Sign up for the BETTER newsletter

You have been successfully added to our newsletter.

NBC News BETTER brings you wellness news and tips to make the most of your mind, your body and your life.

Why we crave comfort foods — and how to make them healthier

Giving into your cravings and sticking to your health goals can go hand-in-hand.
by Brianna Steinhilber /  / Updated 
These Dark Chocolate Almond Oatmeal Cookies with Sea Salt use fiber-rich rolled oats, almond butter for a boost of protein and dark chocolate chips.
These Dark Chocolate Almond Oatmeal Cookies with Sea Salt use fiber-rich rolled oats, almond butter for a boost of protein and dark chocolate chips.Kara Lydon
Get the Better newsletter.

A stressful day at the office. A fight with your significant other. A stretch of cold, dreary weather that has you feeling the winter blues.

Chances are, all of these scenarios trigger that hankering for a certain comfort food.

People tend to seek high-calorie, high-fat foods during periods of stress. Thirty-eight percent of adults report that they have overeaten or eaten unhealthy foods in the past month because of stress, according to the American Psychological Association. People feeling sad also tend to eat more of less-healthy comfort foods than when they feel happy, according to research out of Cornell University.

When stress, seasonal blues or sadness has you looking for comfort in the cupboard, what is it that you reach for?

Ranker recently conducted a survey to determine which comfort foods are the most loved by Americans, and the foods that top the list comes as no surprise: chocolate, grilled cheese, pizza …

Why exactly are these comfort foods so, well, comforting? A study published in the journal Appetite found that there is a “social” component to foods that provide us solace: A food is comforting because of the memories they evoke, and the emotions and relationships that we associate with them. If your grandmother served you chocolate chip cookies as a child that may be why you make a pit stop at the bakery on your way home from the office after a particularly stressful day.

“Comfort foods are often the foods that our caregivers gave us when we were children. As long we have positive association with the person who made that food then there’s a good chance that you will be drawn to that food during times of rejection or isolation,” says Shira Gabriel, psychologist at the University of Buffalo and co-author of the study. “The study helps us understand why we might be eating comfort foods even when we’re dieting or not particularly hungry.”

Another recent study published in the International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science confirmed that certain foods take on their role as comfort food through the association with positive social encounters in our past. And while there’s no requirement that those foods be indulgent or unhealthy, the Ranker survey reveals that our go-tos tend to be.

But fulfilling that comfort craving and sticking to your health goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We’ve rounded up some better-for-you versions of the top ten comfort food favorites to keep on hand for when you need a bite that will soothe the soul.

Healthier ways to satisfy comfort food cravings

My Suburban Kitchen

Grilled Cheese

Topping the list of most comforting foods: Grilled cheese. Does that come as any surprise? Sometimes nothing can soothe the soul quite like melted cheese sandwiched between two slices of crusty bread. So we won’t deprive you of either. Instead, simply make the bread whole grain, cut back on the butter and stuff it with veggies like in this recipe from My Suburban Kitchen.

Chocolate Covered Katie

Chocolate

We don’t know about you, but one of our favorite ways to indulge a chocolate craving is in brownie form. Unfortunately, it tends to come with a hefty dose of added sugar. Not so with this Chocolate Zucchini Brownie recipe from Chocolate Covered Katie, which clock in at just 83 calories each, uses shredded zucchini and applesauce for moisture, and has half the amount of sugar as a typical brownie recipe.

Chocolate Covered Katie

Ice cream

Perhaps you prefer your sugar fix frozen. Skip the tub and go homemade. This banana ice cream recipe from Chocolate Covered Katie has just two ingredients: bananas and your milk of choice. Use this as a base, and then add in your flavor of choice. Think: berries, vanilla, peanut butter, cocoa powder … the possibilities are endless.

The Roasted Root

Pizza

If you can't resist grabbing a slice (or two) after a bad day, you’ll benefit from getting creative and making your “pie” at home. Keep the cheese and sauce (after all, it wouldn’t be pizza without them), but shave off some calories by using veggies as your base. Cauliflower pizza crust is having a major moment and for good reason: when prepared correctly it's nearly as good as that dough-based slice. Another option: Portobello mushroom caps. The meaty texture holds up well slathered in sauce and cheese. Try this recipe from The Roasted Root, which is also stuffed with brown rice and spinach for a well-balanced meal that hits the flavor profile of your delivery.

Laughing Spatula

French fries

Fill that craving for French fries — no drive-thru necessary. These Baked Garlic Parmesan Potato Wedges from Laughing Spatula bake up in just 25 minutes and have a fraction of the unhealthy saturated fat that comes in the deep-fried fast food variety. Get creative with herbs and spices in place of the Parmesan cheese to cut back even more, or swap in sweet potato for an added nutrient boost.

Nikki Dinki Cooking

Mac and Cheese

There are lots of recipes that manage to make one of the ultimate comfort foods healthier, but when those boxed cravings hit, the only recipe you need is this Kraft-Style Mac and Cheese from Nikki Dinki Cooking. It achieves that nostalgic orange hue with sweet potato, and manages to sneak in some cauliflower too for extra creaminess. Don’t worry, you still get to keep the cheese, but with no butter or milk, you’re able to cut back on extra calories and fat.

Kara Lydon

Chocolate chip cookies

Cookies are never going to be something you can munch away at without abandon. But when the craving for the comfort food does hit, it’s possible to whip up a batch that does less damage than Grandma's famous recipe, and even offers up a bit of nutritional benefit. These Dark Chocolate Almond Oatmeal Cookies with Sea Salt from Kara Lydon use fiber-rich rolled oats instead of flour, almond butter for a boost of protein and dark chocolate chips.

The Live Fit Girls

Mashed potatoes

A few smart ingredient swaps can take the favorite from a diet don’t to a guilt-free side dish. Instead of heavy cream and butter, The Live Fit Girls use olive oil and broth to keep the potatoes creamy and smooth while cutting way back on fat and calories in this recipe for Garlic Mashed Potatoes. You can also go the cauliflower route to cut back even more.

Picasa / Ambitious Kitchen

Fried chicken

This Crispy Garlic and Parmesan Oven-Fried Chicken from Ambitious Kitchen delivers the same crunchy-outside-juicy-inside combo that’s so comforting, but without the use of a deep fryer. Marinate chicken breasts in olive oil and Greek yogurt to keep them moist, and then coat in breadcrumbs and bake for a crispy finish.

SkinnyTaste

Spaghetti and meatballs

Done in-house the traditional Italian dish can actually be a healthy dinner option. Opt for whole-wheat spaghetti, choose lean meat like SkinnyTaste does in this Skinny Italian Meatball recipe, and finish it off with a homemade sauce so that you control the added sugars. Or consider using eggplants and beans as your meatball base for a hearty, satisfying and meatless weeknight meal.

WANT TO EAT BETTER? TRY THESE SIMPLE SWAPS:

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Get the Better newsletter.
MORE FROM better