Self Help

Comfort food in the age of self-care: It's complicated – Mashable

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I’ve been afraid of emotional eating my whole life. But is it really so bad?
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Not to brag, but I’ve had probably dozens of ice cream cones and hundreds of creamy scoops during my 30 years on this Earth. Still, the cone that I remember the most is one I didn’t eat.

My parents practically airlifted themselves in to the wilderness camp where I broke my nose during the summer of 2004. While we drove away from a doctors office in the nearest city, Sacramento, the aggressively tan landscape seemed particularly morose to me because of the news that I had just received: My broken nose needed immediate medical attention. I was to return to Los Angeles, so that a Beverly Hills doctor could reset my nose before the damage really set in. To me, a previously chubby tween, this meant leaving the summer camp where what I thought of as my newly hot bod and I were getting the most attention we’d ever had, and going home.

My parents’ solution to the sulking 14 year old in the back seat of their rental car? Ice cream.

“No, I don’t want it,” I remember saying bravely to their offer through my stoic misery. “Eating won’t make me feel better.”

But could it have?

Recently, on social media, people have been celebrating the decision to consume ice cream — or mac ‘n cheese, a gooey cookie, a big ‘ol glass of white wine — as “self-care.” Deciding to give yourself the gift of a food or drink you love isn’t framed as shameful or unhealthy. It’s a proactive decision you’re post-ironically proud of, a way of taking care of yourself. Or, at least that’s what you post on Instagram, chin jutted out defiantly at the world and at yourself.

As people very publicly “practice” this form of self-care, it can stir up complicated emotions for those of us who have long, deeply worn relationships with the mechanism of that care: food. In self-care’s wake, I find myself reconsidering the bogeyman that has been “emotional eating”— that is, eating out of an emotional need beyond physical hunger — and wondering if it’s really so bad, after all.  

The celebration of eating fatty, sugary, or carby foods is one facet of self-care as unapologetic nourishment. When you take a bubble bath, watch a TV show, smoke a joint, consume your favorite foods, all of that now ladders up to self-soothing behavior. In this view, even traditionally “unhealthy” self-care activities are ultimately healthy because they give you what you need in the moment, and perhaps (though not necessarily) the fortitude to bring intentionality and verve to the future. 

There are some food self-care posts that include “meal prep” and “clean eating,” but these are distinct from the “all hail bread” posts. Practicing, and often performing on social media, this subversive form of self-care is a way of saying: Screw your protein shakes and methodical productivity stints. My take-out leftovers and Parks and Rec rewatch is “good for me,” too.

This phenomenon unfolding on social media is the counter-narrative to a health and almost moral principle I’ve been taught, and attempted to live by, nearly my entire life. 

That is, that food should not be about comfort or self-soothing. That’s called “emotional eating,” alternatively called “comfort food,” where you fill the void of frustration, boredom, sadness, or loneliness, with, in my case, carbohydrates. The key to health, I absorbed as a pre-teen and teen during the first decade of the 2000s from nutritionists and the presence of Weight Watchers around the house, is decoupling food from emotions. 

But it turns out that is nearly impossible.  

“The idea of separating food from our emotional experience is something that’s very tough to do,” Dr. Jordan Troisi, an associate professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South, said. “This relationship has been in place for a very long time in human’s evolutionary history.”

There is a symbiotic relationship between food and emotions: Our emotions can change the way we think about and desire food, and food can impact our emotions. Food is imbued with emotion as part of our biology; an additional incentive to eat, and survive.

What’s more, the idea of “comfort food” has been around for a long time. Researchers are also finding that it actually can, and does, make us feel better.

“Our research shows that if people feel rejected, if they are having a bad day, or thinking about times when people treated them poorly, and they’re able to eat their favorite foods, that that activates thoughts of connection and comfort, and for many people, for most people, it makes them feel better,” Dr. Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, said.

The reason for this comfort, and the biological association between food and feelings, isn’t actually about the food. A review of the literature on comfort food, including studies performed by Troisi and Gabriel, found that when people find food “comforting,” it’s because of the memories, associations, and relationships surrounding that food.

“What makes these foods powerful is that they have a meaning behind them,” Troisi said.

People often define comfort foods as food they were given as children by their parents; the foods they were fed when they were loved and cared for. Personally, as a kid, I usually got “unhealthy” food like pasta or chocolate cake during times of celebration, when my parents said, “go ahead, it’s OK.” No wonder I associate these foods with non-judgmental acceptance, and reach for them when I’m down.

“When you reach a point in your life where you’re not feeling cared for, maybe you’re tired of adulting or having a difficult day, then it can feel comforting to go back to those foods,” Gabriel said.

While one study that made headlines in 2014 found comfort food has no clear impact on mood, it had limitations, including the fact that the subjects’ “bad moods” were short-lived and induced by playing sad movie clips in a lab. Even so, that research does not address the link Gabriel, Troisi, and others have found between food and memories of relationships and times in your life when you were accepted or cared for.

Burger with a side of guilt

So as I scroll through searches like “self-care donut” on Twitter and Instagram and find them full of sentiments like “this pizza is self-care lol,” it makes me wonder, is it? There is something certainly empowering about these posts, but also a touch ironic and self-disparaging (see: all the “lol”s). 

What we see in these posts — both those that defiantly insist on the virtue of the indulgence, and those that subtly make fun of the idea that junk food can be self-care — are the underpinnings of guilt that make us associate comfort food with, say, clandestinely eating a tub of ice cream alone on your couch.

“Letting ourselves eat what we want and indulging in food is often wrapped up in feelings of guilt and shame because of pressures on us,” Gabriel said.

Those pressures include not eating unnecessary calories and staying fit, sure. But they also have to do with a deeper anxiety about making choices that are productive, whether that’s not spending too much time watching TV, or eating a food that will be “good for you” in a nutritional sense, as opposed to an emotional one.

“We feel guilty about these things because we see them as indulgences,” Gabriel said. “We don’t see them as lining up with the sorts of goals that we think we’re supposed to be following to be healthy all the time and be active and have every moment engaged in generative behavior. What we don’t realize is that there are other goals: goals to feel safe and goals to feel connected to other people and connected to the world around us. And those are really important goals, too.”

Self-care, especially when it comes to food, is about rewriting the narrative of what constitutes a healthy choice. 

That’s where the self-care movement, and its flourishing on social media, comes in. Self-care, especially when it comes to food, is about rewriting the narrative of what constitutes a healthy choice. Choosing to order pizza when you’re tired instead of cooking a meal is a different kind of healthy choice: You let yourself rest, even if the food itself isn’t packed with nutrients. 

But people trying to practice self-care in this way might still feel a nagging shame and judgment, whether it comes from without or within. Posting about the choice on social media, whether in a somewhat self-deprecating, or empowered tone, then becomes an additional way of compounding the self-care. You’re banishing the once couch-bound guilt by celebrating your decisions in public.

The problem with the “junk food as self-care” ethos is that there might come a time where it stops being so; when the “self-care as nachos” leads you to feeling tired or undernourished or, even, heavier than you want to be. As I look for answers about whether eating to emotionally soothe is “OK,” I find myself searching for a justification to a practice I still feel guilty about, scared of. But researchers take a kinder line.

“The question of ‘is this good?’ ‘is this OK?’ is the same question we’d ask about any of the compensatory mechanisms for emotional stress,” Troisi said, referring to eating, but also going out drinking, shopping, or hunkering down for a rom-com marathon. “If there is someone who has particular difficulty controlling what they eat, then this could be a little problematic. But not that any other mechanisms aren’t also problematic.”

Sure, in an ideal world, we would all deal with stress and sadness by talking them out with our therapists, but this isn’t always possible. Self-soothing can also cross the line into self-destructive behavior when done in excess, and can even lead to addiction. But these caveats don’t make the fact that we are always going to seek comfort less true, or shameful. 

Unbutton

In the world I grew up in, it was much preferred to go on a shopping spree than an eating binge, because only one would make you fat. I realize now this perspective is based around the goal of being thin — not a universal truth. 

Still, I have a lingering fear about embracing comfort food as self-care. One cookie in a moment when I’m feeling down won’t kill me, but how do I keep myself from using cookies as my tonic when the inevitable happens? This sort of habit forming is a valid concern.

As with all things, the key to accepting comfort food as a form of self-care comes with balance. Celebrating giving yourself a treat at the end of a particularly long week, versus overeating as emotional compensation every day, are different beasts. One might require a life change that a scoop of ice cream can’t solve. But in “self-care moments” — say, when you’re sad about your broken nose and leaving summer camp — that ice cream might be just what the doctor ordered.

“What you want to do is just not lock yourself into one way of doing it in a particular way that can ultimately be unhealthy, which would be if you’re constantly just turning to comfort food,” Gabriel said. 

However, she noted, it’s also “unhealthy to feel guilty about it.” Guilt about emotional eating leads to more feelings of feeling down, which could lead to more emotional eating, which could in turn lead to guilt and sadness, stress and shame. In this view, in terms of living a happy and healthy life, it’s really the guilt that’s the bigger trouble than the cookie. 

And this is why the celebratory and often public nature of self-care is so crucial. It’s about being kind enough to yourself, to own your decisions, to let yourself unbutton. Self-care lets you honor your choices in the moment, so that you can move forward and feel good.

Scrolling through self-care food posts, I realize that turning the definition of a good choice on its head feels breathtakingly radical, beautifully free. The broken nose-ice cream cone incident sticks in my mind because I was so, so proud of myself for denying the ice cream, decoupling the food and feeling. But now, I would tell my 14-year-old self locked in a battle for control over her body: It’s OK to take the ice cream, kid. Really, it is.

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