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Comfort Food and Diet Culture

by | Nov 11, 2023

Diet Culture And Comfort Foods

Food is comforting, there’s no doubt about it. This is not a health hazard. But because America tends to look down upon some cultural foods, we see a complicated mix of messages demonizing comfort foods. The foods that feel culturally important to you play a much bigger role in your overall well-being than reducing them to a sum of their parts will show. If you feel stressed about eating the white rice you grew up on, this post on how diet culture and comfort food clash is for you.

In the midst of the horror that is going on in Israel and Palestine at this moment, I feel lots of sadness for humanity. I feel compelled to talk about it, but everything I say feels inadequate and uninformed. I’ve written and rewritten this introduction 10 times. And then I went to yoga this morning and deleted it all again. One of my favorite yoga teachers, poetry reciters, and DJs, mentioned weltschmerz in a recent class. This is one of those German words that doesn’t have a direct translation in English and describes so much how I’ve been feeling.

“A mood of weariness or sadness about life arising from the acute awareness of evil and suffering.”

Is The Mediterranean Diet Best For Everyone?

Last week, I saw a Palestinian woman call out American chefs & food influencers who sprinkle Za’atar on everything and brag on how ingenious and cultured they are, never attributing the spice blend to its origin – Palestine.

Her post got me thinking. Back when I was a student studying nutrition, I was basically taught the Mediterranean diet was the right one for all people.

I understand why this eating pattern has the most research to support its protection against chronic disease. Great. But does that really mean it’s right or healthiest for all people? Did we take a group of Mexicans and make them eat salmon and brown rice and arugula for a year and see how that went? Did we check in to see how they felt about not eating tamales and barbacoa?

Should we be deprioritizing the experience of eating and connecting over cultural foods in favor of more baked salmon, brown rice, and broccoli? Should we be telling folks whose diets have been based on rice and beans for centuries that carbs are bad?

I don’t think we should.

Food is a cultural issue. Reducing it to a sum of its parts cuts out our humanity and, as many writers have pointed out, is eerily similar to the way early European colonists forced indigenous people to convert to their way of eating.

Why are we so hard on non-white centered ways of eating? I believe it’s because diet culture has it’s claws in everything, including comfort food and traditional foods.

Cultural Foods Are Good For Your Health

Even if they’re fried, processed, white, or aren’t a ‘good source of fiber’. Eating food that connects you to your culture and family is good for your health. When the body and mind are in a calm, relaxed, mindful state, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated and digestion and nutrient absorption are actually improved. Cool, huh?

This is part of the reason that more than 90% of folks with eating disorders have digestive issues.

Eating is a deeply emotional experience. Perhaps this is why we eat in abundance on important days, like birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. These experiences nourish us, they hold us together. So I believe that eating and enjoying whatever food feels like family for you is GOOD for you – no matter what the food is. Tell diet culture that you’ll take your comfort food back, thank you.

I can hear the naysayers now. Relax, I’m not saying to only eat these foods. I’m not telling you to cut vegetables out of your diet or to fry everything. Just that there are no ‘bad’ foods, demonizing all-things-processed is not culturally sensitive, and that white rice can be a positive thing.

Palestinian-Inspired Food

I love Middle Eastern food and am a Yotam Ottolenghi devotee. Mint, yogurt, lamb, fruit, sumac. What’s not to love?

If you don’t know who he is, Ottolenghi is an Israeli Londoner (is that what they say? Londoner?) with a smattering of restaurants and cookbooks to match. One of his colleagues and cookbook co-authors, Tara Wigley, is Palestinian. She has a few cookbooks too, which I will be ordering asap. This looks fantastic.

This recipe of theirs is on my regular rotation. I’ll make a whole batch and have them on day #1 with rice and salad.

Day #2, the same.

Day #3, sliced on a salad or sandwich for lunch or crumbled up on something.

Some people call this meal planning. I just call it eating as much good food as I can.

Yes, this is a meat recipe. Just because I am a dietitian and promote a balanced and nutritious diet, does not mean I think you should cut anything out of your diet. But, from a nutrition standpoint, I believe meat is optional and can be eaten, or not eaten, based on preference. You could try this with turkey, or even a meat-free alternative.

Lamb patties pic from Simple (that purple stuff is sumac)

Lamb and Pistachio Patties With Sumac Yogurt Sauce

From their simplest cookbook, Simple

Yogurt Sauce

  • 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 tablespoon sumac (this is an easy-to-find, beautifully purple, citrusy spice. It’s good on lots of stuff)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice

Patties (let’s call them meatballs)

  • 1/2 cup shelled pistachios
  • 1 cup arugula (or mixed herbs like mint and parsley)
  • 1 onion, quartered (you don’t even have to chop the onion! bonus!)
  • 1 large garlic clove
  • 1 lb ground lamb
  • olive oil

For yogurt sauce: Mix together all ingredients 🙂

For meatballs: Grind pistachios in a food processor roughly, then put in a bowl that you’ll eventually mix the meat in. Then do the same thing with the arugula.

Then blend the onion and garlic into a smooth paste and put that in the bowl.

Then, to the bowl, add lamb, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and black pepper. Mix well with your hands.

Then make your lil patties, each about 2” wide.

The recipes says to pan fry these, but you can also bake them (and this is much less messy). But pan frying is yummy and they get crispier.

To pan fry: Heat olive oil in non-stick skillet and when hot, add as many patties as you can fit without overcrowding them. Cook for 7 minutes, turning over halfway. Remove from skillet onto paper towels while you make the rest.

To bake: Put a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet and space out the meatballs evenly. Bake at 400 degrees F for 25-30 minutes, until browned or once they bounce back when you squeeze them.

Serve on top of yogurt sauce with rice and cucumber / tomato / red onion salad, or whatever sides your heart desires.

Here are a couple other of my fave Ottolenghi recipes that are great to add into a non-diety meal planning scenario. Roast chicken thighs. Couscous with herbs and tomatoes. These are great together. Soba noodles with mango and eggplant was my first fave of his and is shockingly delicious.  

A few years back, I also wrote a recipe for a favorite Lebanese dish.

Emily laying down in an art exhibit comfort food and diet culture
Psychedelic sky eggs (and me) at a James Turrell experience.

My comfort food

I am very white with long and lovable, but frankly disturbing Dutch roots. Both of my parents grew up in little Dutch communities in Michigan. They’re both from big Dutchy families with big devotion to the same sect of uber-religious, uber-strict Dutch Protestant Christianity.

Both of my parents realized there was something not-for-them about that type of conservatism and didn’t raise us that way. And this upbringing has provided me will lots of privilege and safety.

My parents both feel pretty connected to Dutch foods, at least Michigan-Dutch foods out of Eet Smakelijk. The food we ate at family gatherings wasn’t particularly interesting, but it was comforting.

So for me, and I’m sure lots of other Americans, the food of our childhood, the things that feel comforting and sentimental might be things like pizza, burgers, and simple spaghetti and meat sauce made from a jar. Casseroles and what not.

It might be a trip to McDonalds.

For this reason, and because these foods are easy and accessible for so many people, I do not think we should be calling them ‘bad’, but perhaps allowing ourselves to be comforted by them when we can.

And again, I don’t believe these are the ‘most nutritious’ foods we could be eating. Nor do I think we should be eating them daily. But I think demonizing them is not doing anyone any favors.

If this statement feels scary to you, if you’re thinking ‘but if I let myself eat those foods, I’ll just eat them constantly and won’t be able to stop’, consider the following.

How To Eat Comfort Food, While Doing Intuitive Eating

The winter holidays are nearly here – here already if you include Halloween – and for many people that I work with, that means lots of diet talk from the fam, while simultaneously eating-all-the-things and/or being made to feel bad for not eating-all-the-things. It’s utterly confusing.

I’ve got a whole newsletter coming down the pipe on how I suggest going into family dinners if you’re trying to lead a life without food and body anxiety.

But for now, consider this:

If you’re eating the comfort food anyway, might as well let yourself be deeply comforted by it instead of eating it while telling yourself you shouldn’t be.

This is one of the core tenets of healing your relationship with food: Giving yourself permission to eat will eventually lead you to feel way more chill around eating.

  • Unfollow the bee pollen and low-carb influencers.
  • Learn how to spot a nutrition headline ripe with fear of fat and based on biased and incomplete research.
  • Add things to your diet, don’t take them away. It’s not like eating white bread or instant potatoes takes away from the nutrients in the rest of the dish. Adding bacon or ham to collard greens doesn’t negate the potassium, vitamin K, or glucosinolates. Fried fish still has omega-3 fats, iron, and protein in it. White bread has nutrients too!
  • If you’re feeling disconnected or unhappy and you’re using a ‘clean diet’ to anchor you, you may want to consider whether that’s really doing you any good, or if it’s just creating an eating disorder

Wherever you are on this journey, I am sending you so much love and compassion. I know it’s not easy and often comes with so much self-doubt. I am here if you need me.

If you enjoyed this, share it with a friend. The more people finding liberation with food and their bodies, the more permission we’ll all have to just be.  

tldr: Za’atar is delicious and Palestinian. Don’t let yourself get caught up demonizing comfort food and disconnecting you from your culture or judging other people’s’ food choices – you probably don’t know the whole story.

If you’re ready to heal your relationship with food, perhaps it’s time to join one of my coaching programs. I offer Heal & Nourish, a 6-month individual non-diet nutrition therapy program, and The Love Food Again Program, a 6-month small group, which will teach you how to break from from dieting and use intuitive eating – in community with others. Book a discovery call today to chat.

About Emily

Emily Van Eck, MS, RDN specializes in Intuitive Eating, eating disorders, body image, women’s reproductive health, and healing from years of weight-bias and disordered eating. She helps people find balance, consistency, and peace with their eating habits so they can feel confident to get outta their heads and into their bodies. Emily is a registered dietitian and certified Intuitive Eating counselor with a master’s degree in nutrition science. Read more about her practice, values, and experience here.

Emily Van Eck on couch with cereal bowl

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Hey there, I´m Emily

A non-diet and weight-inclusive dietitian, intuitive eating coach, and body image healer. Here on the blog, I focuses on exploring intuitive eating, gentle nutrition, the complex arena of body image and feminism, anti-oppression, and all the ways these things intersect. I want us all to be free to own our appetites, and our desires, and eat really, really well. 


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