Nutritional therapist Amelia Freer shows us how to do blues-beating comfort food that still looks after the belly
Comfort food is totally in my comfort zone to write about as I’m a comfort girl through and through. I entered into the world of nutrition with much reticence and pain – I so wanted to be able to keep my eyes and ears closed to the world of health food so I could continue eating macaroni & cheese, burgers, fries, pizza, kettle chips and wine…oh that’s just the start of it… Thankfully, it is rarely a battle these days as I just make my own healthy versions of these things and it ensures that I don’t succumb to the fake foods that make me grey, bloated, spotty and inflamed like the old days.
Comfort food is all about indulgence and feeling snuggly and warm….someone once described it as a duvet in your mouth. But food can also be deeply emotive. Everything we eat or drink can have a short or long-term effect on our brain so it is no coincidence that we can turn to food to change our state - the foods of our childhood can make us feel nurtured. Sweet or starchy foods can help to quickly improve our mood or block an unpleasant feeling. Ironically however, once we’ve knocked back a massive bowl of macaroni & cheese or polished off a tub of ice cream we rarely feel better. Not only does guilt set in but usually bloating, indigestion, headaches and fatigue follow so we end up feeling even worse than before - maybe not in the moment but certainly after. So it’s much more important to get in touch with what’s going on BEFORE lifting that spoon. But every now and then, seeking pleasure from food, especially if it's enjoyed with others is good for the soul and I see no problem with it, so long as there is no guilt, pain or symptoms that follow.
So being healthy doesn’t mean that I no longer enjoy food. As I really, really do. I can be just as indulgent as Nigella, just a bit more selective with the ingredients. So it’s good news for all us comfort girls! I am happy to say that I have slowly worked my way through most of the (savoury recipes) of bestselling, top chefs' beautiful cookery books and all is not lost. We can still enjoy comfort food. I’m not your best option to turn to for cakes, cookies or desserts as I just don’t eat those things nor encourage my clients to eat them - I don’t even make the “healthy” versions as there is still always way too much sugar for most to consume. But for savoury dishes, then I’m your girl!
When I cook, I try to replace any gluten with a gluten-free alternative and use grain-free options as much as I can. I take out any dairy and use a nut or coconut substitute and, if there is sugar, I reduce and replace it with a healthier substitute. And of course, I use fresh and organic produce. I think you can turn pretty much any recipe healthy by switching to the real and healthier versions – whether you are vegan or a carnivore. What I do see so often though is an over consumption of “healthy” treats such as raw vegan bars, gluten-free cupcakes, “sugar free” desserts and while these may have healthier ingredients, they will still raise insulin so watch out to not fall into the trap of over-eating foods with a “healthy” label. Choose your comfort foods wisely and recognise them for just that, an occasional comfort, not a way of life.
Here I’ve set out a few alternatives to our favourite comfort foods, so that next time you want to wrap yourself in food you’ll be doing your digestive system and emotions a favour rather than a failure.
Baked beans on toast – fava beans are a delicious, UK grown type of broad bean. Soak them overnight then boil for an hour, mix with a homemade tomato sauce and herbs for a truly delicious baked beans substitute. I have mine on a slice of Biona buckwheat toast.
Marmite on toast – if you don’t hate it, you love it. A slice of gluten-free bread toasted, spread with unflavoured coconut butter (Tiana do a really good coconut & hemp spread). Marmite takes me straight back to my childhood and is my ultimate comfort snack.
Apple & nut butter – not a traditional comfort food but one I dive for when in need – slices of apple spread with a nut butter (try cashew, almond or pistachio) and sandwiched together. So comforting!
Cottage pie – make a Shepherd’s pie with organic lamb mince and lots of vegetables (or substitute the meat for lentils) and top with a purée of celeriac or sweet potato rather than potato. This is one of my most favourite foods.
Pasta – use gluten-free penne (I recommend brown rice penne) and make a nutty pesto or a spicy, creamy cashew tomato sauce to pour over – that’s another childhood memory for me.
Steak and chips – I really enjoy a good steak occasionally and I need to eat meat - my body doesn’t function well on a vegan diet (but each to their own). When I eat meat, I make sure it comes from an organic and humanely raised source – get to know your butcher and they’ll tell you. Instead of deep-frying potato chips, bake chunks of sweet potato in coconut oil in the oven. Serve with a fresh green salad.
Buckwheat pizza – pizza bases from buckwheat flour work really well. Top with whatever you like, just don’t be loading it with cheese - use a bit of goat's cheese if it agrees with you, otherwise I do roasted vegetables and a drizzle of truffle oil. You can also make pizza bases from cauliflower or chickpea flour – both recipes are available in my book, Eat.Nourish.Glow , £16.99, and my eBooks .
Spicy chickpeas – my favourite snack/crisp substitute. Check out the recipe here .
Coyo yogurt – yogurt made from coconut – creamy and filling, perfect when you’re screaming for ice cream. I make a jam from blended frozen berries and chia seeds and stir it into the yoghurt – it’s delicious.
Chocolate mousse – blend 1 cup of coconut milk with 1 cup of almond milk and an avocado, add a teaspoon of cacao powder and maca powder and 2 teaspoons of almond butter and a pinch of cinnamon. Chocolatey, rich and so satisfying, no one would know that it’s actually GOOD for you!
Ice cream – make a healthy smoothie and freeze it – simple!
I challenge you next time you want to eat a comfort meal to make it from scratch. Choose the recipe and play around with the ingredients to make it healthier – it’s the best part of cooking – to experiment, adapt and assemble – and as always, to share it.
Wishing you healthy comfort this autumn.