By Lauren Mahakian Contributing writer. Originally published in PV News on 10/30/2020

I recently greeted Dr. John La Puma as a guest on my podcast show, “Unlocking the Doors of Dementia with Lauren.”

Dr. La Puma is a board-certified physician who is also a professionally trained chef. He is a leading voice for culinary medicine, an expert in healthy living and nutrition, and twice a New York Times best-selling author.

Our topic should be of interest to any of us who are caring for loved ones with dementia: food.

We all know the stresses of providing care. We are challenged daily by new issues and situations. Just when we think, “I got this now!” we are surprised yet again.

For those of us who are also busy running businesses or working, we gave up hope for work-life balance a long time ago. Life has also now become work for us. Combined with how we also often forget to care for ourselves, we need more than a break—we need comfort and we need it now.

Dr. La Puma points out that comfort food can provide exactly what caregivers need. It can comfort us from the stresses we feel each and every day. It is, “rich and comfort-laden,” he said.

He points out that it is also often identity-rich and culturally specific. It helps to maintain mood, helps us feel good, and is both nostalgic and physically comforting. Enjoying it can bring an immediate psychological boost.

La Puma calls comfort food, “a big warm hug.”

Another point he makes is that this type of food is exactly what we anticipate when there is nothing to eat. Those times we are so wrapped up in caring for someone else that we forget to eat or even make sure there is food in the refrigerator and pantry are precisely when we crave comfort food the most.

I personally feel guilty after indulging in comfort food. La Puma acknowledges this, but his work suggests there seem to be male-female differences, as well as cultural ones. He points out the quality of the food is much more important than indulging in “just anything” comforting.

More than the protein and carbohydrate rush that comfort food brings, we need to eat for energy, health, disease prevention, immunity and resilience. When we crave comfort in a hurry, we often reach for the quickest or cheapest thing, which is often fast food. Foods like breads, processed foods, meat, cheese, and pastries can set off inflammation cascades in the body, Dr. La Puma points out. This might lead to fatigue, joint pain, heart disease, depression, cancer, and more.

Instead, he recommends that comfort food should be homemade.

“Food made at home with love has its own set of virtues,” he adds. Food that really helps caregivers and leaves them feeling better, not guilty, meets four criteria, La Puma said. Those are healthful, multi-portioned, freezable (more for later), and handmade or homemade.

These foods, said La Puma, can bring “real comfort to caregivers so that they can…keep themselves running at levels that they need to help their loved one.” In short, comfort food is precisely what stressed caregivers need. It is not inherently bad, but the choices we make can be.

Ultimately, we need to move away from the indulgent things like burgers, onion rings, and Diet Coke.

Good comfort foods are things like casseroles, stews, soups made at home or chili. Some convenient options include whole fresh fruit that’s in season, citrus and shelled nuts.

In my practice of helping people care for loved ones with dementia, I always knew that food — specifically comfort food — brings a smile and positive energy to caregivers who are under stress.

If you know someone, possibly a family member caring for one of your loved ones, bring them some comfort. If you can’t make it yourself, there are restaurants and gourmet grocery stores that can provide meals I might call almost homemade.

You’ll make someone’s day and just might be precisely the comforting act of kindness they need to go on.

Lauren Mahakian is a certified care manager and offers a free podcast, Unlocking the Doors of Dementia™ with Lauren. Visit familyconnectmemorycare.com for more information.

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