Written by: Dua
Food has an inherently comforting and nurturing value, and this is normal. As infants, feeding time is not only a time of physical nourishment but also a time of warmth and closeness with our caretakers. Therefore, it’s only natural that as adults we also turn to food for comfort. Favorite foods from our past, warm soups on cold days, and steaming hot drinks can all offer us a “pick-me-up” when our mood is not so pleasant.
But is there a point where comfort food turns harmful?
Eating for emotional reasons exists on a continuum, with one end being natural and positive.* Such as finding pleasure when eating and finding comfort in food; like curling up with a cup of tea at the end of a long day. But, when food becomes a distraction from our emotions, when we turn to food for an emotional hunger rather than a physical one, and especially when we start to depend on food instead of feeling our emotions – it then becomes harmful. In times of distress or grief we may turn to food to “feel” better but, unfortunately, food is rarely an actual solution. Food becomes a distraction, a sedative, or on the other end of the continuum, a punishment.
It is important to explore our emotions with ourselves and to recognize when we eat for biological hunger and when we are eating for emotional hunger. One way to learn more is to ask ourselves an important question before eating: “Am I biologically hungry?”. If yes, then eat but if not, it’s time to dig a little deeper. It’s time to ask: “What am I feeling?”. It’s not always easy to answer that question but it is important to identify our feelings. Trying things like journaling, speaking to friends, taking deep breaths, or just sitting with your feelings are great ways to help you recognize your feelings. If you are still having trouble identifying your feelings or dealing with them, reaching out for help from a therapist may be helpful.
It is also important to find other ways to nurture ourselves and when needed other distractions. Using food to cope is often associated with guilt, which leaves us feeling even worse after eating than before. When it comes to nurturing ourselves, self-care comes in many shades and can be something as simple as taking time to rest or relax. Other ideas are sitting in a sauna, listening to soothing sounds, slowing down, meditating, praying, spending time with friends, taking a bath, doing yoga, buying a small gift for yourself, giving or receiving a hug, and anything else you personally enjoy.
If you’re looking for a distraction (which can be beneficial when used appropriately), there are also plenty of options to consider other than food: choosing to read a book or watch a movie, spending time with friends or loved ones, cleaning the house or rearranging the kitchen, working on the garden. taking a nap. There is plenty we can do that is not food related, the list is endless.
Reconnecting with our bodies and learning to cope with our emotions without using food is a journey. There are times that we use food for comfort and this is only natural but when it becomes habitual, that is when we must dig deeper within ourselves to understand why. Mindful Eating which focuses on being more present during our meals is one avenue, among many, that helps us reconnect with our bodies in relation to food. To learn more about Mindful Eating and how to reconnect with our bodies download my guide on Mindful Eating. Click here to download guide.
*This post draws on a lot of information from “Intuitive Eating – A revolutionary program that works” by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch.
Dua Aldasouqi is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Certified Health Coach, and the founder of Dua the Dietitian. She has been practicing since 2010 and genuinely believes that our relationship with food should not be complicated. She is also a student at Qalam Institute and loves combining the traditional teachings of Islam with modern day nutrition guidance. You can reach her on her website, Dua the Dietitian, or on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr.