Comfort Eating or Eating Comfortably?

A lot of junk food including burgers, chips, ice cream, donuts, popcorn, cake, nachos and macarons.  Superimposed in front is a black rectangle bearing the words "KEEP CALM AND OM NOM".

A lot of junk food including burgers, chips, ice cream, donuts, popcorn, cake, nachos and macarons. Superimposed in front is a black rectangle bearing the words “KEEP CALM AND OM NOM”.

I know I said not that long ago that I didn’t want to talk about food, but it turns out I do. Hurrah! TRIGGER WARNING: The following post discusses mental illness and eating, and may be triggering for folks with depression, eating disorders or a history of mental illness in general, so proceed accordingly!

Yesterday I went to the doctor. I’ve had chronic depression to varying degrees of severity for my entire adult life, and right now I’m in a particularly severe depressive episode. So the doc and I were talking about my mood and how it is affecting my day to day life. I mentioned that most days I only get around to eating one meal, because I just can’t see the point of eating and don’t have the energy to prepare or find food. Non-ideal! Luckily at dinner time I usually have someone around to make food and thrust it at me, which is an excellent thing and ensures I get fed well at least once a day.

When I said this the doctor looked at me and said “if you’re only eating one meal a day, why are you the size you are?” I rolled my eyes (internally) and said “well, I’ve always been this size” and he went on to ask whether I was “comfort eating”. This post isn’t really about fat hating doctors; it’s pretty awful that fat hating doctors have become de rigeur for me and fat blogging in general, but they have, and that’s not what I’m writing about today. What struck me as I brushed off the doctor’s ignorant question was the concept of “comfort eating.”

It’s an interesting and loaded question – “have you been comfort eating” – and it got me thinking. Have I been comfort eating? What is comfort eating exactly?

What I usually think of when I hear the term “comfort eating” is binge-eating. “Eating your feelings.” I certainly have experience with binge eating as disordered eating; I don’t mean eating a whole! bag! of chips! in one sitting, I mean eating half the pantry in a self-hating, panicky frenzy. Not especially comfortable, let me tell you. Comfort eating is also seen as things like having a block of chocolate on the first day or your period, or ploughing through a tub of ice-cream after a bad breakup. I’ve done that kind of comfort eating too, choosing to eat something because I know it will feel nice and be calming and enjoyable when I am feeling awful. Homemade Prozac, in other words.

A screencap from The Simpsons.  Homer is in the kitchen, looking thoughtful as he tastes a bowl of pink goopy stuff.  Marge looks on from the table in the background.

A screencap from The Simpsons. Homer is in the kitchen, looking thoughtful as he tastes a bowl of pink goopy stuff. Marge looks on from the table in the background.  “My only hope is this homemade prozac.  Hmm…needs more ice-cream.”

There’s plenty of stigma attached to comfort eating of both kinds, which strikes me as rather silly in the second situation (and outright vicious in the first, which is a symptom of mental illness). In Australia and the US at least, we seem to have developed this idea that food is SOLELY fuel for the body and has – or should have – no other purpose. Shame on you if you eat anything when you’re not actively hungry, or eat anything that isn’t “nutritious” as determined by the food fashions of the day. And the kind of food matters too. Eating a slice of cake is “being bad” and chocolate is “wickedly sinful”, even when it’s soap! There’s a wikihow tutorial on how to “resist naughty foods cravings” but I’m not going to link to it; as far as I’m concerned, the only “naughty” foods are cakes with swear words on them (tee hee). If you’ve never heard someone say “no thanks, I’m being good” when you offer them some food, I want to trade lives with you. Feeling guilty about food is awful but common. And the kinds of food that people, myself included, usually think of when we think of “comfort eating” (whether it’s binge eating or the “homemade prozac” kind) are precisely this sort of high energy, fatty, starchy, sugary food. Dangerous food! Out of bounds food! Naughty food!

When I think about it, yes, I have certainly been eating more high fat, high sugar, high starch foods than usual lately. But I don’t intend to feel guilty for it. On the one hand, guilting people for eating anything at all is rubbish, and I don’t believe that any food is morally inferior to any other. But furthermore, I feel like I need to defend this kind of eating even more than social eating (like having cake at a party) or self-medicating comfort eating. I feel like I need to fight even more fiercely to be allowed to have this kind of eating guilt-free, because it feels less like eating solely for comfort and more like eating in the way that is comfortable, because that’s been necessary for my survival lately.

Let me explain by referencing Satter’s hierarchy of food needs, which I recently read about on The Fat Nutritionist (great post, by the way – it’s about eating and poverty, and it’s important stuff that is well worth reading). As the Fat Nutritionist says, “the idea is that, before we worry about nutrition […] we’ve first got to HAVE food. Enough of it.” She’s talking about this in reference to a scarcity of affordable food, but I think it also works when the thing getting between you and eating is your brain.

On a particularly bad mental health day last month, if I didn’t eat, say, a bag of chips for lunch then the alternative was not a salad or a sandwich, it was not eating at all. Chips felt unthreatening and, yes, comfortable, but it was not a matter of eating just for fun (it was usually 3pm and I was ravenous) nor was I choosing “comfort” food over healthy food. It was simply that I didn’t have the energy to both get out of bed AND prepare food, so the food I was going to eat had to be both appealing and pre-prepared, ready to eat, in order to convince me to try and eat it. And, as the Fat Nutritionist points out, fatty, starchy, high sugar foods are really, really appealing to most of us (especially when we’re hungry) for perfectly sensible biological reasons – when you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from and it’s been a while since the last, pick the food with the most immediately accessible energy and the most energy to store for later.

Obviously I’m privileged enough that I’m not usually unsure where my next meal is coming from. But I’m not making these decisions consciously, so it makes sense that when I need a quick energy hit (because I’m really hungry) and I need to not have to think about it or do much to get it into edible form (because I’m severely depressed) the things I reach for are fatty, sugary, starchy junk foods.

So no, I haven’t been comfort eating. I have been eating comfortably, to keep myself from starving because I was too depressed to eat. Even though years ago – when I still subscribed to the idea that eating is something nasty you do when you run out of willpower – I probably would have described the eating I do on a bad mental health day as “comfort eating”, it really isn’t.  I refuse to feel guilty for keeping myself alive with “unhealthy” food, and neither should you if you find yourself in similar circumstances.

Of course, even if I were comfort eating in the true sense, that isn’t something I should feel guilty for either.  Because eating is not a moral issue.

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20 thoughts on “Comfort Eating or Eating Comfortably?

  1. Jkitty92 says:

    Awesome post. Definitely felt this way many times before I started my meds. People wrote it off as lazy but really if Chris didn’t fix me some food at some point in the day I’d be lucky to eat 2 packets of 2 minute noodles.

    It sucks that you’re feeling this way and if there’s anything I can do to help just give us a message on Facebook and I’ll do what I can.

    • Sarah says:

      Thank you 🙂 For the longest time I’ve thought of this as a very private person sort of issue, but it occurred to me that probably a lot of people – fat and thin – can relate to it, really. Being able to eat normally seems to be one of the things that quickly goes out the window when depression sinks in, and feeling tormented over it is almost inevitable given the mess that is our society’s attitude to food and eating, but it isn’t necessary or helpful.

  2. Another fantastic post Sarah! When I am depressed, I stop eating. I also stop drinking water too. I just cease to look after myself generally speaking. So when I do eat in those times, the actual “what” I eat doesn’t matter – so long as I’m getting something in, it’s better than the alternative, which is nothing at all.

    But even outside of those times, I believe comfort eating is very important. There is no use forcing yourself to eat something that isn’t fulfilling to you as well as nutrition. The important thing is re-learning to listen to your body and hear what it needs to be fulfilled and when it is fulfilled. We have been forced to switch that off in ourselves because of the attitude that it’s “good to feel hunger” and consequently we end up not eating when we are depressed, or eating things that don’t really do the job of nourishing us body and soul, or making ourselves so hungry that when we do eat we may eat more than we really want to or eat things that don’t quite do the job of nourishing us.

    I still struggle with getting the eating thing right, with not laying down loads of guilt and other screwed up thinking on my eating, but it’s something I’m getting better and better at with time. But this is a lifetime of damage I’m undoing, because from my earliest memory I was loaded down with guilt and angst about food, or given impossible standards to meet. I’m learning to eat for the first time in my life… and I’m FORTY! How messed up are we as a culture that grown adults have to learn how to eat properly instead of being given those foundations when we are children?

    • Sarah says:

      I think you’re right, yes. There are lots of foods that “feel good” to me, and plenty of those are foods I think of as “healthy-for-me foods”, and that food is pleasurable doesn’t make it bad. Eating being pleasurable is a good thing!

      I am also learning how to eat and can relate to the screwed up thinking and guilt side of things. I had recently been stressing myself out a bit over how many of the meals I’ve had in the last month or so have been fast food or a bag of chips. But ultimately that doesn’t matter. Like you say, the what doesn’t matter, eating something at all is a Good Thing.

      It’s incredibly messed up that so many of us have to learn how to eat and how to relate to food in a sane and comfortable way as adults. One of my biggest anxieties about being a future parent is how to make sure I raise a person who is not as confused and troubled about eating as I have been. We need to change the way we – as a society – talk about food or we’re just going to keep growing up, generation after generation, completely messed up about it.

  3. skybunnies says:

    I guess you can say that I’m one of the lucky ones with a fast metabolism that can get away with eating well, “junk” food and, up to a year ago, I didn’t really care whether my dinner was a bucket of fried chicken or a cheeseburger from McDonald’s. Why? Because no matter how much I ate, I stayed the same size.
    It was only when my mum was diagnosed with diabetes type 2 that I realized that our family’s eating habit was starting to effect our health. There shouldn’t be a need to classify certain foods as “naughty” or “evil” (hell, I love my bacon and chocolate cream filled cakes!), but we have to ask ourselves if our bodies really can handle the extra injection of fat/insulin, etc-
    it’s not guilt that makes me turn down cake nowadays, it’s knowing my body cannot handle the extra sugar hit and not wanting to feel lethargic afterwards.
    Just food for thought (sorry, I know it’s a lame pun), but I am thankful I found your blog and reading your perspective on it confirms one thing: it doesn’t matter what size you are, food is always going to play heavily in our minds!

    • Sarah says:

      See, I disagree that we “we have to ask ourselves if our bodies really can handle the extra injection of fat/insulin, etc” because I think that’s not a priority for everyone and that’s OK. I can totally see reasons for avoiding certain foods if they make you feel lethargic afterwards, or sick, or sore, or have negative effects. I can even see reasons for avoiding certain foods or eating certain foods for your own health. I’m certainly not saying everybody should eat junk food all the time (although I won’t shame them if they do).

      There are lots of ways that various issues in our lives can interact and contradict one another, though, and the treatment for one thing causes another problem or makes another problem worse. As an example not related to food, I am very pale and have a family history of skin cancer, and I live in Australia which has high UV radiation and a high skin cancer rate. To reduce my high skin cancer risk, I avoid the sun and wear sunscreen. As a result, I am vitamin D deficient, which increases my risk of osteoporosis. I’d rather not get skin cancer OR osteoporosis, so I take vitamin D supplements most of the time, but sometimes I forget or can’t afford them, and then I’ve got to decide between the lesser of two evils. Ultimately we can’t always avoid these kinds of conflicts and we have to decide which is more important to us (or which is more accessible). For me, my diet at the moment might lead to problems down the road, but given the choice between not eating at all and possibly causing problems for my future self, I’ll go with eating the junk food. Otherwise I might not have a future self!

      • I agree “WE” don’t have to ask ourselves anything, or do anything about how our bodies can handle whatever foods/nutrients etc. What “WE” choose to do does not have to fit some measure of “health” or “wellness”.

        YOU can choose to do that if it suits yourself, but keep the “WE” out of it.

  4. shehasathree says:

    RARRRRGHH!

    Yay, Satter!
    (I think splitting off the concept of "comfort eating" from other kinds of eating implies that eating can be removed from its cultural context. This is problematic because it implies a false dichotomy between "necessary" eating and "comfort eating" as if one has socio-emotional charge and the other doesn't. Of course eating is eating is always in some sense a social act, even if we're eating alone (in the basement).

    [Side note, I just browsed past an abstract on the "alexithymia of qualitative research" about the normativity of (attempting to) dissociate(ing) oneself from one's emotions while researching difficult topics – strikes me as a similar cultural logic – "if we pretend the emotions don't exist in this situation, maybe no-one will notice they really do!"]

    • Sarah says:

      That’s a very good point, actually. Perhaps the whole concept of “comfort eating” is not useful at all and eating comfortably would be a better way to think of it for the type that is food-as-homemade-prozac kind of eating? Because yes, it’s not like we don’t eat for pleasure and emotionally even when we are also eating for nourishment and to sate hunger.

  5. Ollie NcLean says:

    1) There’s some fairly strong sciency research that indicates that having some food with fat, starch and salt helps humans deal with emotional distress better. Source-amnesia.

    2) My mother did some (non-sciency) research of what sort of comfort foods people like to use as comfort foods, and how they self-report on their effectiveness (post-grad counselling thing). What her research revealed was the most effective comfort foods were what was a “special treat” to those people as children. For instance, to many Chinese people raised in poor families, they reported things like plain rice with a little bit of pork fat as being a super treat as kids, and effective as comfort food as an adult, even though they might have much more rich foods frequently in their wealthy adult lives.

    • Sarah says:

      Interesting! It makes sense that foods associated with good feelings in childhood would trigger similar good feelings in adulthood too. I can’t comment on whether that’s my experience because I can’t really remember what foods were special treats when I was little. Except apples and cream, which I only ever had at my grandmother’s house. Maybe I should try apples and cream next time I feel sad and see if it’s an effective homemade prozac 🙂

    • Sarah says:

      Hmm, that’s not really what I’m getting at with this blog. I’m generally of the opinion that feeling hungry means you need to eat, and it is not a feeling I want to seek out. I’ve spent most of the last five years unlearning the idea that feeling hungry is good and I’m not planning to go back on that any time soon.

  6. Marilyn says:

    I wanted to mention that the doctor saying “if you’re only eating one meal a day, why are you the size you are?” is not a fat hating comment. It is you’re not underweight comment. I’ve been losing weight due to depression and anxiety. The nurse asked me about my eating. The doctor had no concern as long as I wasn’t underweight by BMI. I lost twenty pounds over the three months that I had been seeing him going from overweight according to BMI to normal weight. He gave me advice to see him again in seven months for my issues and said that I wasn’t to concern myself about weight unless I got under BMI of 18.5. That would be a lose of another twenty pounds. So this doctor thinks lose of weight due to depression is fine as long as one is massively underweight.

    • Sarah says:

      I think what your doctor said is really disturbing. Yes, there are certain health problems associated with an extremely low weight, but a lot of those problems are also associated with sudden, drastic weight loss. If you’re not eating and losing weight due to depression and anxiety that is a BIG PROBLEM even if you are not underweight. Not getting enough to eat causes health issues and has a particular tendency to exacerbate anxiety and depression because not having enough energy in your system prevents your brain from functioning normally. This is definitely a fat hating thing. It’s tied up in the idea that if you are fat then any weight loss for any reason is a good thing, even if it’s unwanted or accidental or caused by unhealthy things like depression-induced starvation.

      And yeah, my doctor’s comment to me was definitely a fat hating comment. It was also a hint that he didn’t believe me when I said I was having trouble eating enough. We’ve had conversations about my size before.

    • shehasathree says:

      Well, that’s crappy of your doctor – because losing weight quickly is a cause for concern, both medically and as a sign of depression!

      “So this doctor thinks lose of weight due to depression is fine as long as one is massively underweight.”

      Yeah, that would be the institutionalised fatphobia. Which, for the record, flies in the face of medical science.

  7. Marilyn says:

    isn’t massively underweight. I typed too fast. He basically said that I would stop losing weight before I became underweight so I didn’t have to worry about it. I’m not losing weight as fast. The nurse told me to make myself eat three meals a day. I was losing weight because I was only eating one or two. It’s been a month since I’ve seen him and I’ve only lost two pounds. I lost ten pounds between my second and third appointment with him that were only six weeks apart. I weigh myself once a week and I force myself to eat. I’m trying to keep my weight on.

    • Sarah says:

      You don’t need to justify your weight loss or eating to anyone Marilyn, and I’m sorry if any of the comments here made you feel like you do. It’s your doctor I am angry with for telling you not to worry about weightloss if you’re not underweight. I hope you’re able to find an equilibrium than works for you and get to enjoy eating instead of having to force yourself to do so – nourishment is important to maintain, but unhappy eating sucks.

  8. […] body positivity and fat acceptance. -Chris Christie’s weight: the issue that isn’t. -Comfort eating or eating comfortably? -An awesome example of how FA blogs are making a difference. -Inconceivable! -Fatness around the […]

  9. It’s amazing (and disturbing) how much this hits home for me, even though I don’t have a history of eating disorders, or “comfort eating” or any particular psychological issues with food. I do have difficulty trying to make sure I eat enough, both in terms of eating more than once a day, and trying to meet my body’s basic nutritional needs, in terms of energy and everything else.
    This is difficult for me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, between the effects of depression and medication with a side effect of supressing my appetite, I very rarely feel hunger. Most of the time I have to consciously remind myself to eat, and hope I’ve remembered before I run out of spoons because I haven’t eaten in too long. The second issue is that my spoon count is always quite low, so I often don’t have the energy to prepare food at all, let alone anything more complicated than two minute noodles.
    I still have to remind myself that eating anything is better than eating nothing even thoughI just want to go back to bed. Especially when all I want to do is go back to bed.
    I do keep an eye on my weight and size, because I really want to avoid sudden weight loss from not eating. It’s hard enough to look after myself as it is.
    When eating and dealing with food is hard, eating at all is an achievement. Eating “well” is a bonus, for those times when you have spoons to spare on chasing bonus points. And I still have to keep reminding myself of that.

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