By
msnbc.com
updated 1/27/2006 12:27:03 PM ET 2006-01-27T17:27:03

Many people think that real comfort foods must be high-fat, high-calorie and bad for your health. A new study, however, which adds to other research from the last few years, suggests that a food becomes a comfort food for physical and psychological reasons. You can take steps to improve the healthfulness of a favorite food or choose an alternative to warm your heart.

  1. Don't miss these Health stories
    1. Splash News
      More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?

      Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.

    2. Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
    3. Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
    4. CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
    5. What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says

The term comfort food refers to specific foods people eat for psychological comfort. They often have moist, creamy textures and other fatty characteristics. Yet research now suggests that calling a food a comfort food has less to do with its qualities than with its ability to trigger happy memories and feelings. Consequently, the foods that people choose as comfort foods vary depending on their age, cultural background and gender.

Studies show that men are most apt to want comfort foods as part of a celebration or a reward. They often like warm, hearty foods, like soups, casseroles, steak, pizza, or pasta. These foods tend to be main-dish entrées their mothers prepared for them.

Women, in contrast, often crave comfort foods when they are unhappy. Their choices are less likely to require cooking. Ice cream (which is a top choice for men, too, in some studies), chocolate and cookies are frequent favorites. More often than men, women express guilt over their comfort food choices.

Some research suggests that our decision to eat comfort foods has a physical basis.

Chronic stress can set off a cascade of hormones. One result is that our pleasure in eating foods high in fat or sugar increases. Because those excess calories tend to be deposited around the waist, another chain of hormonal events occurs that turns off the original chain of stress hormones. Although rats exposed to chronic stress usually lose weight, the same hormonal changes often lead people to eat so much more they gain weight. However, people can also eat less under stress and lose weight.

Just a few cookies
Since many main-dish comfort foods like chili come from a time when we knew less about food’s relation to health and people were more active, they can cause a weight problem today, unless you alter them.

For example, add or increase the amount of vegetables in soups, stews, casseroles and chilies you love. Or try replacing some of the meat in these dishes with beans. You can reduce the fat in sauces and soups and retain a thick, creamy texture by using evaporated nonfat milk or puréed vegetables like potatoes instead of heavy cream.

Although main dishes like pizza can be made healthier by adding vegetables, a better addition is a green salad or vegetable side dish to avoid overeating your comfort food.

Cookies and other bakery items can be made more healthful by reducing the amounts of fat and sugar, but studies suggest that women who crave these comfort foods are unlikely to prepare healthier versions. A more practical plan is to focus on portion control. For example, try eating small wrapped pieces of chocolate, or place a few cookies on a plate instead of holding the entire package.

Some researchers contend that after about four bites of a food your brain reaches its maximum ability to savor and remember it. Since four bites may be enough to satisfy your craving, don’t eat your comfort food while doing something that distracts you from fully savoring it. By turning to another activity after eating a small amount, you may get the comfort you want without the guilt, extra calories, or fat.

Besides explaining why we want comfort foods, research on stress hormones suggests that there are alternative ways to deal with stress. Exercise, yoga, meditation and even a relaxing bath can all bring stress relief to the brain. It makes more sense to choose one of these healthier alternatives instead of one that can hurt our physical health.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments