Macaroni and cheese. Creamy mashed potatoes. Salty, crunchy chips. Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Halloween candy. For many people, these foods convey a sense of comfort and security. Knowing what foods you love and allowing yourself to have them is an important part of self love and care. But eating comfort foods can sometimes backfire.
Many of us experience considerable suffering when it comes to comfort foods. We often resort to them when we are feeling strong emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety, and fear or when we just feel bored or restless. We use comfort foods so that we don’t have to feel these “negative” emotional states. And, because many comfort foods fall into our fabricated categories of forbidden, indulgent, or just plum bad, eating them is associated with all-or-nothing thinking. This results in guilt, shame, and rebound fasting or restriction.
Several clients have described situations in which they found themselves eating comfort foods compulsively, but only realizing this after they were “in too deep to stop.” Upon further inspection, though, we usually find that before they started eating, there was some uncomfortable feeling that they didn’t want to deal with.
I think there is a middle ground to be found here, where it is possible to enjoy comfort foods, to drop the story about them being dangerous somehow, AND to deal with the emotions that drive us to indulge past the point of real comfort and satisfaction. But finding this middle ground takes practice. The next time you find yourself compulsively eating a comfort food, try this:
- NOTICE: If only for a moment between bites or sips, notice what is happening. Notice if you are feeling pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
- CHECK IN: Ask yourself what is happening in your body (are you hungry?), in your mouth (do you feel the urge to fill or ground yourself?), and mind (are you feeling angry, sad, restless, lonely, bored, uncertain, anxious?).
- DISTRACT: If checking in is too difficult in the moment, do something else that is comforting for 10 minutes, knowing that you can come right back to the food if you want to. Have a short list of easy, comforting, distracting activities: take a shower, lie down, play with a pet, play a game on your phone. When you feel ready, come back to checking in.
- RELAX: Drop any judgment of yourself or your eating behaviors. Drop the labels of good and bad, right and wrong, healthy and unhealthy. Mentally place those judgments in a helium balloon and watch it float away.
- GET CURIOUS: Develop a curiosity about yourself, about what you are feeling, about your desire for comfort, and about what you really need. Wanting to comfort yourself is a good, healthy impulse! Learning to figure out what you really need in the moment is a learned skill that takes practice. You might find that sometimes it does involve food, while other times you might need something else. Be gentle and don’t judge yourself harshly.
- ACT: Once you realize what you need, if possible, give that to yourself or ask someone to help you. If it’s food you need, enjoy it mindfully. If you don’t know what you need, that’s fine. Be gentle with yourself and continue to be curious and kind.
To illustrate, I’ll share a story of my own. The other day I brought home a jar of old-fashioned, homemade pecan brittle. Standing in the kitchen after eating lunch, before moving on to the second part of my somewhat uncertain and amorphous workday, I opened the jar, took out a piece, and put it in my mouth. As soon as it touched my tongue, fireworks went off. The fatty, crunchy, sweetness of the brittle had my little neurons exploding with pleasure. I kept going back for more. As soon as I had put one piece in my mouth – before I was even done chewing it – I was reaching in the jar for the next piece. I noticed my compulsive urge to keep eating and felt a little panicky and confused. So I stopped, for just a moment, to check in with myself. My thoughts went like this:
This fatty, crunchy, sweet thing is totally activating me! What’s going on?
I’m not physically hungry so this must be mouth hunger.
Each piece of brittle I eat, though delicious, tastes a little less fabulous than the previous piece. But I feel an irrational desire to keep eating to recapture those initial fireworks!
Maybe it’s more than mouth hunger: I’m actually feeling sort of restless, unsure of what to do next. Maybe I just need to relax and take a break.
I shut the jar and left it on the counter, promising myself I would come back in 10 minutes if I still wanted it. I distracted myself for a little while with a project from my to-do list. After about 10 minutes, I checked back in and found that the compulsive feeling I felt around the pecan brittle had dissipated a bit and a sense of space was arising in its place. I felt myself relax and, when I was ready, I reflected on that moment. I became curious about my desire for comfort, how in its essence, it was a good thing, but how by slowing down I recognized that what I really needed was a break. Then I acted; after my project, I went back to the kitchen, put away the jar of pecan brittle, and took a long, hot shower.
This mindfulness practice is not about weight loss or maintenance. It’s not about being in control, avoiding unnecessary calories, or being good/right and not bad/wrong. This is about touching base with yourself to find out what you really need, and loving yourself enough to do that. It’s about gradually learning to recognize and tolerate your full range of emotions – from the pleasurable to the deeply discomfiting – without habitually self-medicating. Through practice, it is possible to become more resilient. And from there you can make the choice to enjoy your favorite comfort foods mindfully.