From the beginning of time when humans stood erect and hunted for sustenance, food has understandably been a priority. Now we’ve evolved our approach to food in such a way that we’ve assigned emotional labels to it such as “comfort” or “cheats.” We even have “angel food” and “devil’s food” labels assigned to cakes. I’ve addressed this in part before, but today I want to delve a little deeper into “comfort” foods.
When you are stressed or sad, what is your go-to food (or food groups) to pick yourself up? For men it’s often fatty or fried standards like pizza, fries, mac ‘n cheese, or the trifecta: a bacon cheese burger. For women it’s sweets like ice cream, cookies, chocolates, or the grand-slam: ice cream and hot fudge on a piece of cake.
Recently a client confided that although they were seeing positive changes in their body, were content with their job and home, and had a new relationship that was going well (i.e., they were happy with their lives) for some reason they still indulged (or rather over-indulged) in comfort foods on a regular basis. They had gone out with friends for lunch and ordered mac n’ cheese, a side of bacon, a soda and apple pie ala mode for dessert. When I asked why, they had no viable answer and was truly frustrated by their lack of self-control.
But I suspected what the answer was – comfort foods have been so over-used by so many that even when the original reason for seeking them out is no longer present, our bodies (really our brain and it’s ever continuing quest for dopamine) continue to silently urge us to indulge. A perfect example of these “comforting foods” in action (in a negative fashion that is) is played out in real time in the award-winning documentary Super Size Me. (If you haven’t seen it yet, seek it out, it’s quite enlightening!)
The pertinent question at this point should be how do we break our dependency on comfort foods? The answer is simple – moderation and discipline. Never deny yourself any of these beloved foods/meals completely, but you must be willing to institute some self-control over your portion size and frequency of consumption. Your body will stop craving them if you stop using them to fill your psychological holes in the first place! Then when all is well, there will be no more guilt trips over an unnecessary ingesting of these nutritionally void meals.
When you feel the need to soothe your emotions with food or drink, take 30 minutes to write down your feelings, slow your breathing, and calm back down from the helter-skelter inside your head. If after doing all that, you still NEED that “comfort” meal, make it be half the size you used to consume.
Slowly but surely you will either be able to stop abusing food, or at least you might come to terms with what’s really bothering you and deal with it or seek professional assistance to work through the issue. This is crucial to anyone seeking to reduce their levels of body fat. You can exercise 6 x a week, and eat better than ever before, but if you don’t get rid of the emotional baggage that you’ve tied in with food, you’ll never fully achieve your goals. Remember too, that comfort foods usually do not result in you feeling comfort for very long!
All creatures on earth, whether human or animals, need food to live. But only humans have taken that need and turned it into an obsession. Of all the idiosyncrasies of food addictions, the one I find the most detrimental is that of “comfort food.” The idea that food is anything other than nourishment is again, exclusive only to humans.
The joy that some of us feel from food preparation and savoring of flavors (the artistic side of cuisine) is undeniably one of the most wonderful uses of some of our five senses (taste, smell and even vision). The flip side of this is that somehow society at large (pun intended) has equated certain foods to that of providing comfort.
There’s no question that all of us have childhood memories (and other situational sense memories) that are directly tied to food. A special recipe your mother created when you were sick, or on birthdays, as well as dishes we ate when we were “happy” or “in love” become go to foods when, as adults, life is not where we want it to be. While it’s true that certain foods create a chemical reaction that can elevate moods, the idea that food can fill up a painful hole within our hearts is a slippery slope. What makes this worse is that traditionally most “comfort foods” are high in fat, salt, and/or sugar.
I have many a client and friend that spends days or months being diligent about their nutritional intake, only to blow it all away because they had an emotional disturbance that they responded to by eating “comfort foods.” How many movies have shown women sitting in front of the TV crying while shoveling in an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s? Or how many nights are lonely bachelors depicted scarfing down fast food take out after a night of drinking? These movies reflect real life – raise your hand if you’ve ever done this.
As I always say, everything’s okay in moderation – including pints of ice cream and multiple Taco Bell indiscernible meat tacos, but the problem here is that a lot of people have a regular routine of eating these “bad for your body” foods every single time they’re upset, frustrated or sad.
If this behavior resonates with you, then I offer this advice: break up with food! Stop “dating” food to make you feel better, especially when in reality, it does just the opposite. Repeated indulgences in comfort food is no better for you than that guy or girl who belittles your self-esteem.
See nutrition as a tool that allows your body and brain to function and deal with life. I use the Car analogy – most people put medium to high-grade gasoline in their car, see to regular oil changes, and keep all fluids and tire pressure to their peak levels. If you do not, your car will not drive well, handle huge hills, stay safe on wet roads, and eventually stop running completely. Well guess what, your body is the same.
If you find it difficult to walk away from food when you’re emotionally upset, then at least make better choices – find a healthier “comfort” – or keep the quantities of the unhealthy choices to a much smaller amount. Better still, deal with the feelings that you’re hiding from, and once they’re faced, you’ll undoubtedly not even need the food for comfort. One last choice to consider is exercise. I’ve had some of the best cardio sessions when I’ve been angry. When the day before I was bored and tired after 10 minutes on the treadmill, suddenly when fueled by a situation / conversation that left me hot-headed, I ran for 30 minutes straight!
Whether your goal is fat loss or just improved health and fitness, breaking up with comfort foods is an essential step to reaching your goal and staying there.