In the Mood for Comfort Food? Read This First.

by | Jan 18, 2017
Photo by sand_and_sky

Photo by sand_and_sky

I just experienced my first East Coast blizzard and it was so exciting. While my dog Toaster frolicked in fresh powder and my husband tried to become a living snowman, I was on a singular mission to warm the house with an 8-hour braised pork shoulder seasoned with chilies and Mexican spices.

Of all the things that trigger cravings for comfort food, cold weather is pretty universal. Being cold is deeply uncomfortable, and our natural instinct is to want to warm ourselves both inside and out.

But while your instinct to maintain your core temperature may explain why you don’t yearn for salad and gazpacho in the dead of winter, it doesn’t condemn you to four months of pancakes and mac n’ cheese. If you understand what your brain is ultimately after, you can tend to your deepest needs without diving head first into the cookie jar.

In times of physical and emotional stress, your brain yearns for comfort and safety. Foods, particularly those that stimulate the dopamine/reward pathways in your brain (sugar, fat, salt), can feel like the perfect antidote in these conditions. And indeed, they can provide some temporary relief.

Research has shown that personally defined “comfort foods” do improve mood after a stressful event, but there’s a catch. Comfort foods improve your mood, but they don’t do a better job than any other type of food. That is, all foods are equally good at making you feel better, whether you think they’re special or not.

The idea that some foods are uniquely comforting is a cognitive illusion, likely driven by dopamine and the difficulty your brain has making rational decisions when under stress. This means that if you can anticipate the desire for comfort foods (hint: winter lasts until March 19), you can prepare for it by having a more nutritious alternative that is just as satisfying.

Don’t worry, I’m not saying it isn’t OK to indulge your cravings every once in awhile. Eat what you love, and don’t let anyone tell you you can’t. What I’m trying to help you do is avoid making unconscious choices that ultimately leave you feeling worse rather than better.

I want you to notice that what you think you want and what you actually want can be very different, and your brain has clever ways of tricking you into believing otherwise.

Choosing satisfying foods that are both warm and nutritious is one strategy to break the spell of comfort foods. Another is to realize that food is only one form of comfort.

Warmth itself can be an excellent source of comfort, and I’ve especially found herbal teas to be a fantastic way to take the edge off when it seems like nothing will warm my bones.

You’re the expert on what comforts you best, but don’t be confined by your initial impulse. Maybe you’re soothed by hot baths or paperback books or talking to your mom.

Just remember that caring for yourself includes both tending to your needs now and setting yourself up to feel well in the future. That may involve food, and it may not.

What do you crave when it’s cold out?

Originally published Jan 26, 2016.

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26 Responses to “In the Mood for Comfort Food? Read This First.”

  1. I just want hot food , so I make a lot of soup for this reason . The place where I struggle in the winter is between meals – if I need a little something to carry me over , I want it to be hot as well and there aren’t a whole lot of hot snack options ! In the warmer weather , I easily gravitate toward fresh fruit , but in the winter I am stumped . I don’t eat meat except for fish , and I keep cheese as an occasional treat . I want something whole and healthy and HOT! Often I just end up having a little more of whatever I ate for the last meal … Any ideas for cold weather snacks ?

    • Donna says:

      My favorite winter snack is sweet potato. I cut it up, toss it with olive oil and salt and pepper, and bake in the oven. Having the oven on warms the house. And I get a hot snack.

    • Sam says:

      A warm snack I find filling is miso soup – I make it in a mug with veggie broth and olive oil. And not exactly warm, but for some reason keeps me warm – spoonfuls of peanut butter. I work from home now which makes snacking much easier, but I’d keep both miso and peanut butter at my desk at work when I didn’t.

    • Susan says:

      Steamed or roasted edamame do the trick. Season with sea salt and your favorite spices (garlic & cayenne are mine!). Perfect hot snack for cold days!

    • Karen says:

      Baked apple sweetened with apple juice concentrate and a prune and cinnamon is a warm comforting treat

    • StormDaughter says:

      Plain steel cut oatmeal(precooked and reheated in the microwave) with berries

      Steamed peas (or corn) with a little salt and butter (those microwave steam packets are the BEST)

      Microwave apple or pear slices with cinnamon on them- no added sugar necessary

      Roasted or pan heated spiced (pie spices) nuts (could add tiny bits of sugar or honey too)

    • irene Basore says:

      I enjoy a warm cup of unsweetened almond or coconut with a dash of cinnamon and a half tsp. of honey or pure maple syrup. It’s a great late night snack too.

    • Mia says:

      If you’re looking for a replacement for fresh fruit as a snack, try microwaving (or heating in a sauce pan) frozen fruit. In particular I’d recommend doing this particularly with frozen cherries– it is reminiscent of eating cherry pie. Frozen mango is also pretty good for this.

      Another great option is broiling/baking fruit. I’ve done pears, bananas, and even grapefruit. Grapefruit broiled with a touch of cardamom and a bit of honey is delicious, and it’ll be nice and warm.

  2. Dade Dyana says:

    Darya – This is great advice – especially with this terrible storm going on. I always crave warm food when I’m cold. Salads just don’t cut it during the winter. I love the advice of drinking some tea when craving some comfort food. Do you have any other advice for snacking in the winter?

  3. Nicole says:

    This is so true!!!!! After far too many years of “putting on my winter coat” I finally realized that I have to eat like I am working for my summer bod year round… my new trick? I take a hot shower before I make a meal if I am feeling like I need a little something to warm my soul. Also – I have spent a lot of time making delicious and healthy soups (always featured on my blog of course). Comfort food is good, but it is always important to maintain a balance between health and comfort.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Usually I crave lots and lots of pasta, bread and cheese this time of year. But this year instead of loading up on that, I’ve been making soup most nights, especially black bean soup with sweet potatoes for dinner and then eating mixed berries as dessert and sipping ginger tea at the end of the day.

    It’s really satisfying and I haven’t had too many cravings for the bread and pasta. Those things aren’t off limits, I’m just learning to not make it the main thing I’m consuming.

  5. Annie says:

    What I crave in winter is roasted vegetables. Carrots, sweet potatoes, and onions, or just cauliflower…extra good with Indian or Moroccan spices. Top a bowl with a little feta and nuts, or a fried egg. So satisfying. A stir fry with onion, garlic, plus trader Joe’s broccoli, Brussels sprouts and kale mix is easy and great, too. Add some cooked brown rice, a spoonful of soyaki sauce, and a few chopped nuts and sesame seeds.

  6. Cassie T says:

    Thanks for the reminder, Darya! It’s easy to forget to stop and ask yourself WHY you’re craving something. I’ve wanting sweets more lately and I finally realized it was because I was bored and stuck inside! I should’ve known it wasn’t hunger related. 😛

  7. Renee Allen says:

    I used to always want to bake breads and cookies all winter long. But now I’ve learned to fill that warming need by building a fire in our fireplace or woodstove (we’re blessed to have both in addition to central heating). As you well know, the moist cold of northern CA isn’t always dispelled with a heater. Drying out the air with a fire (plus the ambiance and sound of crackling wood) warms my soul!

  8. Gillian says:

    For winter comfort snacks I warm up salsa in the microwave and toss with Terra veggie chips. I also heat up a banana bread muffin and add almond butter spread. Hot tea and hot freshly grated cocoa sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg are my other go to favourites (sometimes with a shot of brandy 🙂

  9. I found your article very helpful since I usually find myself going after comfort food and end up feeling worse off so I will try to make better choices after this.

  10. Andreya A. says:

    A huge mug of hot chocolate with almond milk and a bit of honey, paired with a good book and a fluffy blanket. Yum!

  11. Hanro says:

    Man, beans do a good job of comforting me. Hummus, chilli, bean soup or stew. Bean me up, Scotty!

  12. Mara says:

    Love the idea of hot tea. It’s so comforting when I’m cold. Thanks for the reminder to wonder what I’m comforting… Sometimes calling Mom is just the ticket!

  13. Rebecca says:

    This was an awesome read. Glad I stumbled upon it. I love cold weather and one of my favorite things to make is Wassail..although a treat I do not like the amount of sugar because of the apple juice and sometimes I add sparkling apple cider. It seriously hits the spot. This year I tried it with unfiltered apple juice and it had a weird taste. So I’m still tweaking the recipe for a healthier version.
    Your blog is very insightful and I look forward to reading more.
    I want to share a great website/blog full of health and wellness information easy for me to understand. Take a minute to check it out. If you like it please share, follow, and be your best YOU!! God bless!
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  14. Jerry says:

    Darya… About that 8-hour braised pork shoulder seasoned with chilies and Mexican spices recipe…

  15. Carolyn says:

    Def. Mac & cheese, homemade that it!

  16. Lori-Ann says:

    To me comfort foods are warming foods. Things like chicken soup, pot roast, oatmeal… Things that when I’m sick or chilled that help to make me feel better. Like you said, it’s backwards to think of a food as more comforting than another.

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