Category Archives: Food and Eating

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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Why I Don’t Need Any More Food Rules

I don’t want to talk about eating any more.

My socialisation around eating is fucked up enough as it is, and already plenty difficult to navigate without adding new ethical and health-related concerns. I am aware of ethical and environmental factors in the food we (and I) eat, and I hope people don’t assume that because I often choose not to engage with those issues I am not clever enough to understand or caring enough to feel. And if you have new rules (or new un-rules) to teach me about how to eat correctly or healthily or whatever then you can fuck right off. The truth is, I have little enough emotional energy to think about what I eat as it is, without adding more layers of guilt, shame or restriction to my diet.

As a middle-class westerner, I don’t conceptualise eating as being a purely pragmatic exercise to fuel the body. Whether I “should” or “shouldn’t”, the reality is that for me and my family and my culture, eating is not just fuelling the body, it is linked with pleasure, luxury, comfort, celebration, family togetherness and recreation as well as sustenance. As a social creature, I cannot separate myself from those things with ease, even if I wanted to (and I don’t want to – I enjoy the pleasures and comfort of food ).

As a woman, I’ve been socialised to view food in a number of gendered ways, both as one of the languages with which I can show love and caring (as the women in my family do and did for their loved ones before me) and as something vaguely dangerous that I need to be careful about. Not only should women worry about how fattening their food might be, we should also be aware of how eating might make us look. As a woman I have learned, without being explicitly taught by anyone, really, that I should eat delicately and neatly, never take the last slice of cake, and say “no thank you” when offered food even if I want to eat it, especially if I’m trying to make a first impression.

As a fat person who has never been thin, even as a child, my socialisation around food is even more complicated than it is for thinner women or fat women who were thin when younger. I am twenty-seven years old and even though I’ve I have spent the last five years learning about and campaigning for fat acceptance, I have still spent more than half of my life on a diet of some kind. I have so many rules crammed into my head about food that I’m not sure I know which ones are sane and sensible and which ones are crazy, dangerous or just plain lies any more. I do know that negative calorie foods don’t exist, and that spicy foods don’t really help you lose weight (or that if either of those things do result in a calorie deficit, it’s so small as to be meaningless). I don’t know if sugar and fat are good for you or bad for you or both or neither. My way of dealing with this has been to dismiss them all and now I really don’t care. I don’t know if it’s right that I respond (internally) to an acquaintance’s repeated assertions that she’s “just GOT to lose weight” by side-eyeing all the high energy food she eats and scoffing to myself that if I were her I would have been at my goal weight years ago. Actually, I do know that’s not right, but I am pretty sure that I am “better at” losing weight than she is, even though it’s been a long time since I did it. I’m a fucking expert at losing weight. For years and years, even while studying for my degree, there was nothing I put more energy into.

And wow, would you look at that. I’m still fat. Actually I am fatter now than I ever was.

As a person with a history of eating disorders, my internalised ideas about food are still more messy and complex than those I’ve associated with the categories of “western middle class”, “woman” and “fat”. I have spent my entire adult life struggling with disordered eating of various kinds. I’ve engaged in most of the eating disorders I’ve ever heard of; some of them were mere exerimental dabblings and some of them I committed to with every fibre of my rapidly shrinking being. I learned (and sometimes made up) even more rules about how one should approach eating. I spent so much of my energy in my early twenties trying to deny my body’s urges regarding food that I no longer feel regular hunger or satiety; I don’t notice I am hungry until I am so ravenous I want to throw up, and I don’t notice I am full until I am so full I feel sick (I don’t always eat until I am that full, but I sometimes can without realising I am doing it). That is what comes of spending all of your days permanently hungry; you learn to ignore the messages your body is giving you, and then you forget how to pay attention to them again.

I realise that in the process of explaining why I don’t want to talk about eating, I have now spent about eight hundred words talking about it. But I just had to get that out there. I don’t want to talk about eating. I am sick of thinking about eating. I want to just eat and get on with my life, without having to justify it or discuss how to do it correctly ad nauseam with my every friend and acquaintance. Perhaps one day I will want to think about it more, and I can certainly say that I’m almost guaranteed to post about it here again someday.  I do get why people want to talk about it – it’s such an integral part of our lives that of course we’re all going to have opinions on the subject.

But I know how to eat. You put edible things in your mouth and chew and swallow. Right now, for me, everything else is just indigestible garnish.

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