Image by Debbie Digioia
As an eating disorders therapist, I am so done with hearing the term “comfort food.” I’m not only sick and tired of it, but I’m frustrated and angry that we’re still using this misnomer, if there ever was one, and about how it’s affecting our mental and physical health. As a therapist—mostly on the binge and mindless eating end of things—I can say without qualification that the troubled eaters who come to my office and read my books, do not get much genuine comfort from eating these foods.
The Merriam-Webster online definition of “comfort” includes: “strengthening aid, support
, consolation in time of trouble or worry, solace
, a feeling of relief or encouragement, contented well-being, a satisfying or enjoyable experience.” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/comfort
) Let’s take a look at these definitions one at a time. Does eating non-nutritious food when you’re not hungry but have a case of the blahs or the blues really strengthen you? All it does is strengthen the neural pathways that lead to emotional eating. Do you get support, such as you might gain by calling someone who cares about you and can help you better manage your upset or bad mood?
How can a brownie or leftover lasagna give you effective solace or consolation when your heart is breaking or your head is pounding from a stress headache because you never let yourself to take a break or allow someone else to do one of the items on your endless to-do list? Does a Snickers bar offer effective relief for stress or sadness or foster contentment or well-being beyond a nanosecond? It certainly doesn’t lend encouragement. Okay, it may generate an enjoyable experience, which I’m not sure is necessarily satisfying, as it’s usually accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame for using food to address emotional needs.
It’s time to start calling “comfort food” what it really is. If it gave you the comfort you seek, you wouldn’t be reading this blog. If it were truly comforting, you would derive long-term pleasure from this practice rather than hating yourself for regularly engaging in it. Rather, the opposite is true: You feel miserable after seeking food as comfort. So, how about we start calling it “discomfort food” because it makes you feel bloated and miserable about yourself when you eat too much of it.
It’s not the food itself that’s the problem. I enjoy so-called “comfort” foods myself, but I don’t run to them to feel better. It’s the notion that it’s a good idea to eat certain foods when you have uncomfortable feelings that is so very hurtful and damaging. So, by changing the connotation of these foods, maybe you can improve your relationship with them. Instead of perceiving them in a positive way, start thinking of them as what they are: crutches, bait-and-switch rip-offs, and self-destructive, perhaps even deadly, dead ends. In large quantities these foods can ruin your health as well as prevent you from seeking and finding true comfort. Associating these foods with the physical and mental anguish and pain they bring will markedly decrease their attraction and your desire to cozy up to them. It may even propel you to seek genuine comfort that will make you feel better in both the short and the long run.