Don't Change Your Comfort Foods to Diet Foods

A colleague asked me to contribute to a project she is doing for her job.  She works on a web site for people who are going through illnesses or caring for their loved ones who are ill.  The site provides a space for these folks to share their stories and offer (and receive) support and encouragement.

As a nutritionist, her suggestion was that I discuss how to make comfort foods more nutritious.  I remember we mentioned what our comfort foods were, including a specific brand of vanilla ice cream, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese (for some reason, at least for me, my comfort foods are all white — except chocolate, of course).  Macaroni and cheese seemed to be a popular item, and she suggested that I come up with a way to modify it to make it more nutritious.

After my colleague finished telling me about this idea, I found myself immediately saying “I would never touch anyone’s comfort food.”  And I wouldn’t.  I can’t imagine telling someone, going through a difficult time in their lives, to change the food that brings them comfort.  There are many types of nourishment; emotional and psychological may be more important at this time in your life than physical nourishment.

If you changed your macaroni and cheese to whole-wheat macaroni and low fat cheese, it would be an entirely new food. I would never tell a person who loves brand name vanilla ice to switch to fat free frozen yogurt — not at this time in their lives. Mashed potatoes with plain yogurt and fat free margarine? Perhaps, when watching your weight, this is an appropriate choice, especially if you like it.  But changing one’s comfort food creates an entirely new food with entirely new associations. And one of those might on a subconscious level say, “you weren’t doing this right, you should have done it this way.” Where is the comfort in that?

The whole idea of comfort foods is that they fill you with a memory, a feeling of safety, perhaps a reminder of a time when a parent made this food to take care of you.  And now you are making it to take care of yourself.  You are not eating the food for any particular nutritious reason, but rather an emotional, psychological reason.  It takes you to a time when you felt safe and secure, and for a small time during this particularly chaotic period in your life; you need a small island of comfort.

So I told my colleague I’d be happy to write for her, but not on the subject of changing recipes for comfort foods. My advice in this area? Perhaps you don’t need to eat the whole bowl of mashed potatoes, or the entire box of macaroni and cheese.  But during illness, stress, it is not time to worry about the “right” foods, the low-calorie versions, the low-fat cheesecake.  While this may not be the most nutritious advice, my primary concern is to help you take care of yourself.  And taking care of yourself doesn’t involve making changes to anything (including food) that has worked for you in the past.

I can be your nutritionist another time.

Become At Peace with Food: Stop Dieting and Lose Weight

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received from your primary care doctor or other medical professionals.