One of the toughest things I’ve dealt with in the last 2 years was giving up the building blocks of some of my favorite comfort foods. Wheat, cheese and chocolate.
Since I can remember lasagna, homemade macaroni and cheese, spanakopita filled with feta, drippy Mexican food, yogurt filled-Indian food with several helpings of naan, brie and bread sandwiches, molten chocolate cake, chocolate ice cream, chocolate mousse are just a sampling of how I found pleasure. They were my comfort zone in a hectic, stressed out, uncertain life. These foods eased the pain and stress of a deadline, a break up, or a death.
So when I gave up gluten, dairy and chocolate to heal my body from multiple sclerosis, I felt like I lost my crutch. What would I do when I had a bad day at work? Or, as I was reminded recently, what would I do when the temperatures dropped below freezing?
Comfort food is a complex issue. But I want to break it down. I learned there are two kinds of comfort that food provide us: emotional and physical. It can be hard to draw a line between the two. However, when we eat things that make us sick or exacerbate our fatigue (i.e., refined sugar, processed foods, gluten when we’re gluten intolerant or milk when were dairy intolerant), understanding the difference is critical to busting through our cravings and make lasting change for lasting health.
Emotional comfort is one of the strongest, and certainly the most challenging aspects of comfort food to understand. It comes from positive emotions, such as the comfort you get when eating a grilled cheese sandwich like your mom would make on cold winter days.
There is also a shadow side to comfort food. Such as when you crave sugar because that’s what mom would give you every time you were upset. In this case, the comfort comes from soothing over pain.
How do you handle the emotional comfort you get from these foods, now that sugar or gluten or dairy (or some other comfort food is no longer on your menu? • Identify the emotional component associated with eating that food.
If you want to know more about the food-emotion connection or you’re a comfort food junkie, eating to soothe your moods, then check out my friend Lindsey Smith’s book Junk Foods & Junk Moods. It’s excellent.
I thought I had broken free of my comfort food cravings until last year when I visited a local vegan restaurant. I was no longer craving cheese or bread or even chocolate. Yet as I looked at the menu – OMG they had macaroni and cheese! It had been years. It certainly couldn’t be good or truly gluten and dairy free. I peppered the waitress with questions. She assured me it was safe and delicious. I was in.
As the heaping mound of macaroni and cheese arrived (with a side of kale sautéed in garlic of course) I was filled with joy. There was certainly an emotional comfort I was feeling, but I was also feeling cold and this was just the ticket to warm me up.
There is a physical reason comfort food is comforting. It fills us up and makes us feel satisfied with it’s fat and heaviness. Whether mac-n-cheese, a grilled cheese sandwich or cream of mushroom soup, these warm, rich foods chase the cold from our bones in the way a salad won’t do.
But where do you find that physical, warming comfort when you eliminate cheesy, bready goodness? The good news is you don’t have to ditch your traditional comfort foods entirely.
Start with soups. They are warm and satisfying and can me made creamy and rich without the use of dairy or gluten, I promise.
Have an open mind and experiment. Being open to alternatives and experimentation, will help you warm your tummy without instigating dis-ease and sickness. I know I was highly skeptical of truly dairy-free and gluten-free mac-n-cheese. But I figured I didn’t have anything to lose by trying it out. Here is my rendition. Let me know what you think.
2 cups broth or water (you can use vegetable broth or a good bone broth if you’ve got it around, just make sure its homemade or at least free of any MSG or gluten if it’s store bought)
¼ cup all-purpose gluten-free flour (I like Namaste and Bob’s Red Mill brand)
1 tbl olive oil or coconut oil
4 cloves of garlic, pressed through garlic press
Pinch of dried thyme, crumbled in your fingers
¼ tsp sea salt
2-3 pinches of fresh ground pepper
1/3 tsp turmeric
3/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes (excellent source of Vitamin B12 and perfect for boosting your energy)
1 tbl fresh lemon juice
1-2 tsp of prepared yellow mustard (experiment with different varieties. I like Dijon).
3 cups of gluten-free macaroni (I like Tinkiyada)
Directions: In a large pot, start water to boil for your macaroni.
Whisk together the broth and flour in a bowl until the flour has dissolved.
Preheat a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add oil and garlic to pan and gently cook for about 2 minutes, being careful to keep the garlic moving so it doesn’t burn.
Add the thyme, salt and pepper and cook for about 30 seconds.
Add the broth, turmeric and nutritional yeast.
Raise the heat to medium.
Whisk constantly. The sauce should start to bubble and thicken in 3 to 4 minutes. If not, raise the temperature a bit.
Add macaroni to pot of boiling water.
Once the mixture is thickening, stir and cook for 2 minutes.
Add the lemon juice and mustard.
Taste if is needs salt (this will depend on the saltiness of your broth). You can also adjust with lemon juice and mustard to get the right tang you are looking for. Turn off heat on the sauce.
Drain your pasta once al dente. Return pasta to pot. Ladle sauce over pasta until it’s well covered. Stir. Add more as desired. Serve.
Life is too short not to enjoy your food. It’s also too short to be held down by fatigue and dis-ease. At times it can seem like these are opposing desires. My challenge to you is to unlock your healing comfort foods to you can enjoy life and heal your body.
If you have a favorite healthy comfort food as we head into fall, share it in the comments below.
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