Why are Comfort Foods, so Comforting?

Comfort foods are calorie dense and nutrient specific. When our bodies encourage us to eat comfort foods, it is looking for calories and more specifically, a certain type of them. We crave those comfort food calories because there is something…increased stress, lack of sleep, cold temperatures, fighting off infection, or simply skipping a meal… that makes that day atypical and disrupts our body’s ability to maintain it’s usual balance.

Here are 3 things about the body which help explain why we crave comfort foods:

1) Your body burns way more calories than you do!

Maintaining heart rate and body temperature, breathing, and digesting food are huge calorie guzzlers! Your movements (i.e., carrying groceries or going up and down stairs) only require about 25% of the calories you eat. The other 75% goes to your body just doing its thing.

If you are a 48-year-old 5’5”, 130 lb female, you burn on average 2000 calories each day – 1500 calories for your body to keep you alive and 500 calories to do whatever activities you wish it to do.

Which brings us to the next point…

2) Your body steals calories away from you, without you even knowing it!

If on a particularly strenuous day you burn 400 calories more than you normally would, your body is just going to steal some of those calories back, usually by making you less active as the day goes on.

This is called Constrained Daily Energy Expenditure whereby if you only have 500 calories to do what you want to do physically and you use 400 of them by noon, you’ve only got 100 calories left for the rest of the day. Why do you think your body wants a mid afternoon nap or better yet… a snack?!!! It’s because it’s pacing you with only 100 calories to spare and if it can convince you to gain more calories by eating something, it will. Your body is like a Jeopardy contestant saying …”I’ll take a muffin for 200 calories, please.”

Find this hard to believe? The body epitomizes efficiency and adaptability to stay stable.

  • You leave an air-conditioned room to go into 30-degree weather, it figures it out! It makes you sweat.
  • You run after the garbage truck; it figures it out. It increases your heart rate to support your body’s oxygen needs.
  • If you start exercising on a regular basis, it figures it out. Your body gets very efficient so that it doesn’t have to burn more calories than it has. In other words, the first time you start a spin class you burn 450 Cals and just about puke. By 6 months, however, you walk out of there only having burned 200 calories doing the same class. Your muscles have become more efficient at using less oxygen.

That’s the point of exercise – to make the body better…better at fending off disease, better at letting you do what you want to do longer, better at keeping you alive. Exercise is not good for weight loss. Your body wants you to be strong and fit to survive, not slight and super lean to walk down a runway.

So, you see how your body can burn 400 calories at the gym, but at the end of the day only 200-220 extra than it started with. (Hyper-active kids who are allowed to be active are usually calmer later in the day because their body’s slow down to pace the calories they have left. Their bodies steal the calories upfront then carefully allocate them for the rest of the day.) And if your body can’t steal enough calories back before you go to bed, it drives you to the pantry in search of a comfort food. Popcorn, anyone?

Which brings us to the final point…

3) Your body might be dependent on calories to survive but it doesn’t really care what it’s eating.

The body only knows the difference between carbohydrates, fats, proteins, fibre, water, vitamins and minerals. It doesn’t know if it’s eating an egg on toast in Canada or liverwurst on rye in Germany. The nutrition facts for those two meals are almost identical!

So don’t think your body is cheering you on from the inside just because you gave it a salad for lunch instead of a grilled cheese sandwich. If it’s looking for a calorie dense, comfort food and you give it a bulky mass of fibre and water, it’s not going to be happy.

Your body also knows how many calories it is getting if you just give it time to digest them. This doesn’t mean you must chew your food 100 times before swallowing and it doesn’t mean that you need to close your office door, set a place setting with a napkin, and mindfully eat your lunch like you were having a three-course meal at a fine restaurant. It just means trust that your body has a system. If you sit down to a piece of salmon, with a sweet potato, a salad, and a glass of milk worth 685 Calories, your body will feel just as full after you’ve inhaled a 670 calorie Quarter Pounder with Cheese and a glass of milk IF you wait the time it would have taken to eat the salmon dinner.

That’s the trick when eating calorie dense comfort foods: trust your body and give it time to register those calories! You trust when going to bed that you will fall asleep eventually, not INSTANTLY. You trust that your body will adapt to a change in temperature, a time zone, or exercise but not INSTANTLY. Trust that your body knows what it is doing when it tells you what it wants. Eat comfort foods but give the body time to tell you when it’s had enough. It’s a team effort between you and your body and knowing the body is your captain takes the pressure off you having to make all the decisions alone. Give it the time it needs to guide you towards a healthy eating style that is ideal for you and get the comfort out of those comfort foods you love to eat!

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