well, saving some of the starchy cooking water.
4. Add the pasta back to the roasting pan and mix in the roasted vegetables, the lemon juice and zest and top with the round of cheese. Pierce a few holes in the cheese and push in the remaining garlic; drizzle with the remaining oil, add in about 100ml of the cooking water, and scatter with any extra herbs. Place the tin under the grill – about 6 inches away – and cook until the cheese is bubbling and runny.
5. To serve, use a knife or fork to mix the cheese loosely into the pasta and vegetables. The water and cheese will form a sauce, with enticing molten bits of cheese to add nice flavour bombs. Eat with plenty of sharp, green salad dressed with a simple vinaigrette.
Need some facts with your (comfort) food? Here is an interesting article from Psychology Today on Stress and Eating; a “Gain control of emotional eating” article from The Mayo Clinic; one from Dr Oz’s (not usually a fan) website by Dr Susan Albers on “Tips to stop emotional eating“.
As promised, here are the other collaborators in this comfort food and thought series: