Don’t Change Your Comfort Foods To Diet Foods

Last year a friend wanted to me write for a project she had for her job. She was working on a web site addressing the needs of people who were ill or caregivers of the ill. The site provides a space for these folks to share their stories and offer (and receive) support and encouragement.

As a registered dietitian, a nutritionist, she was asking me to describe changing comfort foods into more nutritious foods. We talked about our own comfort foods, and for me, this included a specific brand of vanilla, mashed potatoes and tuna fish on toast with french fries (for some reason, all my comfort foods are what I call “white foods”-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.

When my friend finished describing her thoughts, I immediately heard myself say “There is no way I would consider changing anybody’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. Using plain yogurt and fat free butter with mashed potatoes? 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 entire concept of comfort foods is to be nourished by a happy memory, a safe time, a place when you were being taken care of. Now you are making time 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 absolutely must have (and deserve) your 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.

Let me be your nutritionist some other time.