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The Science of Comfort Foods

aerial image of kitchen counter filled with baking supplies like flour, eggs, and measuring spoons

[Image: Piktochart]

Can you believe that we’re into week 11 of quarantine now? We’ve been seeing plenty of homemade comfort food pics posted on Instagram lately. In fact, the hashtag #QuarantineBaking has over 208 THOUSAND posts and the hashtag #ComfortFood has over 7.1 MILLLION posts.

There has been so much about comfort food lately in the news too:

  • In Toronto, Bradley Harder started the #PandemicPieProject – he’s baked over 200 pies and given them away to members in his community;
  • In Halifax, Amy Munch who owns Cake Babes, a wedding cake shop, has now baked over 2000 cupcakes and delivered them to front line workers; and
  • In Italy, an 84-year-old Grandma is on lighting up YouTube, demonstrating her recipe for Lockdown Lasagna.

Here are 4 reasons why you might be reaching for those comfort foods right now.

Watch my 1 minute video below about The Science of Comfort Foods

 

1 – Comfort foods trigger dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that sends messages between the brain cells. Dopamine is all about motivation, reward and pleasure. It gives us a feel-good sensation. So when you eat a comfort food that tastes good and is rewarding, you get a rush of dopamine. Your brain remembers this connection between your behaviour (the comfort food you ate) and the reward (the positive feeling). You may be more motivated to continue that behaviour i.e. eat a comfort food because it gives you that feel-good reward. Some psychology researchers think that even ANTICIPATING eating certain foods generates dopamine. So just THINKING about eating a cinnamon bun or chocolate cake can trigger dopamine!

2 – Comfort foods gives us social connection

As a dietitian, I always say that food unites us. My dad is a chef and to me, food is an expression of love. I remember when Jamie Oliver was here in Toronto in 2015, promoting his new cookbook. When he stood up on stage, he said “Food can be a hug”.  Wow, don’t you agree – food can be as comforting as a hug. Some interesting research from the Universities of Tennessee and New York State in 2015 found that comfort foods remind us of our social relationships / and helps us feel less lonesome especially when we are isolated. Comfort foods offer a sense of belonging. So it makes sense that we’re turning to comfort foods during these times of quarantine and physical isolation. On top of that, baking and cooking together offers psychosocial benefits. Think of those virtual dinner parties or virtual cooking classes we’ve been taking – they keep us feeling connected even when we’re not physically together.

3 – Comfort foods are associated with positive memories and nostalgia

Very often, comfort foods remind us of our childhood or home or friends and family. Comfort foods may also be linked to special person like your mom, dad, Nona, Bubbe or Grandma. When we eat comfort foods, it brings pack happy memories from our past. Sometimes even the SMELL of comfort foods can trigger these positive memories. Psychological research shows that smells are powerfully linked to areas in the brain that are associated with memory and emotional experiences 

4 – Comfort foods can give us a little more certainty and routine.

In these times of uncertainty, making and eating comfort foods can offer a sense of structure and control. We have control over the foods we are making and eating, and we also have a little more control over how we feel. Our brain tells us that eating that piece of homemade bread or pasta will make us feel good.

 

If you’re eating for comfort, that’s completely OK. Be mindful of how often and how much. Practice other healthy lifestyle habits to beat stress – try yoga, meditation, a walk with the dog, listening to music or calling a friend. Stay safe and stay well!

 

Foods to Manage Stress

icons of bread, leafy greens, fish and cup of tea to accompany bulleted text

Can you believe that we’re into week 7 of physical distancing and the COVID quarantine? If you’re feeling stressed, you’re not alone.

In fact, a recent poll by Angus Reid found that 50% of Canadians say their mental health has worsened, feeling worried and anxious.

First of all, please know that there are many support resources available online to help you manage stress and anxiety during these tough times. Regular exercise, meditation and other healthy stress busting behaviours can help. Talk to a health care professional if you need some support.

As a dietitian, here are 5 key nutrients and foods to add to your plate which can help you manage stress.

Watch my 1-minute video clip.

 

 

 

Carbs, especially whole grain carbs

Carbs help trigger the production of serotonin. This is the feel good chemical in the brain (a neurotransmitter). Serotonin is made in brain from the amino acid tryptophan. This is a small amino acid and has a tough time getting into the brain.

When you eat a meal that’s mostly carbs, it triggers the insulin to clear the bigger amino acids from your bloodstream, allowing tryptophan to get into the brain and make serotonin. Overall, serotonin helps you to feel calm.

Some good whole grain carb choices are:

  • brown rice
  • whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta
  • quinoa

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 also helps our body make serotonin. This vitamin is found in a wide range of foods, so it’s important to eat a variety of foods. Some of the best foods for vitamin B6 are:

  • chicken, turkey, meat, fish like salmon
  • chickpeas, pistachio nuts, sunflower seeds
  • potatoes, bananas, avocados

Magnesium

When we are stressed, our body (adrenal glands) releases cortisol which is a stress hormone. Cortisol actually depletes the body of magnesium. So we need to make sure we’re getting enough magnesium when you’re feeling stressed.

Some of the best foods for magnesium are:

  • leafy greens like spinach, kale and Swiss chard
  • nuts and seeds like almonds, pine nuts and sunflower seeds
  • whole grains like whole wheat bread (Fun fact: whole wheat bread contains 4x more Mg than white bread)
  • dark chocolate (a 30 g serving offers 15-20% of your daily requirements for magnesium!)

Omega-3 fats

You may already know that omega-3 fats are good for our heart health. But did you know that the animal sources of omega-3 fats also help to boost our mood!

Some of the best sources of omega-3 fats are:

  • fatty fish like salmon, trout, arctic char, sardines. Try to eat fatty fish at least twice a week.
  • omega-3 enriched eggs

Tea

Tea contains a special amino acid called L– theanine. This actually triggers the release of another neurotransmitter in the brain (called GABA or gamma-amino-butyric-acid) which gives you a relaxed feeling. Black tea, green tea, white tea and oolong tea all contain this special amino acid.

Stay well and stay safe. We are all in this together to get through the COVID-19 crisis.

 

 

Grocery Tips during COVID-19

small images of a person, grocery cart, strawberry and hand to accompany the overlay text of tips

Here’s an easy summary of tips for grocery shopping during the COVID crisis.

The great debate – should you wipe food packages and containers?

Some health professionals are saying yes, while others are saying no. According to the National Institutes of Health, coronavirus can survive on food packages for 24 hours (cardboard) or up to 2 or 3 days (plastic and stainless steel). At the same time, there is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted through food or food packaging. So what should you do?

Personally, I’m buying groceries and cooking for elderly family members. So as a precaution, I’ve decided to wipe down packaged goods with a sanitizing solution (1 tsp bleach + 3 cups water).

The key messages to lower your chances of getting COVID-19 are:  Wash your hands often. Don’t touch your face. And keep your distance.

Stay safe, stay strong everyone!

Working from home? Tips to stay fueled and focused

Home office desk with computer and flowers in a vase

The doorbell rings. The dog is barking. A load of laundry sits in the hallway. There can be a lot of distractions when working from home! Here are a few tips to help you stay fueled and focused.

Stick to a regular eating schedule. Get into a routine by eating your meals at the same times every day if possible. Routine gives us a little sense of control during these uncertain times. Plus, you’ll keep your energy levels steady to power through your work day. (Ditto the routine message for sleep and exercise.)

Cook extra for tomorrow’s lunch. Now that you and everyone else in your family are staying home, you’re likely eating all your meals at home too. No more lunch meetings or buying lunch at the food court. Plan to cook extra and portion them out so they’re ready to reheat for tomorrow’s lunch.

Snack on nourishing foods. During times of crisis, we all stress eat. Food can offer us both comfort and nourishment. Give yourself permission to enjoy ALL foods without guilt. If you’re finding that you’re frequently eating to deal with stress or emotions, reach out to a friend, family member or health professional for support.

Stay hydrated with water. By the time you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. Keep your water bottle nearby. Other beverages like coffee, tea and milk count towards your fluid intake too.

Take a break. Stand up and stretch. Do some shoulder rolls. Go out for a walk. This helps minimize mindless munching at your desk. To reduce eye strain, follow the 20-20-20 rule – every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

Keep well, everyone!

 

Eating well during times of COVID-19

Infographic of tips for eating well

Make the most of your food and remember food safety during these times of COVID-19.

Watch my  TV interview here with CTV Your Morning. 

TV host Lindsey DeLuce talking via video to Dietitian Sue Mah

Buy foods with a long shelf life. Fresh, frozen and canned foods are all OK. Some ideas: fresh carrots, potatoes, squash, onions and parsnips; frozen fruit, veggies, meat and fish; canned fruit, veggies, beans, soup and pasta sauce; shelf-stable milk or non-dairy beverages. Having these foods can help you get through tough times in case you become sick and can’t leave your home. I write the best before date on a green piece of tape and stick it right on the can for easy visibility! (See my pantry photo below.)

Keep a food inventory to remind you of what have. Go through your fridge, freezer and pantry. The kids can help with this too! Plan your meals using the foods you have on hand. Try new recipes using your pantry staples. Check best before dates and practice the “First In First Out” rule – use the foods that have the earliest best before date first. Circle or highlight items with an approaching best before date so you know to use them soon. Cross the items off the inventory as you use them so you know when you might need to buy more.

Wash your hands before and after cooking / eating. Wash all fresh fruits and veggies before eating, especially if you’re eating the skins. Cook foods to the right temperature. Keep raw foods separate from cooked foods, and use separate utensils / cutting boards for each. Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. Refrigerate leftovers within 2 hours or freeze leftovers to eat later. Eat refrigerated leftovers within 3 days. For more food safety tips, go to Canadian Public Health Association. 

Don’t share eating utensils. Avoid sharing food from the same container (e.g. avoid sharing popcorn or grapes from the same bowl.) No double dipping please. 🙂 Wash utensils in hot soapy water or in the dishwasher.

Sue's pantry with best before dates labelled on cans

Please take care and keep well!

– Sue Mah, MHSc, RD, PHEc, FDC

 

 

 

 

Do You Eat at Your Desk?

Adult woman eating lunch at her desk and reading her smart phone

Do you eat at your desk? If you answered “yes”, you’re not alone.

A study at Dalhousie University found that almost 40% of Canadians eat at their desk (read more here and a read a news clip here).

In celebration of Nutrition Month, Dietitians of Canada encourages us to be mindful of our eating habits. This means being aware of how we eat, what we eat, why we eat, when we eat and where we eat.

Here are 3 reasons why eating at your desk isn’t a great idea.

  • You may be less productive. I’m a big fan of multi-tasking, but not when it comes to eating. Being glued to your screen all day can be tiring, stressful and inefficient. Step away from your desk to recharge and reboot your energy.
  • You may overeat. A study published in the journal of Physiology & Behaviour found that people who eat while reading their smartphones actually ate 15% more calories at that meal. Distracted eating makes it difficult for us to tune into what and how much we’re eating. Eating mindfully encourages us to be present with our food and enjoy food with all of our senses.
  •  You may be missing out on socializing and sunshine. If you have a desk job, you’re probably spending a lot of time sitting. Give your brain and body a break by taking time to have lunch with friends and co-workers. Head outdoors for some sunshine and fresh air. You’ll be glad you did!

 

That Study about Milk and Risk of Breast Cancer – 6 Questions to Ask Before Jumping to Conclusions

Glass of milk

Image: Pixabay

You may have seen the recent media headlines about a study looking at drinking milk and its impact on breast cancer risk. It’s easy to get caught up in the news. But with any nutrition research, it’s important to read it with a critical eye and ask yourself a few important questions before jumping to conclusions.

Question #1 – Did the study involve humans, animals or cells in the lab? Who were the participants and how many? How long was the study?

Human studies are always the most applicable. This study looked at almost 53,000 adult women across North America. The average age of the women was 57 years and they were all initially free of cancer. The study lasted almost 8 years.

Question #2 – What is the source of the study? Was it published in a reputable, peer-reviewed journal? Was it preliminary research that has yet to be published? 

This study was part of the large Adventist Health Study-2 and published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, which is a peer-reviewed journal. Researchers were from the School of Public Health at Loma Linda University in California.

Question #3 – How was the study designed?

The study design has a big impact on the type of conclusions that can be drawn. This study about milk and breast cancer was an “observational” study meaning that researchers observed participants’ diets, collected data and then came up with a summary of their observations 8 years later.

The problem with observational studies is that we can’t make strong conclusions about cause and effect – in other words, we can’t say with certainty that “A causes B.” We can really only say that “A may be linked to B.” This is a big limitation of observational studies. A better study design would be “experimental”. In an “experimental” study, researchers randomly ask the participants to either undergo treatment A (such as drinking milk) or not undergo treatment A (such as not drinking milk), compare the results, and then see if treatment A causes outcome B (such as an increased risk of breast cancer). Of course, ethics are highly considered ahead of time, and the study needs to include a good number of participants for a decent duration. The advantage with experimental studies is that conclusions can be made about cause and effect.

Also, this study left out some important factors that could have affected the results. For example, the women were only asked if they ever smoked and how long they’ve used alcohol. The researchers didn’t ask for the amounts of tobacco smoked or the amounts of alcohol consumed. In addition, only “vigorous physical activity” was considered, not moderate physical activity (which might be more realistic) or even total minutes of physical activity. Social determinants of health weren’t considered either – like income, education or employment – and we know that these can all affect one’s health and risk for chronic diseases.

Question #4 – How was the nutrition information collected?

This study used self-reported food frequency questionnaires and 24-hour food recalls. In other words, participants told researchers how often they ate certain foods as well as what foods / beverages they consumed in the last 24 hours. There are a few problems with this type of data. First of all, this information was only collected ONCE, and at the beginning of the 8 year-long study. One has to ask if the participants ate exactly the same way years later? (Think about your own diet – has it changed over the last 8 years?) Secondly, self-reported data isn’t entirely accurate since it’s easy to under-estimate or over-estimate the amounts of food eaten. (Can you remember what and how much you ate yesterday or the day before?) And finally, a 24-hour food recall may have been taken on an “off” day, such as a weekend – which may not be an accurate picture of your true dietary intake.

Question #5 – How were the results interpreted?

This question is a bit tricky but crucial to the overall interpretation of the research. The researchers found that as milk intake increased, so did the risk of breast cancer. One news story stated that “women who drink as little as one cup of dairy milk per day could increase their risk of developing breast cancer by up to 50 per cent.” While this sounds alarming, we need to look at the statistics a bit closer.

At the end of the study, 1,057 women out of the 53,000 women developed breast cancer – this is a risk of 2% or 2 cases per 100 women. When women drank 1 cup of milk, their chances of developing breast cancer increased to 3% or 3 cases per 100 women. The difference is 1% and this is called the “absolute risk”. Since the risk of breast cancer went up from 2% to 3%, the overall increase is indeed 50% and this is called the “relative risk”. So while 50% sounds like a big number, the more important and more relevant number for YOU is the absolute risk which is only 1%.

Question #6 – What are other credible authorities saying about this topic?

Dietary guidelines are shaped by evidence-based studies, not just a single study. Always check to see what other credible, professional authorities are saying about the topic. When it comes to preventing cancer, both the Canadian Cancer Society  as well as the American Institute of Cancer Research recommend eating whole grains, vegetables, fruit, beans and lentils as a major part of your everyday diet. Sounds like great advice to me!

Healthy Eating is More than Food!

Sue Mah sitting on sofa with TV hosts Annette Hamm and Bob

Happy Nutrition Month 2020! This year’s theme is “More than Food!”

When we think of healthy eating, we often think about WHAT to eat and maybe even WHAT NOT to eat. But healthy eating is more than food. It’s about HOW to eat too. Mindful eating encourages us to be aware of our hunger and fullness cues, to be present with food, and to be non-judgmental with our food choices.

Watch my fun interview and Mindful Eating Quiz on CHCH Morning Live.

For more nutrition tips check out the Dietitians of Canada website.

Pink top from my friends at Tashi – check them out:  IG @Tashi_Apparel    TWITTER @Tashi_Toronto

Canadians’ Eating Habits

people eating together

Since 1989, the Tracking Nutrition Trends (TNT) survey has been looking at the self-reported knowledge, attitudes and behaviours of adult Canadians with respect to food and nutrition. It’s believed to be the longest standing nutrition tracking study in Canada! The survey sampled 1,500 Canadians online in August 2018 and the results were recently released. Here are a few highlights:

 

8 out of 10 people8 out of 10 Canadians rate their eating habits as good to excellent (43% good, 28% very good, 8% excellent). This represents very little change from the last TNT survey in 2015.

 

6 out of 10 people

 

6 out of 10 Canadians use food and diet to manage health conditions. The top five health conditions of concern include: obesity/overweight, high blood pressure, pre-diabetes/diabetes, high blood cholesterol, and food allergies.

 

 

58% of Canadians say they have made changes to their eating habits in the past year. The key changes are eating MORE fruits and vegetables, fibre and protein, as well as eating LESS sugar, salt / sodium and fatty foods.

 

 

prepping food

 

2 out of 3 Canadians prepared their last 10 meals from scratch most of the time. Millennials are most likely to purchase foods that are ready to eat or ready to re-heat.

 

 

woman eating lunch alone at her desk

Almost 25% of Canadians say they eat alone most of the time. This trend was seen across all age groups.

 

 

 

Are you interested in learning more survey results and how they can impact your business? Join me at my our 13th annual Nutrition for NON-Nutritionists course on April 28 at the University of Toronto. Course details and registration are available now.

 

(Images: Bigstock, Tracking Nutrition Trends, Kasasa.com, NewsTalk1010)

 

 

Healthy and Sustainable Eating: Leading the Shift – Event Highlights

Sue Mah with Dr. Fiona Yeudall and Dr. Cecilia Rocha

Sue Mah with Nutrition Connection Forum speakers Dr. Fiona Yeudall and Dr. Cecilia Rocha. Image source: Lucia Weiler

Hosted by Nutrition Connections, this year’s annual forum explored the shifts that will be required in eating habits and food choices in order to benefit the health of current and future generations as well as the health of the planet. Here’s our summary of a few of the presentations.

What is Sustainable Eating? – Dr. Cecilia Rocha

Dr. Rocha is a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, a Professor in the School of Nutrition and a researcher at the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson University.

Sustainable diets, defined by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations are: those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.

Rocha reminded us of the 17 sustainable goals proposed by the United Nations, in particular, goal #12 which focuses on responsible consumption and production. Consumers have the potential to be agents of change through their healthy and ethical choices of what to eat. Through responsible consumption, ordinary people can effect change by carefully selecting the products they buy. However, price, convenience and brand familiarity are often the most important decision for most consumers, rather than fairness, sustainability and health.

In a world in which food is mostly a commodity, bought and sold through markets, how do we make the transition from unsustainable and unhealthy food systems to sustainable diets? Can consumers, through their choices of what food to buy, lead the way to that transformation? Rocha further posed this thought-provoking question: Is it realistic or reasonable to put this heroic task on the shoulders of consumers?

Rocha acknowledged that alternative food markets such as Community-Supported Agriculture (CDA), famers’ markets and fair-trade may offer consumers a more sustainable, healthy and ethical model of food production and consumption. Her opinion is that these alternative markets are still viewed as niche and alone, aren’t the answer. Rocha suggested that public policy is needed in at least three areas to facilitate responsible consumption:
– taxes and regulation (e.g. on sugar-sweetened beverages, use of chemicals, ultra-processed foods, and advertising)
– subsidies (e.g. for ecologically-friendly processes and alternative markets)
– information, education and nudging (e.g. food-based dietary guidelines).

 

How Do Our Eating Habits Compare to Canada’s Food Guide? – Dr. Rachel Prowse

Dr. Prowse, Applied Public Health Science Specialist at Public Health Ontario, compared the recommended proportions of food (by weight) in the new Canada’s Food Guide versus Ontario adults’ intakes from the 2015 Canadian Community Health Survey – Nutrition Public Use Microdata File. Research results are expected to be published next year, however preliminary findings show that we’re not eating according to the recommended proportions of the food guide. Dr. Prowse suggests that non whole grains and “Other foods” (such as cookies, cakes, pastries, ice cream and confectionary) may be displacing nutritious foods on our plates. A consumer shift towards eating a more plant-based diet may help to drive the production of sustainable food options.

 

A Deep Dive into Food Waste – Dr. Kate Parizeau

As an Associate Professor at the University of Guelph, Dr. Parizeau researches the social context of waste and its management. Parizeau shared some staggering statistics:
– Canada generates 12.6 million tonnes of organic waste per year
– Canada wastes $49.5 billion of food annually – enough to feed every person living in Canada for almost 5 months.

In collaboration with the Guelph Family Health Study, Parizeau looked at food waste both at the household level. Household food waste was defined as either “avoidable” (food that could have been eaten such as whole fruits and vegetables, spoiled food, uneaten leftovers, food past it’s best before date as well as bought but forgotten food) versus “unavoidable” (such as egg shells, banana peels and meat bones).

The study found that about ¾ of the household food waste was avoidable. Most of the avoidable food waste (over 65%) came from fruits and vegetables, 24% from bread and cereals, 6% from meat and fish, and 2% from milk, cheese and eggs. Overall, this amounts to an average of $936 per year, over 175,000 calories thrown out and 1,196 kg of C02 emissions created.

 

Image source: Kate Parizeau

 

Food literacy skills can result in reduced food waste. Behaviours such as meal planning, shopping with a list, food preparation, storing food safely and cooking at home are encouraged. A new cookbook Rock What You’ve Got – Recipes for Preventing Food Waste is now available for free download. This cookbook was created by the Guelph Food Waste Research Group in partnership with The Helderleigh Foundation, George Brown College’s Food Innovation and Research Studio (FIRSt).

 

 

 

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