During the cold weather months, our minds turn to eating more than we should, especially comfort foods. What does the term “comfort food” even mean? Doesn’t all food provide comfort because the flipside would be starving? Well no, not really. According to an article by Cari Romm in The Atlantic, comfort food is food that soothes us and gives us solace. Romm notes that one of the earliest print references to comfort food was in an article for the Palm Beach Post in 1966 about stress eating and the types of foods eaten to deal with stress.

Comfort foods are what we associate with a warm, cozy feeling or a nostalgic, happy memory. You can imagine comfort food as a hug for your gastrointestinal system. It can be a hot bowl of chili on a cold, wintery night to warm your soul. It can be fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies that you remember making with your grandmother. It doesn’t even have to be warm: that mint chocolate chip ice cream could be calling your name as well.

There are several common traits of comfort foods. First of all, the preparation must be simple. Remember, you are trying to alleviate stress, not exaggerate it by julienning things and summoning your inner Martha Stewart. Second, comfort foods are usually higher in calories and/or carbohydrates: think mac and cheese or mashed potatoes with pools of butter. Third, comfort foods make us feel better. If you aren’t feeling well, had a tough or draining day, dealt with cold and bitter weather, or even feel the need to celebrate something, comfort food satiates.

What does comfort food do that makes us, well, comfortable? The answer is dopamine! If you paid attention in biology class, you may remember that dopamine is the “feel good” neurotransmitter (a chemical made and released by the brain). Dopamine affects the reward center of the brain and hence makes you feel better. According to Nora D. Volkow et al. in the journal article “Reward, dopamine and the control of food intake: implications for obesity” in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, “[c]ertain foods, particularly those rich in sugars and fat, are potent rewards that promote eating (even in the absence of an energetic requirement) and trigger learned associations between the stimulus and the reward (conditioning).”

What do they mean by “learned”? Jog your memory to a time when you were a child and fell off your bike or had a bad day at school. Chances are that afterwards, you were given something with a high sugar or fat content. Consuming foods that you love or crave releases dopamine, and the release of dopamine makes us feel good. In order to get that feeling, we look to those foods again and again. Your brain then associates that food with comfort.

Now that you are an adult, you may want to make healthier versions of your favorite comfort foods. It’s not as arduous of a task to try to create more nutritious versions of these staples than to train ourselves to find comfort in healthier food. With year three of the global pandemic starting soon, we need to make healthier choices that give us comfort while also prioritizing our health. I’m not suggesting you try to make sliced cucumbers your new best friend; however, you can make your palate a bit more discerning than a seven-year-old in a mall food court.

There are some examples of comfort foods made healthier. Do you love pizza more than pizza loves you? Now cauliflower crust pizza is all the rage. Are mashed potatoes your go-to spud? Try mashed sweet potatoes to get a boost of vitamin A. With chili season upon us, try swapping the beef in your chili with ground chicken or even make a multi-bean version with some extra veggies. I used to think butternut squash soup could not be made without heavy cream and a lot of salt. I swapped those ingredients with a few tablespoons of lentils blended with some jalapeño, and it changed my life. You can find my recipe for it on page 22.

Have you jumped on the bone broth bandwagon yet? A cup of hot bone broth on a cold, wintery morning will not only give you loads of nutrition for very few calories, but it will also satiate enough to forego that cup of hot chocolate from time to time. If you are still in dire need of a cocoa-like drink, try heating up a cup of any Organic Valley® halal-certified milk product and add some vanilla flavor and a swirl of Forever Bee Honey®. Trust this chocoholic: you will love this warm, caffeine-free indulgence!

What about desserts? Give your chocolate chip cookie recipe a new twist with some almond flour and oats and swap in organic coconut oil instead of butter to discover an even better flavor profile. Years ago, people discovered mayonnaise made chocolate cake richer. Try substituting Cabot® 10% Greek Style Yogurt instead, and you won’t look back.

While comfort foods provide us with strong gratification, we do not need to make ourselves feel uncomfortable after that initial high comes crashing down. Let’s use common sense in our gastronomical decisions. Moderation is key. Make positive, gradual, consistent changes. This is not only the key to success for our health but also the key to success in our faith.

Husna T. Ghani has an MBA and an MSEd. She is a former science teacher and is currently a strategy consultant in the spheres of communication and education. When she isn’t doing her day job, she focuses on dessert-making and saving the world, one pastry at a time.