Vegemite on toast. Chicken soup. Pizza. A packet of Tim Tams that never runs out. Chocolate ice cream. A vanilla milkshake. For everyone, the choice is different. But most of us have a comfort food - something we turn to to make us feel better, or sometimes, to make us feel even better.
But do we get the comfort from the food itself, or from the feelings and memories associated with it? Do we feel happy when we eat fairy bread at a party because of the tasty combo of hundreds and thousands on butter and fluffy white bread, or because we’re remembering our seventh birthday party (the one where we got the Polly Pocket of our dreams)? Do we feel comforted by chicken soup because of its garlicky aroma, or because it’s what our mum made us when we were sick? And either way, should we be using food to comfort ourselves at all?
We tend to think of comfort eating as something we do when we’re sad and lonely, or even something that sad and lonely people do. But that’s not the whole story. A 2015 study published in Appetite showed that, in fact, we’re most likely to turn to food for emotional purposes if we have strong relationships. In other words, the happier a person’s memories are, the more likely they are to associate food with joyful times, making the food taste better to them and leading them to turn to food for comfort more often.
Whatever your comfort food is, it’s likely it was introduced in childhood. Shira Gabriel of the State University of New York, Buffalo, who ran the Appetite study, says that we associate foods from our childhood with happy times, and then reach for these foods as adults. “If you’re a small child and you get fed certain foods by your primary caregivers, then those foods begin to be associated with the feeling of being taken care of,” she told The Atlantic in 2015. “And then when you get older, the food itself is enough to trigger that sense of belonging. But if, when you’re a child, those connections are more anxiety-ridden … then when you’re older and you eat those foods, you may feel less happy.”
So perhaps the link between food and comfort is weaker than we think. Certainly, research published in Health Psychology in 2014 supports this. In the study, participants watched sad movie scenes and were then served different foods: either a food they’d told the researchers they found comforting, a ‘neutral snack’ like a granola bar, or nothing. Interestingly, while the comfort foods did boost participants’ moods, so did the other foods - and so did receiving no food at all. The authors concluded that comfort food might just be a convenient excuse to indulge.
This is something psychologist and food addiction specialist Kellee Waters agrees with. She works with many patients with binge eating issues, and says that we’d be better off dispensing with any emotional attachments to food. “Comfort eating, which can lead to binge eating, often begins in a very positive way. We eat foods that made us happy as kids, to try to replicate that happiness. But in certain people - those with a propensity to addiction, or those who have family histories of eating disorders - comfort eating can all too easily become an eating disorder.” Instead of turning to food for happiness, Waters says, we should choose five other things we could do rather than eat. “Exercise, drink a glass of water, read a book, call a friend, whatever - do those things first, and then see if you still want to turn to food for comfort. Chances are, you will have filled your need without it.”
"There are deep-seated cultural attachments to all kinds of food that makes it unrealistic for us to let go of the idea that food makes us happy."
Sydney nutritionist Lyndi Cohen, who suffered from a binge eating disorder for ten years, offers a different perspective, saying it’s unrealistic for us to completely separate food from emotion. “Sometimes there is a place for comfort food, and I think ascribing guilt to that only ends in a cycle of judgement. Food and emotion are intrinsically linked - we celebrate with it and we mourn with it. There are deep-seated cultural attachments to all kinds of food that makes it unrealistic for us to let go of the idea that food makes us happy.” Rather than trying to avoid linking food with happiness, Cohen says we should be aware of the reasons why we want the food, and understand that it’s OK to have a treat in the right context. “When we think of foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ - and often comfort foods are those ‘bad’ foods - we assign a value judgement to them. So when we eat that ‘bad’ food, it makes us feel like we are bad. Instead of thinking of chocolate cake as ‘bad’, think of it as a sometimes food. Having it every day? That’s not healthy. Having a beautiful piece of cake when you’re out at lunch on the weekend? That’s perfectly reasonable, and a chance for you to indulge healthily.”
Environment, Cohen says, is an important part of comfort eating in a healthy way. Just as comfort eating isn’t all about the food itself, Cohen says that indulging in a mindful way is about ensuring you do so in an appropriate environment. “The trouble with reaching for food when you feel sad is when you start to do it frequently, and alone. That can certainly become an issue,” says Cohen. “But having a small treat every day - like a glass of wine or a piece of chocolate - is perfectly reasonable. Food is comforting - and whether it’s the memory or the food itself, I don’t think denying ourselves is the answer.”