What comes to mind when you hear “comfort food”? In stressful times, it’s normal and natural to seek comfort and pleasure from your favorite foods. Learn what makes comfort food so soothing and comforting, and why allowing yourself permission to enjoy them is important.
What drives us to seek comfort in food? Specifically, our “comfort foods” — I picture a steaming bowl of macaroni & cheese or a plate piled high with my favorite pizza and breadsticks.
It’s a ubiquitous term at this point, bestowed upon the hearty, savory, stick-to-your-ribs kind of dishes that leave us blissfully distracted from whatever emotional turmoil sent us running to the table in the first place.
But unlike the food cravings most commonly linked to stress eating or emotional eating, which tend to gravitate towards sweet flavors, comfort foods typically land in a different category. We describe them in terms of their texture, density, and how they can fill us up and leave us feeling satiated in body and soul. It’s apparent these comfort foods offer us something in the moment but as with other forms of emotional eating, many people feel they can’t seek comfort from the act of eating.
As a registered dietitian, I beg to differ. Here’s why the food itself isn’t the issue.
Eating is Non-Negotiable, So Why Not Enjoy It?
Humans are hard-wired to seek pleasure from food. As we were evolving and making our way into the modern world, sweet flavors helped us differentiate a quick burst of energy and nutrients from a toxic, potentially fatal, poison.
Thanks to the wonders of modern agriculture, we no longer have to rely on our wits to survive. The act of eating itself evolved along with humans and societies. It got woven into our culture and came to symbolize community, connection, status, and pleasure.
And, of course, the obvious: we have to keep eating to keep living.
During the mid-20th century, a new force entered the collective psyche around food and eating. As author and dietitian Christy Harrison explains in her book, Anti-Diet, the emergence of dieting was heavily influenced by intersecting factors that wreaked havoc on our relationship with food. Combined with a burgeoning preference for thin, slender bodies and a Euro-centric standard of beauty, people eagerly adopted all manners of restriction around foods they once enjoyed without reservation.
Fast forward to the early 2000s, and fad diets and quick-fix weight loss solutions are so deeply ingrained in the American food culture that entirely new subcategories of foods emerged. These new categories, like “comfort foods”, distinguish what is acceptable and normalized (i.e. “healthy” food, often synonymous with bland and boring food) and what must be limited (decadent, indulgent, guilt-inducing food).
Our food culture celebrates one’s ability to deny themselves the pleasure of eating. It’s worn like a badge of honor, depicting an admirable level of self-control and discipline. Have we ever stopped to wonder why?
Comfort is a Basic Human Need, Comfort Food Included
In this here year of 2020, we need a means of feeling comforted as much as we ever did. Feeling safe and secure is an important human need — so much so that in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs it’s grouped together with our other basic, physiological needs.
Until our basic needs are met, it’s difficult to achieve our psychological and self-fulfillment needs. If self-actualization is the goal, it’s damn near impossible to get there if you’re constantly thinking about what you can and can’t eat.
We can proselytize all we want about self-care but we need to take an honest look at whether or not we’re practicing what we preach. How can you truly be caring for yourself if you can’t accept the comfort and pleasure of your favorite foods?
I encourage you to audit your mindset and habits around eating. This should come from a place of curiosity, not judgment. It’s simply a thought exercise that can shed light on what’s driving you to seek comfort from food in the first place.
Feeling overwhelmed? Read my tips for nourishing yourself through times of high stress and anxiety.
Your Favorite Comfort Foods Should Make Regular Appearances
Think about the foods you turn to when you feel sad, stressed, or lonely. Next, think about how often you consume these foods.
Is it a routine habit, where you know and trust there will be ample opportunity to enjoy those foods again? Or are those instances few and far between, creating a scarcity mindset and resulting in binge eating or eating far past comfortable fullness?
We are more tempted by what we deny or avoid — it’s not a matter of willpower or self-control. It’s like if I asked you not to think about the color blue. Where does your mind immediately go?
The same phenomenon happens with food and eating, and this kicks off a vicious cycle I call the restrict-rebel-repent cycle. A period of “control” or “discipline” can only last so long, and once we snap, we rebel against the self-imposed food rules. It’s followed in short order by feelings of guilt or shame, and to compensate we revert back to restriction and the cycle begins again.
Although it may feel counterintuitive, it’s the precise act of incorporating these foods into your typical diet more often that will break this cycle.
Trust the Process — It Won’t Feel Chaotic Forever
Often, people immediately snap back with their fears that if they allow themselves to freely enjoy their more beloved comfort foods, they’ll never want to eat anything else.
Here’s another thought exercise you might find helpful: think about your favorite comfort food again. Now imagine this is the only food you eat for every meal and snack, day in and day out. How would that feel?
I don’t want to presume anything, but for myself, it would feel amazing in the beginning. As much Fettucine alfredo as I can handle? Hell yeah! I’d dig in with reckless abandon and bask in the opportunity to eat my fill and then come back for more.
But eventually, whether that’s hours, days, or weeks, the novelty would wear off. I’d start to desire something different, something in contrast to the rich, creamy sauce and the soft, chewy texture of the noodles. Perhaps something crunchy? Something cold? Something spicy or sweet? It’s not that I would start to hate Fettucine alfredo. But I would view it with neutrality, knowing that if I ever wanted to return to it for any reason, it would be there and I could move on to foods that were less lethargy-inducing.
It takes time to work through this process. Some foods will shift into the neutral category before others, depending on your past experiences and the level of restriction or rebellion you associate with them. There will come a time, though, when you no longer feel compelled to flee from those cravings.
Or, at least not to the same degree. It’s unrealistic to believe we’ll never experience cravings again so instead, trust the process. Work towards feeling more comfortable being uncomfortable in the messy process of healing your relationship with food.
Consider What You’re Really Craving from Comfort Foods
We know safety, security, and comfort are basic human needs. And we also know there are other things that can provide us with our basic needs. Is it possible there are other means of satisfying your cravings without relying on food?
Let me emphasize: there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking comfort from food. Lust as we numb out in front of our phone screens or distract ourselves with cat memes in the middle of a hectic day, it’s normal. It’s fine.
But if you find you’re consistently leaning on comfort foods as your sole coping mechanism when you’re feeling strife, you might consider what else you’re seeking and where you might find it.
I can share an example. You’re feeling overwhelmed by a long day working and schooling from home. Your living space is cluttered and disorganized, your to-do list is miles long, and you’re emotionally drained by the news cycle in an election year. You feel rushed and frazzled and the only thing you want to do is collapse into the couch with your favorite takeout order.
In this scenario, can food provide comfort? Yes, absolutely. Your body needs nourishment and energy regardless of what form it comes in, and the familiarity of your favorite takeout order elicits a positive memory from the past. There’s an element of trust — you’ve had it before and it was great so naturally, you’d love to have it again. You want a respite from the chaos and an opportunity to decompress.
But can food give you everything you need? That’s debatable. It could, I’m not denying that focusing on the pleasure of a delicious meal can offer a way to tap out of your daily grind. But you may also need structure. Help from your family members. Permission to take on less responsibility at work until you have the bandwidth to do so. Can food do all of that? Probably not.
Again, this is not intended to induce feelings of judgment or inadequacy. It’s only meant to help you tease out the real reasons you’re turning to food. If those other solutions are out of reach, by all means. Comfort yourself.
Care for yourself.
But it’s unfair to cast comfort foods, in whatever form you crave, as the issue. Eating is non-negotiable, and so are your basic human needs.
If you’re new to Intuitive Eating and want to learn more, check out the other posts in the ongoing FAQ series: