A Dietitian’s Guide to Soothing Yourself With Food

All the tragic and terrifying news from shootings to wildfires can lead to discomfort, stress and sadness. When we feel this way, we tend to seek solace — and very often, that comfort comes in the form of food. Yet “comfort food” has such a bad connotation — redolent of indulgence and excess, and leading to guilt.

So does this mean we have to shun the very foods that calm us during times of stress? Would we be any happier if we gave up the foods we loved and swapped them for what we deemed to be better options? In a word, no. But for so-called comfort foods to do their jobs (and not lead to a downward spiral of bingeing), it’s first important to recognize what draws you them in the first place. Then, you can ask yourself if a different choice might fill that void — or not.

[See: 9 Healthy Recipe Swaps That Taste As Good or Better Than the ‘Original.’]

For example, we might find comfort in foods that tie us to a holiday or family member. My grandmother made a noodle kugel that had just the right amount of creaminess, sweetness and crunch. My mother-in-law’s pasta e fagioli always brought everyone to the table with a spoon and a smile. In these cases, savoring the original may be the only way to achieve the sense of connection and warm memories you crave.

But food can provide comfort due to other features like temperature (a steaming bowl of soup or the chill of ice cream), texture (the crispiness of an apple or the creaminess of pudding) aroma (freshly baked bread or sauteed garlic) or colors (a roast with potatoes and carrots). In these cases, considering a range of options might best satisfy both your body and mood.

For instance, if its creaminess you’re after, how about a buttered baked potato, or one topped with cheddar cheese and broccoli? Mashed potatoes whipped with plain Greek yogurt and roasted garlic might do the trick too. The benefits include consuming a nutrient-dense food, fuel for the brain and body, and flavor to savor.

If you’re looking for crunch, try spreading crunchy peanut butter on celery or adding cinnamon roasted chickpeas and freeze-dried strawberries to popcorn. Foods that require more chewing take longer to eat and have the advantage of making us feel fuller longer. Mixing up the textures can also add to your satiety. If fried foods are what you like, consider purchasing an air-fryer to get the same crispiness without all the oil.

[See: 9 Meal Tips From Doctors Who Are Also Experts in the Kitchen.]

Maybe you’re seeking the soothing smell of garlic sauteed in olive oil or homemade chicken soup. Try adding grated citrus peel or fresh-cut lemon, lime or oranges to deliver brightness and fragrance to soups, stews, vegetables and grains. The more senses you can awaken, the more likely you are to eat mindfully — a practice shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, weight gain and more.

Think you want salt? Consider cutting it with heat or another spice in order to provide nutrients and boost your heart health. Maybe you’ll enjoy a spicy bowl of chili, savory ramen, the salt and spice of Asian cuisine, the tang of Kimchi or Greek lemon soup.

[See: These Healthy Seasonings Are Tasty Substitutes for Sugar and Salt.]

Most people don’t think of bitter foods when looking for comfort, but a smoothie made with low-fat chocolate milk, cinnamon, vanilla Greek yogurt and a dash of espresso powder, or a latte with low-fat milk, are feel-good foods that fill you up, not out.

So before you self-berate or eliminate foods you love, do a comfort checklist of foods you turn to when you’re upset. You don’t have to drown your sorrows in a gallon of ice cream or a mountain of pasta Alfredo, but you also don’t have to limit yourself to grilled chicken salads.

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A Dietitian’s Guide to Soothing Yourself With Food originally appeared on usnews.com