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in Food & Nutrition

Comfort Foods & Health

Comfort Foods & Health

Urban women from ages 20 to 45 approximately, are relying heavily on comfort foods for various reasons. Most of these ‘comfort-foods’ are unhealthy and lead to a bevy of health hazards. In this article, the journalist is looking for inputs about: 

1) What are the most common comfort foods that women in this age-bracket binge on, and why are those foods unhealthy? I.e. what is the content in those foods that qualify them as unhealthy?

Food is a necessity for survival. It is often eaten, not just for the nutritional content or to appease hunger, but also for social or psychological reasons. Eating a meal or food can change the mood and emotional predisposition. Comfort eating is a way in which people deal with stress, anxiety, boredom, loneliness or unhappiness. Comfort foods are foods that evoke a psychologically comfortable and pleasurable state when they are eaten.

People comfort eat all the time. How much they eat for comfort depends on a number of factors, including gender, weight, psychological issues and emotional state.

Unfortunately, comfort foods are notorious diet derailers. Comfort foods are generally sweet, fatty and calorie-dense, which may help temporarily improve mood and alleviate anxiety or stress. In other words, many people may be self-medicating with these dishes.

Comfort foods, being emotional and physical experiences have three common themes:

  • Satisfying: indulgent, treat, guilty pleasure, filling, warm, fresh, flavourful, delicious
  • Simple: authentic, real, traditional, fresh, wholesome, recognizable ingredients, easy to prepare
  • Emotional: nurturing, tradition, nostalgia, celebration, relaxation, stress-reduction

They’re called “comfort” foods for a reason—they bring back warm memories, tickle the taste buds, and soothe the soul.

Females who usually prepare meals rather than have meals prepared for them generally prefer snack-related comfort foods such as chocolate and ice cream. Younger people prefer sweeter or saltier snack foods, whereas older people prefer meal related foods.

Today’s urban women have to deal with work pressure, home life and other needs. A multitasking women needs to be mentally and physically fit to lead a healthy life. Work-life balance, domestic pressures and violence, insecurity of women even in the streets and vehicles, harassment and subjugation are all having a bearing on their health. Student exams, busy work environments, and a busy home life can all place stress upon a person.

Emotional eaters under stress will choose sweeter, high-fat foods such as chocolate and cake. Their meals will also be higher in energy. It has been suggested that emotional eaters may, in fact, be more susceptible to the effects of stress. Women who ate more snack foods when stressed showed a greater release of the stress sensitive hormone cortisol than non-emotional eaters. These types of foods caused them to feel less healthy and guiltier.

Common comfort foods in the Indian scenario include:

  • High sugary foods like chocolates, bakery products like cakes, pastries, doughnuts, cupcakes, etc.; sweets like gulab jaamun, jalebi, gaajar halwa, rosgolla, etc.; soft drinks; ice-creams
  • Salty foods like savories
  • Fatty foods such as fried foods like potato chips, savories, etc.; chat items like panipuri, bhelpuri, vadapav, etc.; traditional foods like biryani, chole-bhature, etc.

Eating when hungry is both pleasurable and rewarding, an effect in the brain mediated by neurotransmitters (dopamine, opioids and benzodiazepine). Dopamine affects how much a person wants to eat, whereas the opioids and benzodiazepine affect how much a person likes what is being eaten. The opioid neurotransmitter system is also involved in response to stress and agitation. The soothing effect of sweet foods depends on the taste rather than the sugar content. Artificially sweetened foods will work just as well as high sugar foods. However, the more sugary and fatty foods are eaten for comfort, the less they comfort. Repeatedly eating lots of these foods down regulates the neurotransmitter pathways (i.e. more effort is needed to achieve the same effect). For this reason, obese people get less enjoyment out of the same amount of comfort food as non-obese people.

Food affects our brain chemistry and in many cases with drug-like effects. Certain foods, especially carbohydrate-based foods, can help increase serotonin levels in our brain, which in turn, helps us feel happy and comforted. Carbs make us feel good, especially when we are stressed, lonely or depressed. Another neurotransmitter, known as galanin, can ramp up our desire for fats during times of challenge and also helps to set in motion those 4 p.m. cravings.

Other factors that can compound emotional eating issues range from inadequate sleep to stress — both cause levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, to rise, which not only triggers cravings for carbs and fats, but also tends to promote fat storage, especially around that least-desirable location, the mid-section. 

2) What health hazards do these comfort-foods bring about in the long run?

Eating comfort food in moderation is not a problem for most people. However, as with many habits when over-indulged, comfort eating can be bad for the health. A constant intake of sugary, fatty foods and low physical activity can cause overweight and obesity, which may lead to further problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Obesity (BMI ≥ 30 kg/m2) is associated with restrictive/overeating, comfort eating, snacking, and with an inability to maintain a healthy eating pattern. Obese women comfort eat more often than non-obese women. Obese people may comfort eat because they are feeling depressed, anxious or guilty, or have low self-esteem. These feelings are often caused by social stigmatisation, dissatisfaction with their bodies, and physical discomfort due to their obesity. Physical discomfort may discourage them from exercising. This combination of increased energy intake (from comfort foods) and reduced energy output (from lack of exercise) causes them to gain more weight.

Obesity puts stress on every part of your body and increases the risk of developing major health problems, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, liver disease, infertility and sleep apnea.

Obesity is one cause of Type 2 diabetes, but another is unstable blood sugar levels. When a lot of refined grains and sugar-rich foods are consumed, glucose levels spike and drop repeatedly. Over time, these dramatic changes in blood sugar levels can lead to insulin resistance, which is characterized by a decreased sensitivity to insulin. If this condition is not corrected, it can advance to Type 2 diabetes.

Heart Disease is a possibility since unhealthy comfort foods are often high in sodium, fat, cholesterol and sugar. Eating these unhealthy foods on a regular basis can increase blood pressure as well as cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Over time, high blood pressure and high lipid levels can put a great deal of stress on the heart, increasing the risk for heart attack, stroke and coronary artery disease.

The high levels of Trans fatty acids found in many can lead to fatty liver deposits, which, over time, can cause liver dysfunction and disease.

In relation to comfort eating, many people could benefit from making healthier comfort eating choices, with less emphasis on the taste of the food and more emphasis on its nutritional content .The good news is there are lots of healthy substitutes that can still taste fantastic.

Research suggests that the reward gained from comfort foods seems to be based on taste rather than nutritional content, and that individuals can obtain the same ‘comfort’ by eating a healthy nutritious snack as they do eating an unhealthy snack. In the long run, choosing nutritious comfort foods will be healthier.

3) A table on Healthy Food Swaps, wherein we need inputs on what healthy snack options can the women swap their unhealthy choices for? It would be great if you could supplement this info with nutritional details as well.

Some Healthy Comfort Foods – But quantity to be not too much since they also contain calories.

  • Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate can not only satisfy taste buds, but it can also help relieve stress at the molecular level. Additionally, cocoa can also improve cognitive function and mood. Researchers also found that daily dark chocolate consumption can be beneficial for individuals suffering from high levels of anxiety.
  • Oatmeal: Certain comfort foods, such as oatmeal, can reduce levels of stress hormones and also result in a boost in serotonin, which stimulates a feeling of calmness.
  • Yogurt: It is a healthier alternative to almost any dairy product found in the market because of its low caloric but high nutritional value.
  • Sweet potatoes: Opt for sweet potatoes instead of the regular ones. These potatoes have higher fiber content and are rich sources of complex carbohydrates.
  • Green leafy vegetables: are rich sources of minerals such as calcium, iron, magnesium and calcium along with other vitamins and phytochemicals. Dieters even consider veggies as freebies because of their very low caloric value.
  • Fruits: Grab a fruit instead of a candy bar – fruits are rich sources of vitamins and minerals. Fruits will not give a sugar rush because they don’t have simple sugars like what is usually found in candies.
  • Lassi: Lassi, a refreshing Indian drink similar to a smoothie, contains dairy products like yogurt and buttermilk, thinned with water. Use low- or non-fat buttermilk and yogurt and less sugar to keep lassi low-calorie.
  • Vegetables: Most vegetables are low in calories, so they are a natural choice for a savory, healthy snack. Roasted vegetables, such as carrots or cauliflower, get an exotic kick from cumin and other Indian spices. Raita, a cucumber and yogurt condiment traditionally served with spicy Indian foods, makes a refreshing chilled dip
  • Nuts: Nuts in small quantities provide a healthy, high-protein snack. While nuts are high in fat and calories, it is recommended to consume them as part of a healthy diet for their mono and polyunsaturated fats, which may help lower blood cholesterol levels.

The following is a list of healthy foods that can be swapped for the unhealthy foods:

Cucumber Slices 1/2cup 6.8 0.1
Carrot Sticks 1/2 cup 27.5 0.1
Grapes 1/2 cup 56.8 0.5
Dried Apricots 1/4 cup 77.4 0.1
Apple Slices 1 med 81.4 0.5
Almond 1/3cup 182.9 16
Watermelon 1/2cup 24.3 0.3
Strawberry 1/2cup 24.9 0.3
Pineapple 1/2cup 38 0.3
Orange 1/2cup 42.3 0.1
Pear 1/2cup 48.7 0.3
Mango 1/2cup 53.6 0.2
Kiwi 1/2cup 54 0.4
Raisins 1/4 cup 109 0.2
Non-Fat/Skim Milk 1 cup 85.8 0.4
Tomato Juice 8oz 41.3 0.1
Vegetable Juice 8oz 46 0.2
Yoghurt 100ml 60 4


Most of the time we look for crunchy and crispy snacks which are fried. Instead, we can make roasted or baked options which will still be crunchy. Few examples are – roasted dals instead of fried, Popcorns, Soup sticks and rusks in place of fried murukkus. Drinking vegetable soups without cream and butter will not only fill the stomach but also increase the quantity of vegetable intake.

Making a conscious informed choice on the type of comfort food eaten will help avoid future problems. It is important to know how eating healthy and unhealthy foods affects the body as knowledge in this area can create an awareness of the health benefits of consuming foods considered healthy and the consequences of eating foods that are considered unhealthy. Information on this topic can help make wise choices when deciding on what foods to eat, resulting in better health.


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