Comfort food. We all know what it means, and we all have our own version of it. Maybe yours is heaping mounds of buttery mashed potatoes, salty mac-n-cheese, or a fistful of chocolate. While this food may seem like it is comforting and soothing, much of what we crave when we are feeling low is actually not making matters any better. In fact, some of the comfort foods we eat when we are seeking comfort are actually making things much worse. This month in Eat This, Not That! we focus on easy swaps to help improve mental health from depression to stress.

So how does comfort food work? When we are feeling stress, our body produces cortisol, which triggers cravings. These cravings are usually for fats, salt, and sweets. While we are eating, our cravings are soothed, but the effect is short-lived, and the cravings return. If this cycle continues, it triggers an enzyme in the fat cells around the abdomen. These fat cells begin to multiply, causing dangerous weight gain in the stomach. If the weight gain continues, the stress adds up, and the “comfort food” cycle becomes a trap.

Here are some foods that you can swap out for true mental health and comfort.

Instead of: Chips

Greasy, salty, delicious glowing disks of potatoes that they are, chips are high in all of the things that will make your mood turn quickly sour.

Try: Cashews

Cashews are protein-filled snacks that can satisfy your craving for crunch. They are also loaded with zinc, the deficiency of which has been tied to anxiety and depression. Cashews are high in fat, so portion control is important. Add them to salads and stir-frys or just eat them plain when you feel the need for something crunchy.

Instead of: Sweet coffee drinks

Looking for a warm drink to soothe your nerves and take a break? A sweet coffee drink may not be your best bet. While warm milk can be calming, the extra sugar added to fancy coffee drinks and the jolt of caffeine aren’t doing your mood any favors.

Try: Chamomile tea

Most people think of chamomile tea as something to drink right before bed, but it can also be used as a natural way to help ease symptoms of anxiety. At the University of Pennsylvania, study participants who received chamomile extract reported a statistically significant reduction in anxiety symptoms. The same study found a long-term reduction in symptoms of depression for these same participants, significantly more than those who were given a placebo. If you want a little sweetness with your soothing cup of tea, add some local honey to taste.

Need a bit of a boost? Green tea contains caffeine but also has theanine, a compound that has been proven to boost mental ability. Two cups a day can keep you sharp and give you a little lift while also proving antioxidant benefits.

Instead of: Chocolate

We’ve all been there, late at night, mindlessly consuming chocolate out of a bag while watching TV or trying not to stress out about work, kids, or life in general. But the fat, caffeine, and sugar in that bottomless bag of milk chocolate is only making you feel worse.

Try: Chocolate!

Shocking but true: dark chocolate (with at least 70% cacao) has mood-boosting antioxidant polyphenols and flavonols and can lower blood pressure, promoting a feeling of calm. For a delicious and stress-busting dessert that includes avocadoes (known for their healthy fats and folate, a compound that helps calm and control stress), try this one by Giada di Laurentiis, substituting semi-sweet chocolate chips with dark chocolate chips with a higher percentage of cacao. Watch portion size, and only indulge on occasion to keep this treat responsible and healthy.

Instead of: That last-minute fast-food burger

Running out of time, feeling low, and not interested in cooking for anyone, you swing into a drive- thru and order a burger. This may be one of the worst things you can do for yourself and the environment around you.

Try: Grass-fed beef

Never fear: although a healthy diet does mean limiting your overall consumption of red meat, you can still dive into a thick, juicy burger… with the right kind of beef. Grass-fed beef is a wellspring of healthy omega-3 fatty acids and has more antioxidants than conventionally-raised feedlot beef (but without the excess antibiotics and hormones). Grass-fed beef has also been proven to lower inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, lowering the incidence of diseases ranging from depression to cardiovascular illness. Double (triple?) the benefit by “cow-pooling” from a local farm (going in with more people to purchase a whole cow from a local farm).

Making comfort food swaps for mental health

These few swaps may not seem like much, but there is growing evidence of the link between mental health and diet. A 2015 study from the University of Melbourne found that there is a strong connection between deficiency in diet and poor mental health. Lead author, Dr. Jerome Sarris from the University of Melbourne and a member of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research (ISNPR) compared the importance of nutrition to mental health with its same importance for physical health, noting that:

“While the determinants of mental health are complex, the emerging and compelling evidence for nutrition as a key factor in the high prevalence and incidence of mental disorders suggests that nutrition is as important to psychiatry as it is to cardiology, endocrinology and gastroenterology.”

Yet patients with mental health issues are rarely counseled to lower fat intake or make positive dietary changes to manage their conditions. Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that over 50% of patients who had mental health conditions (often with other physical health challenges such as diabetes) were never advised on dietary treatments. Whether this is because doctors feel patients will not follow their advice or doctors just don’t know how to counsel patients, the fact is that changes in diet can positively affect mental health.

Making a few simple swaps can boost mood and help improve mental health. Which comfort food swaps will you start with?

Image by wEnDy via Flickr


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