It’s getting darker, colder and you’ve had a hard day. Australian Institute of Fitness Nutrition Expert, Shivaun Conn, lays down the law on cleaning up your winter comfort food act!

Reaching for your favourite foods is an ideal way to soothe your winter blues. A hot meat pie and creamy mashed potato for dinner followed by a large serving of chocolate pudding and ice cream makes you feel momentarily better. Then the guilt creeps in… either that night, the next day or when it’s time to shed the winter clothes. Comfort food all of a sudden is not so comforting.

So what is comfort food?

Comfort foods provide consolation or a feeling of wellbeing, and are often associated with childhood, home cooking or a loved one. In winter they also tend to be warm as we seek physical comfort from the cold weather. A ‘convenience factor’ also comes into play when a meal by the fire at the local pub or staying home and ordering takeaway is much more appealing on a chilly winter’s night.

Comfort foods are generally high in kilojoules, refined carbohydrate and fat. We tend to crave these types of foods as fat has a nice mouth feel and carbohydrates stimulate production of the ‘feel good’ hormone serotonin. The types of comfort foods we crave differ according to culture, taste preferences and personal experiences. However one study found gender played a role. Males preferred warm, hearty, meal-related comfort foods (such as bangers and mash and meat pies), while females instead preferred comfort foods that were more snack related (such as chocolate and ice cream).

Why do we crave comfort foods?

Our ancestors would have eaten more calorie rich food in winter as food was scarcer and extra kilojoules would have helped to keep them warm. These days food is abundant throughout the seasons however our bodies have not evolved to recognise this.

People tend to be less social and less active in winter, which could lead to low moods and opportunities to overeat. In addition, changes in brain chemistry brought about by the change in seasons and alterations in circadian rhythm (the body’s biological clock) may cause a worsening in mood.

When our moods are low and we feel cold, we often cope by soothing our bodies and minds with food that makes us feel better. We don’t spend time working out why we are choosing certain foods or creating plans to avoid triggers. However we spend a lot of time beating ourselves up afterwards! Instead of putting your time into feeling bad, spend it planning to look after yourself armed with the following tips.

1. Prepare and plan

Our physical environment can play a large role in our eating habits. If food is available and easily accessible we are more likely to eat it. The first step is to ensure your home environment is free of tempting unhealthy foods – no matter how hard you try to convince yourself you will ‘portion control’, if the food is there, chances are you will eat it.

The next step is to plan your meals and snacks to reduce those last minute hunger or craving decisions. If you have healthy tasty options at work and at home, you will be much less likely to seek out unhealthy alternatives. If you have a slow cooker this can be a great way to have healthy comfort food ready when you get home from work. Also include in your shop healthy comforting foods options that will be a good replacements for the unhealthy foods

Another strategy is to develop ways of coping with low moods other than with food. Start by brainstorming activities that will make you feel better on a stressful winter day. Create a plan for different moods and match them with activities that will make you feel better. When writing up your plan, include the triggers that lead to your unhelpful thoughts and feelings that cause unhealthy eating behaviours.

2. Be mindful of your mood and your food

Awareness is the first step to gaining control over your decisions and changing your habits.Ask yourself these questions:

  • Why do you want to choose this food?
  • Have you always eaten this food when feeling sad or stressed?
  • Are there positive memories associated with that food that make it more appealing?
  • Will this food nourish you? Will it really help your body to feel better?

If you still decide to choose one of your comfort foods, eat it with control and appreciation. Eat with the intention of caring for yourself and the attention necessary for noticing and enjoying every mouthful.

3. Know who the bad guys are

Not all comfort foods are made equal. These are the top not-so-comforting criminals; high in kilojoules and low in nutritional benefits.

  • Pies and sausage rolls
  • Creamy mashed potato
  • Deep fried foods such as fried chicken and hot chips
  • Chocolate and red wine – unless you enjoy small quantities mindfully: measure out 100ml and choose a great quality red to share. Choose a good quality 75-90% dark chocolate
  • Creamy soups, casseroles and cheesy pasta
  • Chocolate cake, pancakes and puddings

4. Makeover your comfort food

Healthy food can still be comforting. Your traditional comfort food may just be in need of good makeover. Here are some simple ideas and recipes.

Comfort Food  Healthy Alternative
Hot chips Oven baked sweet potato chips
Potato Mash Cauliflower Mash
Burgers Swap the refined white bun for wholegrain
Café muffins Prepare wholemeal fruit muffins with no added sugar
Fried chicken Use macadamia crusted chicken breast recipe
Nachos Use oven baked pita chips instead of corn chips, a sprinkling of cheese, and no fat Greek yoghurt instead of sour cream
Milk chocolate Swap it for 75-90% dark chocolate
Lasagne More vegetables, less pasta and cheese
Hot Chocolate Almond or skim milk with cacao powder, cinnamon, vanilla extract and 1/2 tsp. of honey (pictured above)



Written by Shivaun Conn
Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist

Published by the Australian Institute of Fitness

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