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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.

 

 

5 Things You Didn’t Know about Citrus

Citrus

From health to wellness, here are 7 fun facts about oranges & lemons.

1. Citrus contains flavonoids, a special type of plant chemical that can be beneficial against heart disease and cancer.

2. Just one orange supplies over 100% of your daily quota for vitamin C, not to mention other nutrients such as fibre and potassium.

3. A Meyer lemon is a cross between a mandarin orange and a lemon. Meyer lemons have a bright, thin skin and are sweeter / less acidic than regular lemons.

4. Citrus peel is packed with an essential oil called linalool, which might help relieve stress.

5. Hot water can actually extract flavonoids from the citrus peel. So go ahead and enjoy a cup of hot water with lemon!

References:
Research from Master Chefs at Johnson Wales University, July 10, 2014.
Benavente-Garcia O and Castillo J. Update on uses and properties of citrus flavonoids: new findings in anticancer, cardiovascular and anti-inflammatory activity. J Agric Food Chem 2008, Aug 13;56(15):6185-6205.
Xu GH1, Chen JC, Liu DH, Zhang YH, Jiang P, Ye XQ. Minerals, phenolic compounds, and antioxidant capacity of citrus peel extract by hot water. J Food Sci. 2008 Jan;73(1):C11-8.

Disclosure: I was invited to speak at an event featuring citrus fruit, however this is not a sponsored post.

Celebrate Mindful Eating Day!

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The Centre for Mindful Eating has declared January 28, 2106 as the first international Mindful Eating Day!

According to the Centre, mindful eating is:
– Allowing yourself to become aware of the positive and nurturing opportunities that are available through food selection and preparation by respecting your own inner wisdom
– Using all your senses in choosing to eat food that is both satisfying to you and nourishing to your body
– Acknowledging responses to food (likes, dislikes or neutral) without judgment
– Becoming aware of physical hunger and satiety cues to guide your decisions to begin and end eating

Here are my tips for eating mindfully today and every day!
1. Listen to your hunger cues. We’ve all turned to food when we were feeling stressed, bored, lonely or upset. Mindful eating encourages us to ask ourselves if we are truly hungry before we automatically reach for a snack or meal.
2. Listen to your fullness cues. My general rule of thumb is to eat until you’re about 80% full. What does 80% feel like? Well, you’re not stuffed and you don’t have to loosen your belt. But at the same time, you’re not hungry anymore.
3. Eat with all of your senses. Can you taste the natural sweetness of those roasted carrots, or the hint of ginger in the butternut squash soup? Savour the flavours, colours, sounds and textures of every meal.
4. Plate it. Put your food on a plate or in a bowl, even if it’s two cookies or a handful of grapes. That way, you’ll have a good sense of your portions which is tricky to do if you’re eating straight out of the cookie bag.
5. Take your time and enjoy! Eating is one of life’s greatest joys, so don’t rush it. Sit down, relax and enjoy each bite!

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