Chocolate cake, ice cream, chicken soup… There is an endless list of comfort foods that we turn to when feeling glum or low. But why are they so important to us?

Comfort foods are foods that make us feel happy psychologically rather than physiologically (although they may do both) and research indicates that the foods we crave when we are feeling low are more likely to be foods from our past, from times when we felt happier or safer… In essence we are consuming happiness from the past.

There is a lot of negative stuff written about comfort food – it seems to link automatically in many people’s minds to overeating and being unhealthy. I prefer to think of comfort food in terms of the benefits it can bring us. It’s partly about those happy memories (perhaps associating chocolate with a special treat or an exciting birthday party as a child) but comfort food can also take us back to our roots. There are big cultural differences in what constitutes comfort food for different people, for westerners it is often the classic chocolate, chicken soup or ice cream, but if you come from Japan you may turn to Kare Raisu (curry) or miso soup for comfort. In Mexico you might crave chilaquiles (a mixture of tortilla  chips, cheese, shredded chicken, egg and salsa) whilst in South Africa bobotie (minced meat with an egg topping) or Malva pudding are more likely to be popular choices.

Comfort food is literally comforting, providing a sense of safety and security that can make us feel better even when we are unwell. I have a friend who always asks for ‘egg in a cup’ if she is sick. Whilst I am sure that eating something healthy is good for her and may speed her recovery, what she is probably really seeking is the feeling of comfort that derived from her mum making her ‘baby food’ and protecting her until she felt better.

I hope this January women can think differently about comfort foods, and enjoy them whilst being more conscious of the good things they offer, rather than punishing themselves for ‘falling off the wagon’ of the diet or detox plan. When it’s cold and dark outside, and as rainy as it has been in the last few weeks, we can all use some extra sustenance and nurture.

We’d love to hear about your favourite comfort foods.

 Allison Lindsay

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