Comfort foods soothe the soul and quiet the mind. We grab our favorite foods when we are stressed, bored, or tired. But most often favorite foods are high in calories, sugar, salt and fat. This is what makes them comforting. But that is what also throws us off our diet wagon.
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So, how do you stop eating these delicious dishes to lose weight? Well, truth is, you don’t have to deny yourself. You can still lose weight and eat your favorite foods. How is this possible? Let’s look at some ways to find a balance and live a happier and healthier life.
What are Comfort Foods?
“Comfort food is the food that makes us feel good – satisfied, calm, cared for and carefree. It’s food that fills us up emotionally and physically. … Finding comfort in food is a basic human experience.” – Ellie Krieger
Comfort food evokes happiness. These foods are usually associated with a pleasant memory, perhaps one from childhood or a vacation. They usually have a foundation in culture, as top comfort foods vary by region and country. Comfort foods are usually very personal with each person having a different relationships with the food they eat.
Being comforted with food isn’t just an abstract concept, however. Science has discovered that it is a real phenomenon with a foundation in your brain’s biology. When you eat these foods, the reward centers in your brain light up. These are the areas that give you pleasure, happiness and make you feel relaxed.
But the downside of comfort foods is that they are usually high in calories, fat, salt and sugars. They have low nutritional value. So, after you experience that burst of pleasure, the guilt sets in. You know that these foods are not healthy. And you know that you just blew your diet by eating them. Your stress levels go up. And now you need to be comforted again. It becomes a vicious cycle, sometimes leading to feelings of self-loathing and poor self-esteem. I have been there too.
Weight Maintenance is a Lifelong Endeavor
But it doesn’t have to be like that. It should NOT be like that. Your efforts to lose weight don’t have to exclude your favorite foods. And you should not feel guilty for eating them on occasion.
Weight loss and maintenance are lifelong endeavors. If you are obese, overweight or even just trying to maintain a healthy weight, get out of the “dieting” mindset.
Typical diets are short-term plans for denying yourself of many foods. “Don’t eat this, don’t eat that.” Sometimes the lists of the foods you shouldn’t eat are longer than the lists of foods you should eat. Some, such as intermittent fasting, even deny you of food all together, leaving you hungry.
And while you do need to be in a calorie-deficit to lose weight, denying yourself the foods you love just sets you up for failure. There is a reason you crave these foods.
Why We eat Comfort Foods
“Food is a lot of people’s therapy – when we say comfort food, we really mean that. It’s releasing dopamine and serotonin in your brain that makes you feel good.” – Brett Hoebel
We tend to reach for comforting foods when we have had a stressful day. Boredom and fatigue also make us reach for these high fat and high sugar foods. And loneliness can make us crave foods that remind us of home and happy childhood memories.
In short, our favorite foods make us feel good. They trigger the pleasure centers in our brains and help us relax. These are not bad things. We need more relaxation and ways to unwind in our stressful lives.
How Comfort Foods Affect Stress Levels
Comfort foods block stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline. These delicious foods also lower your heart rates and blood pressure. And studies show that eating foods higher in fat and sugar can reduce anxiety.
Now, I am not recommending that you run out and go eat a deep fried donut to ease your anxiety. What I am saying is that eating your favorite comfort food is truly comforting. It does reduce your stress levels, at least in the short-term. And this is why it is so hard to stop eating them, even when you know they aren’t good for you.
“We now demonstrate that rewarding properties of palatable foods can effectively buffer all major physiological and behavioral responses to stress” – PNAS Journal
Comfort Foods Can be Just as Addicting as Drugs
But your relationship with these foods can spiral out of control and cause you to gain weight. These same pleasure centers in the brain are the same ones that light up with drug addiction. So, food, for some, can be just as addicting as drugs. In fact, physical withdrawal symptoms can occur when you stop eating some of these foods outright.
The Key to Weight Loss is Balanced Eating
The key to losing weight and still eating the foods you love is about balance. Most of your meals should be healthy. If you are trying to lose weight, your daily and weekly calorie goals should have you burning more calories than you eat. This is a calorie-deficit and it is necessary for weight loss.
But if you crave your favorite food, don’t deny yourself. It is okay to eat them. Remember that this isn’t about short-term dieting. Weight maintenance is about about a lifetime of healthy eating habits.
Think of it this way… consider setting an overall goal of eating 80 – 90% healthy meals with low calorie, highly nutritious foods. Then allow yourself 10 – 20% to be comforting foods. Guilt free.
“For me, I can’t eat healthy 100 percent of the year. There’s obviously those little times where you have to eat something that’s not great for you, but you just need comfort food.” – DeAndre Yedlin
Your daily meals should put you in that calorie-deficit if you are trying to lose weight. But if you are over your allotted calories one day, don’t worry. Worrying about it will just make those comfort food cravings worse.
Try to balance your calorie allowance over the week. One day you might eat a bit more, but then you might eat less on another day.
Remember, this is about the long haul. This is not a 30-day beach-ready diet plan. Lifelong weight management is about a healthy, sustained, balanced lifestyle with mindful eating at its core.
6 Tips to Eat Your Favorite Comfort Foods and Still Lose Weight
Now, let’s look at how you can keep your favorite foods in your life and still lose weight.
1. Split the portion size of your favorite comfort food
You don’t have to eat the whole piece of cake to satisfy your craving. A half or a quarter piece will be just enough to trigger happiness. Eat it slowly. Savor it. Enjoy your decadent indulgence.
Splitting the size of the portion reduces the calories and unhealthy macros, such as sugar and fat, yet lets you enjoy your favorite food. And it also saves some of the tasty treat to enjoy another day, giving you more pleasure experience. It even saves you money.
“much smaller amounts of palatable foods also produce stress relief” – PNAS Journal
2. Exercise away the calories
Reducing the calories eaten is only one way to be in a calorie-deficit. Burning calories will also help get you there. If you are craving that donut, then work for it.
This was my favorite way to eat higher calorie foods. It works. I am one example, having lost 90 pounds over the span of 1 year. And earning my comfort foods was one tool I used to do this.
Here are some exercise equivalents for burning off your favorite foods
3. Eat healthier versions of your favorite comfort food
I would also swap out healthier versions for my favorite foods. While this may not decrease the calories I was eating, it made every calorie count more.
For example, eating a baked sweet potato instead of a traditional baked potato still had the same calories. But a sweet potato contains more vitamins, minerals, and nutrients per calorie than a white potato. So, the same calories eaten had a bigger impact on my body, in a good way.
Here are some healthier swaps for the top favorite American comfort foods.
4. Don’t eat comforting foods too often
It is okay to have a thin slice of cheesecake once a month. But it is not okay to eat it every day.
Chronic over-indulgence is what puts on the weight. Eating comfort foods day-in and day-out is not good for your health. If this is you, you may need to find some non-food ways to help relieve your daily stress.
5. Pair comfort foods with healthier foods
Make those calories count
If you can’t swap out your comfort food with a healthier version, then add something healthy with it. If you really need to eat that cheeseburger, then make one at home and add in some chopped spinach, for example. Or pair your meatloaf with sweet potato mash instead of mashed yellow potatoes and gravy.
Balance out your macronutrients
Pairing sugary foods with higher fiber foods can help control how your body deals with the sugar. Fiber reduces spikes of insulin that tell your body to store fat. So, go ahead and eat that sweet strawberry jam, but spread it onto whole grain toast to balance it out.
6. Eat Healthy Comfort Foods
There are healthy comfort foods too. Healthy foods can trigger the same stress relieving effects in the brain and body that unhealthy comfort foods do.
The foods that make you happy are unique and personal. These foods are usually associated with your culture, upbringing, and memories. And sometimes these trigger foods are actually healthy.
Here are some top American healthy comfort foods.
“It’s just really hard to commit to clean eating, and then sometimes you don’t want to eat cold salads. Sometimes you want that warm comfort food.” – Ari Lennox
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