Everyone has their favorite comfort foods. We associate these foods with pleasure, warmth, relaxation — even childhood.
I have distinct memories from growing up in Puerto Rico of the bread man rolling his cart of freshly baked goods down the street at night. I would be walking with my aunt and she would buy me a loaf so fresh it was almost too hot to hold. Once we got to her house, she would cut me a piece and spread creamy butter on it. It was heavenly then and my associations with bread today are much the same.
During my workshops I ask people to list their favorite foods. While there are some common denominators such as pizza, chocolate and ice cream, it's very much an individual thing. Interestingly, there seems to be more variation in people's most disliked foods than there is in their favorite foods. Perhaps comfort foods are more universal.
Sadly, fad diets try to convince us that we should relinquish our comfort foods because they're "bad." Too many people believe that they must sacrifice favorite foods entirely if they're to be successful with their health and weight goals. They walk around feeling needless guilt over something that previously had positive associations. This is confusing, and leaves us feeling frustrated and deprived.
Granted, many comfort foods are not highly nutritious. But keep in mind:
• Common comfort foods such as ice cream have some nutritional value.
• Almost all comfort foods like cakes and cookies can be made more healthful with a few recipe adjustments.
• If the rest of your diet is highly nutritious, an occasional treat is not going to negate your health efforts. Even the most famous health experts have comfort foods that they savor.
But the most important reason for refusing to give up your comfort foods entirely is because of their psychological value. For human beings to feel content and happy they need emotional and psychological balance. There are few things people do more often in a lifetime than eat. So it's important that eating be pleasurable. Seeking enjoyment in food is hardwired into us for our survival.
If you deny yourself the foods you like best, your mind and body will seek out what you crave. This might help explain why people eventually fail rigid diets, go back to old ways of eating and regain weight. It can also explain bingeing behavior and yo-yo dieting.
In addition to associating comfort foods with positive childhood experiences, each of us has particular food qualities that we especially like. One person might go for sweet flavors while another loves crunchy or creamy foods. Our body and mind will gravitate to foods with the qualities we prefer.
You can reconcile your food preferences and your healthy goals with a few principles:
• Pay attention to the food qualities you prefer (i.e. creamy, crunchy, tangy, sweet) and seek out nutritious foods that have these qualities. Potato chips are crunchy, but so are crisp fresh veggies. Cake frosting is creamy; so is rich, no-fat Greek yogurt. You don't have to abandon the former; just try emphasizing the latter.
• Don't label your comfort foods as "bad." Instead, experiment so that you can find more nutritious versions of your comfort foods. The Internet is full of favorite recipes remade to cut down on fat and sugar and amp up fiber.
• Refuse to eliminate comfort foods from your life. That will only lead to becoming preoccupied with them and losing control later.
• Savor your comfort foods, enjoying them mindfully, not while preoccupied with TV or other distractions. It brings pleasure and happiness, which are important psychologically for health and help maintain natural control over food.
• If only the original version of your comfort food is what is going to satisfy you, don't freak out. Enjoy it mindfully and move on. If you follow the rest of the steps above, this will only happen on rare occasions.
Sometimes the psychological benefits of comfort foods outweigh any lack of nutrition. By making sure that the rest of what you eat meets your nutritional needs, you can rest easy that you're healthy and happy. Because life without comfort foods would be a sad one indeed.
Dr. Lavinia Rodriguez is a Tampa psychologist and expert in weight management. She is the author of "Mind Over Fat Matters: Conquering Psychological Barriers to Weight Management." Send questions to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.