Between our instinct to eat for comfort (which is totally natural), and the usual diet rules that say a big fat “no” to comfort eating because ‘food should just be fuel’, comfort, or emotional eating is one of the biggest areas of self-sabotage where food is concerned, and a breeding ground for disordered eating.
It seems like whenever food, comfort and pleasure join forces, we are programmed to feel guilty. Any comfort we achieve is short lived, and quickly followed by a barrage of guilt, shame and heaviness!
At the heart of it, eating for comfort is a logical solution to help ourselves feel better. After all, we’re not robots, we do have an emotional relationship with food because it’s essential for our survival, and we do have a chemical, i.e. emotional, as well as a physical response when we eat.
The challenge is that when we feel the need for comfort, we generally don’t feel that good (hence the need for comfort), and we can easily be attracted to foods of a similar ‘vibration’ to our emotional state – here comes the ‘low vibe’ fast food! We eat it, despite believing it’s bad for us, ride the initial wave of ‘comfort’, and then come crashing down as guilt, compounded by plummeting blood sugar levels, take hold.
But if we conjured a greater degree of acceptance with the seeking of comfort through food and then cultivated more awareness around this process, we become open to the possibility of choosing ‘higher vibe’ foods that would still give comfort, but without the ‘baggage’ that usual fast food choices comes with.
What if we raised our standards and sought other foodie options that hit the spot, on all levels – comforting in the short run, supportive in the long run and free from guilt?
Comfort eating is not inherently a bad, or an unhealthy, action. This idea that we should just eat for fuel completely lacks awareness of the multi-layered relationship we all have with food and how it impacts us, physically, emotionally, mentally and energetically.
Embracing all of these nutritional aspects of food, whilst being aware of your body and emotional state, is an incredible way to nourish your body.
If you eat pizza and feel guilty afterwards, then that wasn’t ‘comfort’, it has to last longer than an hour to count. When something tastes good it will help you to feel better, but this is only part of the reason why you feel comforted after eating the usual go-to comfort foods like pizza, cakes and ice cream. “Carbohydrates set off a series of chemical reactions that ultimately lead to a boost in brain serotonin,” and higher levels of serotonin mean that you will feel content and comforted. But this is short lived, because if you do eat fast food you are 51% more likely to experience depression than those who don’t eat fast food, according to a paper by the University of Granada published in the Public Health Nutrition Journal.
However, if you raise your standards and go for higher vibe, i.e. better quality, ‘comfort food’, then it is possible to receive all the comfort without the downside. So what are higher vibe comfort foods?
To keep it really simple just choose foods, whether it’s a burger, pizza or cake, that have real food ingredients in them, rather than hydrogenated fats, preservatives, e-numbers, corn syrup or anything else that you can’t read on the ingredients label.
Just making the switch from ‘fake food products’ to ‘real food ingredients’ would make a huge difference to your body chemistry and therefore your emotional state and sustained comfort levels. Think sour dough pizza with whole food toppings, 100% beef burger minus the hormones, and cakes made with quality ingredients rather than weird sugar substitutes and vegetable fats.
One of my clients was a 16 year old girl, she was struggling with her weight, feeling really self-conscious of her body and under pressure with exams. Through her natural instinct she discovered the comfort and pleasure in food. She found temporary relief, comfort, even relaxation, by eating certain foods, but then felt ashamed and guilty.
All of this guilt and shame exasperated her negative body image. Her family, through concern for her wellbeing, became watchful and judgmental of what she ate, trying to persuade her to eat ‘healthier’ foods, which only made things worse.
This girl was definitely in need of comfort, trying to make her stop eating for comfort would have been completely counterproductive. However, teaching her how to eat for comfort, in a way that supported rather than sabotaged her, was key. It turned her shame into understanding, that what she was doing wasn’t ‘bad’, and with just a little more awareness about the nature of food she was empowered to care and nourish her Self in the best possible way. Experiencing all the comfort and balance she was looking for, but without the guilt and negativity that was impacting her wellbeing.
To transform your comfort eating into long-lasting comfort and pleasure, whilst still contributing to a healthy, light feeling body, practice these three principles daily, with every meal, and especially if you feel the impulse to eat for comfort:
Don’t Eat Beyond The Limits of Your Beliefs
There is never any comfort in eating foods you believe are either ‘bad’ for you, will make you heavy or damage your health in someway. Always make choices about food that are within your current belief system, especially when it comes to seeking more comfort and balance. In the meantime, challenge your beliefs and then experiment as you are able to factor in all aspects that effect your state of health, weight and wellbeing, I talk at length about this in my book Your BeUtiful Body.
Focus on Quality
The most enduring comfort will always be found in foods that are quality rich and made with loving attention to detail. There is a vast nutritional, and energetic, difference between poor quality, mass produced fast foods and quality, real foods. You can taste the difference, if you’re paying attention, and your body will feel the difference too. Always focus on quality and choose foods that are befitting your body, don’t allow your standards to drop, even when you’re not feeling good enough!
Allow Yourself to Receive
Many of us are more comfortable ‘giving’ than ‘receiving’, but to feel nourished and comforted we have to open ourselves up to receiving the nutrition and support within food and allow ourselves to experience pleasure, without guilt. The more we are open to receiving, the better the food will get digested and the nutrients will be easily absorbed deep within the body. If we don’t, food won’t get digested well, the nutrients will not get absorbed and the food will accumulate. Practice visualizing your body comfortably receiving the food you eat and all its nutrients, so you can feel comforted, on all levels, and be comfortable receiving the pleasure that food can gift.
Happy comfort eating xxx
- Heather Hausenblas, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Exercise Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville
- Judith Wurtman, Ph.D., former director of the Research Program in Women’s Health, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Clinical Research Center