Your favorite comfort food can make you happier in the moment, but leaning heavily on food for comfort is counterproductive.
If I asked you, “What is comfort food?” you might answer, “Food that makes me feel better.” Unfortunately, eating for comfort might make you feel better in the moment, only to make you feel uncomfortable later. Sugar and refined carbs often cause an energy spike and crash, while an overly rich, high-fat meal can leave you feeling sluggish and bloated. On top of that, you may end up grappling with guilt.
I want to state for the record that I am no fan of so-called “guilt-free” versions of favorite comfort foods. To paraphrase Evelyn Tribole, co-author of the book “Intuitive Eating,” the only reason you should feel guilty for eating is if you stole the food. Trying to healthify the foods that give you solace can backfire on a few levels. One, if you really want ice cream, fruit is probably not going to cut it. Two, the only problem that food truly fixes is hunger.
Think about your go-to-comfort foods. What qualities, such as texture or temperature, do they have? Then ask yourself why you need comfort and what you are expecting your food to do for you. Sometimes a healthful food may do the trick. For example, a hot bowl of lentil soup or turkey chili may feel like a warm hug after getting caught in a downpour. On the other hand, a fight with a loved one or a dressing-down by your boss may leave you screaming for ice cream — even though ultimately that’s not going to solve anything.
Everyone needs comfort from time to time. Occasionally using food to lift your spirits is probably no big deal, but leaning heavily on food for comfort is counterproductive. As psychologist Karen Koenig says in her book “The Rules of ‘Normal’ Eating,” whenever you eat — or don’t eat — based on your emotions, you’re preventing yourself from meeting an underlying emotional or physical need. In other words, when you use food to try to meet your emotional needs, you’re spinning your wheels.
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As children, we have limited ability to self-soothe, because our brains aren’t fully mature. If your parents gave you food to make you feel better — or you watched them eat food for comfort — you’re likely to do the same as an adult. Over time, the decision to, say, eat ice cream because you’re sad becomes less of a decision and more of a knee-jerk response. That’s a problem, because emotions are information, and when we numb out with food, we aren’t really listening to that information.
If you’re ready to start breaking the comfort-eating habit, it may be helpful to identify exactly what you are feeling. The next time you feel upset, probe further. Are you sad? Angry? Disappointed? Are you feeling rejected or left out? That’s information you can work with to start finding real solutions.
One simple tool you can use when you find yourself wanting to feed your feelings is H.A.L.T. Ask yourself, “Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired?” If you aren’t hungry, you don’t need to eat. If you are hungry, you do need to eat — but ask yourself if that doughnut or pint of ice cream is the best way to satisfy hunger. If your answer is “yes,” at least you paused to make an informed, conscious decision rather than operating on autopilot. If you do decide to eat for comfort, ask yourself how much food will do the trick. It might be less than you think.
If you are ready to start meeting your emotional needs without turning to food, it helps to assemble a new set of tools for your self-care toolbox. Start by making a list of things that make you feel good. Talking to a friend? Cuddling your cat? Writing in a journal? For inspiration, you might look to hygge (HOO-gah). Hygge has been a national obsession in Denmark for ages, but it’s now making its way across the Atlantic. (The Seattle Public Library catalog lists a number of recent books on the topic.) The exact meaning of hygge is hard to pin down, but the words “coziness,” “contentment,” “well-being” and, yes, “comfort” are often attached. Woolly socks, candlelight, curling up on the couch with a blanket and a good book (or Netflix). Small rituals, like brewing a cup of tea in a pretty cup, are also hygge. So are home-cooked meals, like this simple slow-cooker recipe.
Slow Cooker Chicken, Kale and White Bean Stew
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs
2 15-ounce cans cannellini beans, drained
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic (or more to taste), finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled (or well-scrubbed) and sliced
2 springs fresh thyme and 1 small spring fresh rosemary (alternately, use 1 teaspoon herbes de Provence)
1 can chicken broth (or 2 cups homemade)
1 bunch Tuscan kale (aka Lacinato, Dinosaur or black kale), about 12 ounces, washed, stemmed and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Grated Parmesan or Pecorino Romano cheese, for serving
1. Put first six ingredients (chicken thighs through herbs) into a slow cooker. Pour the chicken broth over the top. Cover and cook on low for 6 hours.
2. Discard the fresh herb sprigs (if using). Add chopped kale and stir to combine. Cover and cook on high for 20-30 minutes more.
3. Stir in lemon juice, add more salt and pepper to taste, ladle into bowls and top with grated cheese.