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Comfort Foods: Why They Are Not Actually “Comforting” You

comfort foods that aren't really comforting

Most comfort food doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value.

A few months ago, Alejandra went back to school to finish her degree. She was excited about the challenge and changes that returning to her studies would bring into her life, but she didn’t anticipate the stress. It feels like there isn’t enough time in the day to do all that’s required of her at school. On top of that, she’s working a part-time job to stay afloat.

Alejandra started turning to old favorites during mealtime to alleviate her stress. Sometimes when she has procrastinated too long on a paper for school, she eats ice cream out of the tub to feel better. She’s eating more and more comfort food, but seems to be feeling worse and worse.

Why isn’t comfort food really all that comforting?

1. Most comfort food doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value.

It’s easy to see why certain foods have been stamped with the “comfort” label—they’re real and tangible pleasures that come in a good-tasting, good-smelling package. Maybe they remind you of home. In truth, when you turn to food to feel comforted, it’s rarely for the nutrients; most often, comfort food appears on your plate when you’re in need of an emotional boost. You likely associate emotional boosts with a treat—something you don’t have all the time, like cookies, cake, and ice cream. Or something you had as a child, which brings up memories and feelings of being comforted and soothed.

2. A better mood is often misattributed to food.

A recent study found that while in a bad mood, participants who ate comfort food and participants who ate other foods described feeling better after a few minutes. In fact, eating comfort foods and eating no food at all wielded the same emotional results. While comfort food might sound comforting before you eat, it doesn’t do much in the long term. It’s possible that the comfort you feel after eating actually results from passing time. Your behavior around eating food, like dressing up to go to a restaurant and/or spending quality time with friends, might also explain the misunderstanding.

3. Eating comfort food can distract you from dealing with negative feelings.

Negative feelings are inherently painful. It makes sense that you wouldn’t hesitate to turn to an instant and convenient fix. Unfortunately, food isn’t a very meaningful solution. Regularly turning to food to distract yourself from difficult emotions is like throwing dirt over a bed of weeds, instead of taking them out by the roots. If you find yourself returning over and over again to the refrigerator when you’re not really hungry, ask yourself what’s bothering you. The question might allow you to address important trends in your life.

4. Impulsive comfort eating can lead you to feel guilty later.

If you’re feeling low, it’s easy to give yourself a break and take the “guilty” out of “guilty pleasure foods.” “I deserve this,” you might say. While you certainly do deserve some self-compassion during a difficult time, eating a lot of unhealthy food could make you feel worse about your situation, once you’re done eating. This is especially true if you’re struggling with your body image or physical health, and are working hard to eat better foods. There are more effective ways of showing yourself some love.

What is comforting?

If you’re stressed and need a boost, try accessing what’s comforting about comfort foods. If your comfort food of choice reminds you of home, look through old family photos, or call a favorite friend or family member. Food can sometimes appear comforting because you’re giving yourself “you” time; make a little time to do something you really enjoy instead. You can also try keeping healthier snacks on hand, or putting a healthy twist on favorite comfort foods like pizza and mac-and-cheese.

Comfort foods aren’t bad in moderation, but if you’re worried that emotional eating is becoming a pattern, it might be time to think about taking steps toward a healthier relationship with food.

Counseling Can Help You Create A Healthier Relationship with Food

If you’ve been struggling with emotional eating, you may have tried countless diets or similar external solutions. You may be quite knowledgeable about nutrition. If your eating is emotion-driven and you’re seeking food for comfort or soothing, the solution may be in counseling vs. diet/nutrition approaches. Many people don’t realize that their relationship with food can be healed psychologically vs. through a better meal plan. Contact us at 832-559-2622 or schedule an appointment online if you’re ready to have a positive relationship with food.

Is your eating out of control? Take this quiz and find out what drives your overeating.

Are you binge eating? Could you have binge eating disorder? This quiz assesses binge eating behaviors and severity, which can indicate an eating disorder.

Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP on Twitter
Rachel Eddins, M.Ed., LPC-S, CGP
Rachel’s passion is to help people discover their personal gifts and strengths to achieve self-acceptance, create a healthy relationship with food, mind and body, and find meaning and fulfillment in work and life roles. She helps people create nurturance and healing from within to restore balance and enoughness and overcome binge eating, emotional eating, anxiety, depression and lack of career fulfillment.

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