Why are carbs comfort foods?

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

Carbohydrates are famous in comfort food circles. But why? In this article, I discuss many reasons that carbs are comforting.

Low carbohydrate diets have been frustratingly popular since the 90s.  I can remember when popular fad diets skewed from low fat to low carbohydrate in high school. It was revolutionary! Everyone was finally going to be skinny!

I can also remember grumpy moods, stories of “gym bro” freakouts at the gym, and complaints of hair loss from male relatives.

In essence, chronic dieters went from constant grumpiness caused by excessive hunger and cardio in the 80s to constant grumpiness caused by low intake of the brain’s preferred fuel.

Carbs provide fuel to our brain and muscles

Our brains consume a LOT of glucose. An organ that contributes only ~2% of our weight consumes ~20% of our daily glucose intake (in a well-balanced diet).  In fact, our brains use approximately 5.6mg of glucose (from carbohydrates) per 100g of brain tissue every minute!  

So you can imagine, severely restricting your carbohydrate intake could lead to reduced brain performance. People often report feeling grumpy, tired, and foggy-headed, or confused on a low carbohydrate diet.

In addition to giving us energy, steady moods, and clear thinking, the brain utilizes carbohydrates to make various neurotransmitters that enable us to perform many functions, including learning and long-term memory formation.


Glycogen is stored carbohydrates that are found in the brain, muscles, and liver. When exercising, your muscles have a rapid energy source readily available. They do eventually switch to other sources of fuel when glycogen sources are depleted. Unfortunately, fat is an inadequate source for muscle training, and they will turn to protein first!  This means that when you don’t eat enough carbohydrates to fuel your muscles you run the risk of muscle breakdown. 

*Side note: this is why low-carb diets initially appear so effective.  When you don’t eat enough carbohydrates, your body releases glycogen stores to maintain your ideal blood glucose range.  Glycogen is stored with water, so you are losing water and glycogen weight, but not necessarily fat! This effect is temporary. The weight gain people see when stopping a low-carb diet is partially a result of restoring glycogen stores.

Carbs help make “feel good” hormones

In fact, low-carb diets are often associated with fatigue and grumpy moods, sometimes even abnormal aggression.

This all makes sense with a quick biology lesson!   Tryptophan (widely known in turkey, but actually present in a wide variety of food) is crucial for many of our feel-good hormones, including serotonin and melatonin.  To make these hormones, however, tryptophan has to make it into the brain. And the only way it does this is by using carbohydrates as a carrier. So when our carb intake is too low, they are used for their most vital functions only. And unfortunately, a good mood is not vital to survival. (side note, getting enough carbs also prevents muscle breakdown – so they do play a role in keeping you strong as well!)

But… there is value in other carb sources for a quick boost. Refined carbs can give us a quick burst of energy

While not ideal for overall health, a refined carb source (such as potato chips, cookies, crackers, etc) will provide you a fast, but short-acting energy and mood boost.  The need for this boost at 3 pm every day may indicate your lunch isn’t as balanced as it could be, or that you simply need to plan a snack into your routine!

Fiber and other complex carbs keep us full and our guts happy

By now, everyone’s heard of probiotics. Some have even heard of prebiotics, which are the foods the probiotics “eat.”

The probiotic fauna in our gut loves them some fiber and complex carbs! Along with unsaturated fat (from fish, nuts/seeds, olives, and avocado), complex carbohydrates are their preferred source of fuel.  A happy gut colony can then indirectly lead to benefits in your mood and energy, though scientists are still determining how large this effect is and how it works.

Fiber also has this awesome ability to “gel up” and take up more space in our stomachs. It then moves more slowly through our GI tract than simple carbs. So we fill up, and stay full longer!

Low carbohydrate intake increases cortisol, the “stress hormone”

Our body perceives low carbohydrate intake as a stressor.  Any type of stress can raise our cortisol levels and sour our mood. And this “perceived starvation” can definitely be stressful to our poor confused bodies.

This rise in cortisol is for a reason. When we don’t eat enough carbs, our body tries to “make” glucose from other sources, namely protein stores.  Cortisol helps it achieve this. Along with increased appetite and reduced energy levels – meaning, we get tired and pissy.

So what does this all mean?

So we should eat carbs, right? So eating pizza, pasta, and bread all day will fix our mood. Then tack on cake, soda, and candy and we’re golden, right?

Not so much…

We need a balance so that we also make sure we get plenty of protein, healthy fats, and non-starchy vegetables.

Additionally, the quality of our carbohydrate intake matters just as much as the quantity.  Carb sources should come primarily from starchy vegetables (yes – even potatoes), fruit, and whole grains.  

Those lovely, lovely probiotics don’t love sugar as much as you do!  Have your simply carb snacks when the occasional craving strikes. But focus on the sources listed above. 

You’ll have more stable energy and carb distribution throughout the day as a result.

For those of you that are more visual, I’m a big fan of Harvard’s Healthy Plate.

A Comprehensive Guide to Mindful Eating

small girl eating watermelon

Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD

How often do you pay attention to how your food makes you feel? Is it only when you’re reaching for the stereotypical heartbreak ice cream?

Do you find yourself over-hungry or over-stuffed and always reacting with anger or lethargy?

If you’ve worked with me 1:1, you’ve probably heard me talk at length about Mindful Eating. Not a diet; this is a way to go about making food choices that keep you feeling satisfied with your meals, healthy, and with room to splurge.

What is Mindful Eating?

Mindful eating is a framework that encourages you to avoid extremes of the hunger scale, reduce eating based on emotions or boredom, and teaches you to enjoy your splurges and determine what you actually want when a craving hits.

Through practice, you will pick up a skill many of us haven’t had since early childhood. You will know exactly when you’re hungry, when you’ve had enough, and when you need to manage your stress and emotions.

Who benefits from Mindful Eating?

In short, everyone.

In fact, we are all born with the knowledge and intuition to eat before we are hangry and stop eating before we burst.

But then we’re told that we have to finish our plates.

That we have to wait until dinner to eat. 

In essence, we are taught to ignore our hunger and fullness cues and eat on someone else’s schedule or in portions that are too large (or too small).

Then what happens is chronic over or under-eating, feelings of guilt around mealtimes, and emotional/stress eating.

To some extent, the schedules and the wait until dinners make sense.  Being forced to finish off a plate when you’re full does not make sense. And this is often the part of Mindful Eating that causes the most anxiety.

In short, practicing Mindful Eating is a means to get us back to listening to our bodies.

Basic components of Mindful Eating

Eating mindfully looks different to different people. We all have our strengths and weaknesses.

What it comes down to is getting in tune with your hunger and fullness cues, as well as paying attention to those times when you aren’t hungry and aren’t full. 

If you find yourself reaching for food when you’re not hungry, your job is to figure out what you’re feeling and how to address it. You may be tired, bored, stressed, anxious, angry, etc.  Figure out how to address the emotion healthily and productively.

Eat slowly and with minimal distractions

How many times have you plowed through a meal at warp speed, only to realize that you have no idea what it tasted like? Then a couple of minutes later, that gross feeling hits. You ate too much, and now all you want to do is pass out.

A better way is sloooow down when you eat.

Take the time to enjoy the food, chew thoroughly, and pause in between bites.

Just be sure to enjoy the company you’re with as well!

Listen to hunger and fullness cues

This is absolutely the most important part of Mindful Eating. Well… One of them.

Think of your hunger/fullness as laid out on a scale.

1 is a Snicker’s bar commercial. You’ve seen them. Someone’s all pissed off because they’re hungry. They eat a Snicker’s bar and are suddenly their awesome pleasant self.

10 is how you feel after your second Thanksgiving dinner.  You feel gross, probably a little nauseated, and all you want to do is unbutton your pants and pass out.  

Needless to say, you should never be at a 1 or a 10 on the hunger/fullness scale. Instead, start paying attention to your hunger cues. Eat when you’re at a 3.  Eat slowly until you hit a 7, then stop.  

Eating slowly is key here. If you eat too fast, you miss your fullness cues. Meanwhile, food is still traveling down to your stomach. A meal should take a minimum of 20 minutes.

Learn when you’re not actually hungry

The other important part of the hunger scale is smack in the middle, at a 5.   

When you are at a 5, you are neither hungry nor full. Your body is not looking for food.  So if you find yourself reaching for a snack, assess your hunger scale first.

If you’re at a 5 and reaching for food, you are eating for reasons other than fuel and nourishment.  This is when we start reaching for unhealthy choices, such as chips, sweets, doughnuts, etc.  It’s not that we can’t have those things; we just need to be judicious with when and how often we eat them. 

If you stop and think, and realize you’re at a 5, take some time to figure out how you’re feeling. Then determine what you can do to abate any negative feelings. Sometimes a walk around the block, a phone call to a close friend, or sitting down with a book was all you needed after all.

It’s helpful to have a mental list of activities that address your emotions outside of food. Pent-up, anxious energy can do well with exercise or a venting chat with a friend.  Depleted energy and stress may do better with a bath, a book, or a funny tv show. Learn what works for you, other than food. 

All of that to say that sometimes emotional eating is just what’s going to do it for us. And that’s okay!

Appreciate your food

 I don’t mean this in the stereotypical “there are children starving in China” way.

However, a lot goes into getting food on your plate. It had to be grown, processed, shipped, bought and prepared.  All of these steps, and the people that made it possible, should be appreciated.

Part of mindfulness is being aware of and grateful for all that makes up our world.  We just happen to be focusing on food and eating right now.

Notice how your meals affect your mood and feelings of well-being

I don’t know a single person that feels good after they overeat.

Nor do many people say they feel good after eating excessive amounts of fried food or a giant plate of barbecued meat with no attempt at balance. No matter how much they enjoyed it at the time they were eating. 

In addition to looking out for fullness cues while you’re eating, try to pay attention to how you feel an hour or two later.   

Some things are pretty obvious. We’ve all heard of the “meat sweats” or fallen into a carb coma. But others are more subtle. Are you low on energy after eating certain foods or at certain times of the day?

Learning to be in tune with your body can help you figure out if you aren’t tolerating certain foods or nourishing yourself as well as you think you are.

Enjoy the hell out of your splurges

Here is your permission to have some “junk food”!  I’ll tell you how we handle these cravings in our house… 

We don’t keep them around. If we have a sweet or craving, we actually have to put in some effort to get it.  As it turns out, we often don’t want it bad enough to put that effort into it.   Think about it.

If I kinda want a brownie and it’s in my kitchen, I’ll probably go eat it. But if I kinda want a brownie, but to get it, I have to get dressed (cause, let’s face it, I’m probably in jammies), drive somewhere, buy it, and come back, I probably won’t. 

I know many of you have heard me talk through this scenario before.

However, say I’ve been wanting an awesome, warm, gooey brownie all day.  I’ve had lunch, so I’m not hungry, I’m not stressed out or overly bored, but I still really want the dang brownie.   

I’m going to go find the best damn brownie I can.  I’m going to savor and enjoy the hell out of it, and 100% of the time the craving goes away afterward.

Getting something else chocolate-y, say a cookie when I really want a brownie, doesn’t work. I didn’t satisfy the craving.

Think about this the next time you have a  craving for something “junky”. Get the best version of what you want that you can find. Focus on the food while you’re eating it.

Nothing worse than getting what you want, eating it, then realizing you didn’t enjoy it, all because you were focused on something else.

The rest of this ties into what we already talked about. Stop eating the splurge-worthy food when you’re no longer enjoying it or the craving has been satisfied.  You’re allowed to stop!

Benefits of Mindful Eating

Now that we’ve talked about what Mindful Eating is, what are the benefits? Is this really a method we can use to improve our health?

Healthy, Sustainable Weight Management

People that learn their hunger and fullness cues honor their cravings without overdoing it, learn how they feel after certain meals, and regularly intuitively move their body generally maintain a stable weight, avoiding uncomfortable fluctuations and feeling better in general.

*Note: this is different from trying to force your body into a particular weight or size!

No longer are giant restaurant (or grandma) portions a challenge.  You no longer eat every sugar and snack-y thing that comes your way because you’re worried you won’t get it again.

Instead, you choose the one’s you truly enjoy and stop when the craving is satisfied.

Prevention of binge eating

Binge-eating episodes ride on a spectrum. A person with Binge Eating Disorder needs more help than some random dietitian on the internet telling you to eat mindfully.

However, learning to eat slowly and honor your fullness cues, along with an understanding that you can avoid that sickly, guilty feeling later, can definitely help. 

Improved feelings of well-being

Once you learn to listen to your body and feed and fuel it properly, you’ll definitely experience better physical health.

However, your sense of well-being is more than your physical health. You’ll start to notice that your mood is better, you may be more optimistic, and have more energy.  Maybe your new routine of taking a walk instead of stress eating has improved your anxiety.

Simply being in tune with your body, giving it what it needs when it needs it will improve your overall quality of life.

How to Practice Mindful Eating

Okay, so now you know what Mindful Eating is, and why you should practice it.

But how the heck do you do that?

Start with a plan and a grocery list

I don’t mean that you need to write out a strict schedule of what to eat and when. You don’t have to obsessively plan out each meal. Actually, I encourage you not to.

However, you should have a general idea in place.   This will look different for each household, and for each person.

This is what I do, feel free to take what works for you and leave the rest.

Since I like to cook, I peruse Pinterest for ideas or search Google for a recipe for something that sounds good, that I think most of us will like, and that I don’t have to buy like 50 ingredients for. I like to try out 1-2 new recipes a week.   

I typically plan meals for every day until my next day off, which can vary drastically depending on what I have going on. So after picking out my 1 or 2 new recipes, I fill in the remaining days for dinner with recipes I made before, being careful to pick at least 1 meal that I can make with hardly any effort. (Full disclosure, everything I’ve made this week has been super easy, low-effort meals, but I had planned for this!) 

I don’t necessarily know when I’m going to make each meal, just that I will make every meal before I go shopping again. I have also gotten really good at knowing which meals I will have leftovers for so I know whether or not I need to plan for lunch as well!

I make a list of everything I need, and whether I want to get it all at Sprouts or if I need to buy enough of the staples to warrant a trip to another (cheaper) grocery store.

And here’s the biggie: Don’t go shopping when you’re very hungry or very full.  You’ll end up buying nothing, or buying everything, and neither is beneficial to your mindful eating practice coming up!

Consider the hunger scale

We discussed the hunger scale above so go back and check it out if you need a refresher. But basically, I want you to take just a second to assess where you are on the hunger scale before you start eating as well as while you are eating.

Are you not hungry? Then assess what it is you really need.

Are you really hungry, around 2-4? Then eat slowly to a 7. If you finish your plate before you get to 7, pause a bit before jumping up and getting more. Enjoy the company for a few minutes. If you’re still hungry, go back for more lean protein or veggies and eat slowly to satisfaction.

Keep splurge-worthy foods out of the house

Not because you aren’t allowed to have them anymore!

But because as you are learning to eat mindfully, it is helpful to stop and assess how much you actually want this junk food.

You know that friend that bakes all the time, but doesn’t constantly binge on her treats? I would love for you to be that friend.

But until you are, it’s a good idea to keep the irresistible goodies elsewhere until you learn to tell if you really want them or if you are just eating them because they are in your face.

Eat slowly to comfortable fullness

Most of the time, when I see people a few weeks after we started working on Mindful Eating, they report that when they slow down and wait before grabbing a second plate, they realize that they never even needed the second plate after all!

Or if they did, they only needed a little bit, not a full second plate.

Eating slowly and reassessing the hunger scale is what led them to this realization. Not sheer willpower, promise.

Have a plan in place for when the urge to emotionally eat hits

Say your go-to stress management is digging into a container of ice cream. But now, you’re practicing mindful eating, and you realize you don’t really want the ice cream. You want the stress relief.

This is a great first step but is only so helpful if you don’t have a plan in place.

I recommend having a short list of activities you can do when you realize your desire to eat comes from a place of emotions and not a place of physical hunger. 

For example, when you’re in a place of mental exhaustion and looking for a sugar pick-me-up, maybe watching a mindless comedy, reading an easy book, taking a bath, or a short nap is in order.

Other times, you have a lot of anxious energy that needs to be burned off. This would be a great time to go for a walk, call a friend, do a puzzle, practice a hobby, etc.

Acknowledge your likes and dislikes without shame

You don’t have to like every healthy food out there. I don’t, and neither does anyone else.

After you’ve given the food a fair shot (like, for real, you’ve tried it several times, prepared different ways), it’s okay to let it go.

Likewise, it’s okay to prefer white rice over brown and love the occasional serving of chips. Just make sure they fit within an overall healthy diet pattern.  For instance, have white rice for dinner tonight, but whole grain pasta with dinner tomorrow.

There’s nothing wrong with the fact that you hate raw broccoli and salmon.  There are a plethora of other vegetables and lean protein sources available. Just make sure you eat those!

Start slowly

You won’t be a master Mindful Eater by tomorrow, or even next week, or next month. 

This is a skill you have to learn. And like any other skill you’ve learned, it will take practice.  So start small.

What part of eating mindfully seems the easiest? Start working on that first, with the other principles still floating around in your head.

When you’re comfortable, you can move on, probably with more confidence and larger goals.

Understand that eventually, Mindful Eating will just be how you eat

You won’t have to stop and think before you eat; you’ll just know when you’re reaching for food. It’s because you’re actually hungry and not just stressed out. 

You’ll eat slowly and stop when you’re full, without having to stop and assess your hunger scale. You’ll have a yummy treat without guilt or worry that it’s too many calories because you know you’ll stop when you’re satisfied.

Take the time to work on it now so you won’t constantly be chasing the latest diet fad.

A comparison of Mindful vs Mindless Eating

Comparison chart of mindful and mindless eating

Other tips and tricks

Just a couple of other ideas to help you on your journey to eating mindfully.

The Two-Plate Method

This is a method to use when you aren’t in control of portion sizes, such as in a restaurant.

Basically, you’ll have a “serving plate” and a smaller “eating plate.” 

Instead of eating from the giant restaurant “serving plate,” transfer your food to the eating plate. Practice mindful eating and refill the eating plate if needed. Take what’s left over home!

How to slow down when you’re a fast eater

Many people eat crazy fast, then make fun of the slow eaters. However, we’ve learned that the slow eaters are doing what they should be: enjoying their food and listening to fullness and satisfaction cues.

So how do you turn into a slow eater? There are lots of tips and tricks on the internet,  but here are some that have been successful for my clients:

  • Eat with your non-dominant hand – you’ll be less steady and graceful, forcing you to slow down.
  • Put down your fork after each bite.
  • Make sure you chew thoroughly before moving on. And don’t put more food in your mouth until after you’ve swallowed. This will improve your digestion, if nothing else.
  • Take a sip of water after you swallow each bite.
  • Try to figure out what spices were used in the food prep. This will make you stop and actually enjoy the food.
  • Fill your plates in the kitchen, then bring them to the table. You’ll have more time to assess fullness.

Other Resources

Center for Mindful Eating

Food & Nutrition

Positive Psychology

Am I Hungry?


Let me know how you practice Mindful Eating in the comments!

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