The comfort foods we should be eating
If there’s one thing winter brings, aside from a bout of moody weather and an excuse to stop shaving, it’s an inherent want to seek out illicit comfort foods.
Currently 38 per cent of Australian women and 53 per cent of men are expected to gain up to five kilograms over winter, according to a NSW survey, and nine out of ten believe they naturally eat more take-away in the colder months.
It’s no secret then, that for those of us trying to follow a healthy path, winter can feel like a weight war zone – with carby, salty, hot foods, our number one enemy.
So what exactly causes us to crave the not-so-good stuff and more importantly, how can we best avoid temptation and stick to our health goals?
According to research, it’s often more a case of psychology than of cravings.
Buffalo University believes our childhood is partially to blame. The study found it’s natural to turn to comfort foods that were cooked for us by our parents, so whenever we’re feeling rejected, isolated or in need of comfort we’re drawn back to that food as a means of reconnecting.
Then there’s the chemical argument from the University of New South Wales that found when rats were fed a high-fat/high- sugar diet it could have the same mood-altering effect as antidepressants.
That’s not to say though we should go running to the middle aisle of the supermarket for a late night binge. Quite the opposite, a Health Psychology study found no one particular food has the power to alter our mood more so than any another. Meaning those carbs have no more happy power over you than a bland piece of fruit.
So – where does that leave us? Basically, regardless of why, we need to know what to eat when the urge to cave in to a delicious not-so-nutritious meal kicks in.
Scott Gooding, a Sydney-based PT, health coach and author of the Clean Living cookbook series says we needn’t condemn ourselves to a season of miserable salads – instead it’s about tooling ourselves with the right recipes and mindset.
“Comfort food doesn’t HAVE to be unhealthy. It’s about shifting the lens on what we consider comfort food. I gravitate towards slow cooked meats (lamb shoulders, beef cheeks and osso bucco) full of healthy gelatin and flavour and couple it with roasted pumpkin – in my eyes you’ve definitely got yourself a tasty bowl of comfort food right there,” says Gooding.
“While it’s natural to crave warm foods in winter, I’m not convinced we crave more carbs. If your diet is high in fat you won’t be craving carbs but if your diet consists of sugars and carbs then it’s no surprise that you stay on that macro cycle wanting more of it.”
Instead, Gooding suggests going for a warm turmeric latte, chicken soup or roast veggies when an urge hits – “it’ll most certainly be more beneficial to the gut than a toastie or bowl of pasta.”
Don’t forget too, it’s not just food we should focus on in winter either – it’s important to take into account our movement – or lack there of, advises nutritionist Melanie McGrice. “Our activity levels often reflect the weather so if we’re more likely to stay inside on the couch each gloomy day, we need to find other alternatives to putting on our runners.”
Now we’ve got the mindset sorted, read on for our fail-proof list of ‘what to eat’ and ‘what not to eat’ this winter, as provided by Sydney’s top nutritionists…
The approved foods:
1. Curry, stews and casseroles
“Warm foods like stews, casseroles, soups and curries are not only hearty, but you can add plenty of vegetables which will boost the immune system and increase antioxidants, beneficial for overall health,” says Simone Austin, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
To add an extra boost, McGrice recommends peppering dishes with the following spices:
- Turmeric – it reduces inflammation, boosts the immune system and can assist with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, chronic arthritis and dementia.
- Cinnamon – it’s an anti-inflammatory that helps improve insulin sensitively and blood lipid levels.
- Garlic – it helps blood pressure, lipid levels and mental health. Plus it’s anti-bacterial so it’ll catch and reduce nasty cold and flus.
- Ginger – it’s loaded with anti-cancer and anti-inflammatory properties, helps chronic joint pain and will relieve stomach troubles.
- Chilli – it regulates appetite and thermogenesis (the amount of energy burnt and released as heat) as well as assisting with inflammation, circulation, cancer growth, pain sensitivity and mental health.
2. Fruit and vegetables
“Load up on winter fruits and vegies packed with vitamin C – like oranges, kiwifruit, mandarins, capsicum and broccoli. Not just great for overall immune system function, they also protect cells from damage caused by virus or bacteria,” says Austin.
To keep things interesting, McGrice recommends stewed fruit – “it makes a delicious and nourishing snack that’s a great source of both fibre and antioxidants and will keep the bugs at bay.”
3. Seafood, red meat and nuts
“The number one thing these all have in common is zinc. Zinc is essential for keeping the immune system functioning and assisting with cell regulation. Try oysters and red meat (including kangaroo) and for a small dose, add in wholegrains or nuts too,” says Austin.
4. Red wine, tea and herbs
“Packed with antioxidants, these foods all contain flavonoids – a compound associated with reducing inflammation and helping the immune system,” says Austin. “While popularly discussed in red wine, flavonoids also naturally occur in plants, so alternatively, sip green tea, fill your plate with vegetables or add herbs to a bowl of soup for a natural flavonoid boost.”
“It’s a winter favourite that’s both warm and comforting. Nutritionally it’s a healthy breakfast that will fill you up, lower cholesterol levels and provide sustained energy release,” says McGrice.
6. Vegie soup
“A winter soup using cannellini beans or chickpeas will give you a great source of protein and provide a good range of vitamins and minerals. Plus soup gives you extra fluid which is a bonus as we often get more dehydrated in winter,” says McGrice.
The steer-clear list:
1. Macaroni and cheese
“It doesn’t provide a lot of nutrition – only excess carbohydrates, salt and fat. If you must, turn it into a pasta bake by adding tuna and vegetables,” says McGrice.
2. Cup a soup
“They may seem like an easy solution but processed soups are notoriously high in salt and don’t provide any energy source (from carbohydrates, protein or fats) so they leave you hungry and low in energy again quite quickly. Instead prepare a homemade soup ahead of time,” says McGrice.
3. Mashed or fried potatoes
New research from BMJ journal has found just four servings of mashed or fried potatoes a week can drastically increase hypertension and risk of heart disease. Couple this with the fact hot chips are high in saturated fat and salt which leads to weight gain and really, they’re best avoided. If you must, McGrice suggests having a jacket potato instead.
4. Junk food
It’s an obvious one but saturated fat, salt and sugar found in grab-and-go convenience foods are not just unhealthy for us, they are also linked to causing as much damage to the kidneys as diabetes, a new study released in Experimental Physiology journal has found.
Still craving something more? Warm your belly with Scott Gooding’s ‘so comforting it hurts’ winter dish…
14-Hour slow cooked lamb shoulder
1 lamb shoulder
4 brown onion, halved
6 garlic, peeled and sliced
2 tins of tomatoes
1 punnet cherry toms
10 anchovy fillets
1/2 cup kalamata olives, pitted
500 ml beef bone broth or stock
2 tbsp oregano
Handful capers, rinsed and drained
2 bay leaves
Steamed greens to serve
- Pre-heat oven to 250 degrees celsius.
- Place the lamb in a large baking tray and cover it with the herbs, tomatoes and bone broth.
- Throw in the onions, garlic, anchovies, olives, bay leaves and capers.
- Reduce the temperature to 90 degrees celsius.
- Cover the tray with foil and pop in the oven for 14 hours.
- Remove the tray from the oven and pour the liquid into a large fry pan. Turn the pan onto the highest heat and cook for 5 minutes or until the sauce thickens and reduces.
- Pour the thickened sauce back onto the lamb.
- Serve with steamed greens.
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