Can Veggies Be Comfort Food?

Raw Baby Cracking Up

When we are stressed, depressed, lonely, downhearted, or suffering from any other kinds of bad feelings, we often tend to self-medicate with comfort food, in hopes that it will cheer us up. But comfort foods are so often laden with sugar, fat, carbohydrates, and special chemicals to make them taste extra yummy.

Like mother’s milk, comfort foods are sweet and creamy. Unfortunately, they often have huge addictive potential. Sugar is a stellar example. Sugar is powerfully addictive, and it also has a gigantic emotional component, being associated with holidays and celebrations. When we were little, chances are somebody gave us cookies to dry up our tears, and candy for being good. Even doctors got into the act, giving out lollipops to brave children who took their shots without making a fuss.

Traditionally, parents play into this by sending care packages of favorite foods to children at the sleep-away camp. College-age women are particularly susceptible to the wiles of comfort eating. Far from home, there is the sadness of a strange dormitory, apart from friends and maybe even from one special boyfriend. Then a care package arrives from Mom, overflowing with caramel popcorn balls and peanut butter brownies. No wonder they gain that legendary “freshman 15.”

Julie L. Lochera and three co-authors examined the subject with an in-depth study that identified four different varieties of comfort food, which they characterized as physical comfort foods, convenience foods, indulgence foods, and nostalgic foods. There are social and physiological dimensions. The abstract says,

We describe how particular food objects come to be associated with the relief of distress and show how food objects are manipulated to modify or change emotional states or feelings. The practical implications of this work extend to understanding the role that mood plays in food selection and considering the use of comfort foods under certain circumstances, such as when individuals are experiencing illness.

Dr. Toni Brayer points out that a person’s favorite food and the same person’s comfort food are not necessarily the same. She suggests,

Ask yourself…what is my favorite food? Then ask ‘At the end of a long day, when I’m tired and stressed or sick in bed, what food would I like a loved one (mom) to fix for me?’

One person’s comfort food could be a total turnoff to somebody else. A sad woman might cure the blues by eating saltine crackers broken up in a bowl, with milk and sugar on top. In a childhood of poverty, that was the treat her mother made for the kids when they had measles or broken bones. It’s frightening to contemplate how many Americans cherish the memory of that strange, orangey-yellow macaroni and cheese and who, if they were to be hanged tomorrow, would probably choose it as their last meal on Earth.

In some cases, comfort food doesn’t even have to be good, it just has to be what Mom has made. In recent years, ready-made stuff like ice cream and chocolate cupcakes have taken over as comfort food, because mothers have been doing less of that old-fashioned home cooking. And, of course, the choice of comfort food is both individual and cultural. A person from India might grow up with curried lentils as his comfort food of choice, while a person from Iceland probably would not.

According to Brian Wansink, the sexes may differ in what they find comforting, and might desire comfort foods (PDF) under different circumstances. American men tend to react more from a place of positive emotions, like maybe winning a hockey game is the thing that triggers celebratory eating. And men tend to want hearty fare like steaks or thick soups. American women tend to come from a place of negative emotions when the craving for comfort food overtakes them, and what they want is more snacky stuff.

Either way, it’s mood-altering. The object is to increase the sense of well-being and improve the disposition, and if some nostalgia for the past creeps into the mix, so much the better.

Is it possible that comfort food can be healthful and desirable nutritionally, not just emotionally? What if, from the very earliest age, a person was accustomed to delicious whole foods, expertly prepared and served with love? What if a toddler was given fare that was both healthful and packed with flavor? Wouldn’t that become the comfort food of the future? Theoretically, this should especially be easier with boy children, since males appear naturally inclined to choose more meal-like foods for their comfort foods.

What if, for instance, all parents became really conscientious and started making meals from the recipe collection of Dr. John La Puma, also known as ChefMD®? What if they all watched the videos about how to fix excellent and nutritious food? If a child spends quality time with a parent or both parents in the kitchen, preparing and then eating great meals, in a loving atmosphere, is it possible that child might grow up with a different attitude about food, and what constitutes comfort food? Equipped with wonderful and warm sense memories of baked quinoa-stuffed acorn squash, for instance, is it not possible that a child could grow to adulthood with the certainty that the most comforting of all foods are not ice cream and pork rinds, but quinoa and squash?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Comfort Foods: An Exploratory Journey Into The Social and Emotional Significance of Food,”
Source: “Can Comfort Food Be Healthy?,” Everything Health
Source: “Exploring comfort food preferences across age and gender” (PDF),, 2003
Source: “ChefMD® Healthy Recipes,”
Image “Raw Baby Cracking Up” by Jinjee, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

4 Responses

  1. I think that change is totally possible, but sometimes unrealistic. It’s great to hope to be able to make these items comfort food and even possible at a young age. However, I always wonder what will happen when a child is of school age and begins seeing what comfort food is to their peers or sees their parents or other role models digging into some mac and cheese to find comfort. Will they still be satisfied with veggies?

    1. All we can do is try! Even when kids are subjected to outside influences later, at least they will have had a few early years of good eating, to lay a basis, if parents choose to do it that way. And a even a few years of good early nutrition are better than a total life of sloppy eating habits. Every little bit helps.

      1. I have to confess that the orange boxed mac & cheese was MY childhood comfort food, although I can barely touch the stuff now. I do want the homemade, though, esp. when sick at my tummy. Growing up, we had to split one tiny box between the 5 of us. I dreamed that one day I’d be able to have all the mac & cheese I wanted. That dream became a symbol of leaving behind the poverty, so yes, strong emotions attached!

        I’m still modifying my own eating habits, conscious of having little minds to shape w/ the inhome daycare. They help weed the garden and we discuss the life cycle of herbs and veggies. They get to pick and eat what we grow. We take them to the local fruit stand w/ us and teach about seasonal produce offerings. They start nagging us about when strawberries, blueberries, peaches or figs are in season, because we let them feast on whatever’s in season until they’re sick of it, which IS a great treat. I think it’s “taking” on them. We still have some nutritional ambivalence going on with ourselves here. We still emotionally eat, especially me, but we’re evolving. We’re incorporating new comfort measures outside of food. Each new experience and tradition expands us all, so I trust they can sort it out as they grow older.

        Last week, we spent several days w/ the kids out in the yard gathering dandelions to dehydrate for tisane, something they enjoy sipping w/ us after school. Of course, there was also much blowing the seeds off the older ones, something we encourage because we love having dandelions in our backyard. They’re nutritious “free” food. The little boy ate some of the dandelions right there, which he thought was great fun, almost naughty. I think they’ll carry that litle tradition with them through their lives. Perhaps during stressful times, they will be driven outdoors to pick and eat a few dandelions. I hope so.

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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