Kicking the comfort food habit

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Let’s be honest. How much mac and cheese have you consumed since March 2020?

How many times did you grab a bag of chips when you reached for the remote? Did “Netflix and chill” become a movie over a pint of ice cream? And did learning how to bake turn into too many taste tests of fresh-from-the-oven goodies?

If you used food to feel better while nervously watching the world come to a halt, you weren’t alone, said Brittany Link, a registered dietitian.

“It’s been a lot of comfort eating, a lot of mindless eating and a lot of ‘I’m at home, let me just wander over to the cupboard,’” said Link, a certified wellness coach at Advice for Eating, located near Rice Village.

While emotional eating was already an obstacle for many, Cheryl Hughes, a registered dietitian with UT Physicians, said “it’s something that has increased this past year.”

Comfort foods are often carbs or items high in fat, salt or sugar, Hughes explained. While these foods engage the reward center in the brain, they only provide short-term relief, she added, which is why one cookie is rarely enough.

Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment of an eight-week series geared toward helping Renew readers prepare their bodies and minds to return to normal life this summer, as the pandemic wanes.


“It’s something our body continues to want to do over and over again, because it feels good,” Hughes said.

And that has contributed to unhealthy weight gain during the pandemic. A recent poll by the American Psychological Association found that 61 percent of adults admit to undesired weight gain in the past year. The average amount added was 29 pounds, and 10 percent of people reported putting on more than 50 pounds.

“In order to remain healthy, a certain amount of time is dedicated to exercise, a certain amount to sleep, to wellness and self-care and to healthy eating,” said Moe Schlachter, a registered dietitian and founder of Houston Family Nutrition in Montrose. “What elements of a good routine stuck and what fell off?”

As schedules shifted, sticking to a healthy routine became a challenge — especially as Houstonians were stocking their pantries amid concern that certain items would run out.

Link noticed that at first, people were in survival mode, certain that COVID-19 wouldn’t last.

“Then, there was an awareness, ‘This is going to be for a while. Maybe I should get back on track,’” she said. “Now people are getting out more and getting dressed again.”

Or at least hoping to get out of their stretchy pants soon. “They might be noticing that their old clothes no longer fit,” Link said.

But have no fear — these experts are here to help. Here is their advice for getting back on track and for finding a “new normal” way of healthy eating:

Forgive yourself.

Before feeling too bad about the buttons that won’t budge on your work clothes, acknowledge that the past year provided numerous reasons to indulge in comfort foods, Hughes said.

“It’s important to acknowledge how difficult this time has been,” she said.

Then give yourself time to check in with your emotions. “Ask yourself a few questions,” Hughes advised. “Why am I doing this to begin with? Am I bored, lonely, depressed? Am I tired of Zoom calls or being on the computer all the day?”

Feeling guilty about your food choices, or believing that eating a certain way is naughty, is not helpful, Hughes added.

“Shame is never good,” she said. “And food is never the enemy. But how can you eat to feel energized and maintain your blood sugar? It’s often about finding a middle ground.”

Get back on a schedule — before your schedule gets too hectic again.

Now is an ideal time to prioritize your health, before you are back to the usual work and commute calendar, Schlachter said. “Establish a healthy routine as a nonnegotiable, and then you can schedule around it,” he said.

Link suggested adding time to your day for meals and designating a place to eat that is not also a desk or in front of the TV. When working from home became the norm last year, she said, so did cramming in lunch and mindless eating.

“This year, we learned to eat with distractions,” Schlachter said. “That tends to work against us. Get back to eating with as few distractions at possible.”

Working from home also upended some eating habits completely, Hughes said. People might grab a coffee and get started straight away without breakfast and then forgo lunch. By the end of the day, a giant plate of carbs would be hard to resist.

“Eating consistently is a big first step,” she said.

Having balanced meals throughout the day, adding protein and fiber and setting aside time for healthy snacks can make it easier to make wise decisions and stick to a nutrition plan, Hughes explained.

Find something other than food for comfort.

At the end of the day, food doesn’t actually bring you the comfort you want, Link said. She suggested discovering other options to calm down and relax.

Make a list of ways to find joy other than what’s on your plate, like taking a bath, reading a book or listening to music.

“For some people, it’s even the act of cooking,” she said. “Try doing one of those other things first.”

Comfort food is simply one way to improve mood, Hughes added. “It’s important to see it as one tool, and it’s not the only one,” she said. “There are so many things to fill your life with.”

For instance, if stress is the root cause of emotional eating, a walk, swim, tennis match or meditation session could turn things around, Hughes explained. “A lot of times, adding to self-care — whether it’s bath bombs or staying organized — can make all the difference,” she said. “You have many resources you can turn to besides food.”

Learn to understand your habits — and know when you need help.

Schlachter explained that one cookie can mean different things to different people. Does having one cookie seem like no big deal – or does it start a cycle of guilt and shame?

“If someone is emotional eating but is in control, their path back to eating normally can be a lot more direct,” he said. “Someone who feels defeated by comfort eating will have a lot more difficult time getting back on track.”

Schlachter helps clients take charge of their own diets and health. “We want to help people get to a place where they can take care of themselves emotionally and not have regrets,” he said.

Support groups and dietitians can offer assistance in guiding individuals toward healthier eating habits.

“The feelings you have are being felt by a lot of people,” he said. “A dietitian’s office is first and foremost a judgment-free space where you can relax and start thinking about strategy.”

Link said that individuals often are reluctant to call a dietitian. “They’re scared I’m going to take everything away and they’re going to be hungry,” she said. “A good dietitian is not going to take away all your foods. It’s not sustainable.”

A therapist can also help with the root causes of emotional eating, Hughes added. “You can’t always do this on your own,” she said.

Become more aware.

Try pacing yourself during a meal. Link recommended putting down your fork between bites — and taking smaller bites instead of shoveling food. “It takes your brain a while to recognize you’re full,” she said.

Turning a meal into an occasion can make eating the main event — and more mindful, Link added. She suggested making a plate pretty. “That way you’re focused on eating and enjoying your food. You’re a lot more likely to feel full and satisfied,” she said.

Schlachter added that food journaling can build awareness of what you’re eating. “It gets us out of our heads a bit,” he said. “Usually, we learn something like, ‘I wasn’t eating as much as I thought I was’ or maybe ‘I was eating more.’”

Hughes said that being more aware of how food affects your mood and energy level is also important. Perhaps, the food you thought you wanted ended up causing you to crash an hour later.

She suggested: “Ask yourself, ‘Are these foods working for me?’ If they’re not, ‘What can I do instead.’”

Don’t let it become a chore.

Meal prep is a popular idea these days, but the process of shopping, planning and cooking can become overwhelming. Instead, Link said, spread it out over a couple of days.

And make it easy. Link likes bowls and salads for quick meal recipes — and suggested keeping some proteins and pre-chopped vegetables in the fridge, as well as a few frozen grains in the freezer. “Double your recipes when you can — and freeze half,” she said. “I like to have a backup. And I encourage people to take shortcuts.”

If cooking is not your favorite hobby, Hughes suggested picking up frozen or canned vegetables at the grocery store, making it simple to add something green to your plate. “Start where you’re at, and start simple,” she said. “You don’t have to bust out the cookbook.”

Play to your inner, picky-eater child.

Schlachter is also a trained chef. He enjoys creating recipes that taste good — and are still good for you. At Houston Family Nutrition, he also offers cooking demos and guided grocery shopping trips.

“Healthy foods and delicious foods were positioned at odds with each other,” he said.

That dichotomy meant people had to make a choice — and would often check the delicious box over the nutritious one. “Our philosophy is to erase that line that doesn’t really exist,” Schlachter said.

Instead of giving up your favorite recipes, check the portion size and include them as part of a nutritious meal. Schlachter even suggested that parents serve vegetables with desserts, instead of placing them at opposing sides of dinner. “Let the child be around the vegetable a little more,” he said.

Before long, they might just take a bite. The same advice can be applied to the parents themselves, Schlachter said.

“The path to learning to like a food that you’ve never liked before is the way an infant would,” he said. “Have it in front of you but give yourself permission not to eat it. Take the pressure off. Maybe the 50th time, you’ll try a little, and it won’t be so bad.”

As you incorporate more healthy food, there’s also less room for those high-sugar, high-sodium processed foods, Link said. “The better those good-for-you foods start to taste, the less appetizing processed foods become,” she said.

And healthy food doesn’t have to taste bad or boring, Link added. “It’s the same advice I give to people who have picky kids,” she said. “You don’t have to steam or boil your broccoli. Put a sauce on it.”

Eating well for the long term means that foods have to taste good — so you want to keep enjoying them, Link explained.

“So don’t cut out the mac and cheese,” she said. “Just add some broccoli to it.”

Lindsay Peyton is a Houston-based freelance writer.

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