“This is proper comfortable food”, said my husband while eating a soup I made recently. “Do you mean comfort food?” I replied. “No, comfortable food.” And that got me pondering on the difference between comfort food and food that makes you feel, well, comfortable.
Comfort food is what you reach for to give you a happy hit. It works briefly. Then you need more straight away. Then you feel rubbish. Emotionally low. Perhaps tummy ache, bloating, indigestion and wind. Maybe headaches, trouble concentrating and energy dips, and sometimes achey joints and more.
Comfortable food is food that makes you feel good not just in the moment, but all the way down your digestive tract and beyond. Food that puts a smile on your face and soothes your digestion. Food that properly nourishes you.
The problem with comfort food
Comfort food is often high in sugar, refined carbohydrates, fat, salt or a combination of all of these. The right level or mixture of these will give you a brief happy hit that will instantly make you want more. Food industry psychologist and marketing expert Howard Moskowitz coined the term “bliss point” for processed foods that give you the greatest dopamine hit, the chemical pathway that lights up your reward centre and makes you feel good. It’s the dopamine hit that makes you want to eat crisps, doughnuts, biscuits, ice cream and junk food – and leaves you wanting more. Most processed foods and snacks are engineered to hit your bliss point.
The emotional and mental stress of messing with your mood in this way is partnered with the physical damage eating too much sugar, refined carbs, salt and usually heavily processed fats can do.
Such foods can really mess with your digestive processes, creating inflammation and messing with the balance of your gut bacteria and other microbes. This can affect how well you digest nutrients generally, and also how well you protect yourself from foods you may be intolerant to and any toxins you ingest.
Your gut and its microbial balance is also an intrinsic part of your immune system, and its condition will affect inflammation and immune responses throughout your body. Added to that the inflammatory effect of highly processed foods and all the ways they can contribute to disease.
An uncomfortable place to be
Knowing all of this can actually make the stress of comfort eating even worse, as we add layers of self-recrimination to the low self-esteem that may have led us to comfort eat in the first place. This can be a deeply uncomfortable place to be.
We are so used to punishing and judging ourselves with food: it’s a pattern most of us learnt young and reinforce with everyday language. We think of certain foods as being bad – like crisps, biscuits, sweets etc. – which may be justifiable. But what we actually say is:
“I’ve been bad today – I’ve eaten 3 sausage rolls and half a chocolate gateau.”
Notice how easily we shift the judgement from the food to ourselves.
Then we feel we need to somehow punish ourselves, often with varying amounts of guilt and self-loathing. We may even set up an intention we know deep inside we’ll likely “fail” at, like going on a particularly restrictive diet. All of this sets up the perfect chemistry for craving something that’ll make us feel better: like another sausage roll or piece of cake. It’s a punishing cycle.
Being kind with yourself
We can break this cycle with kindness. Being really kind to ourselves. Hearing the critical inner voice, and blanketing it in love. Understanding that self love will help quieten both the craving for dopamine hits and the self-judgement. This may take some practice, vigilance and support, but it’s valuable work. For your mental, emotional and physical health.
As part of this, we can start to think about replacing comfort food with comfortable food: food that feels nourishing on all sorts of levels. It will probably – but not necessarily – involve the following criteria:
e.g. casseroles, soups, porridge, well cooked brown rice risottos, sauce-rich bakes etc.
- Warming when you’re cold; cooling when you’re hot
e.g. slow-cooked foods and mild spices in winter, salads in summer
- Soothing to your digestive tract
i.e. by being hydrating (see 1.);
and/or by containing anti-inflammatory ingredients such as turmeric, ginger, parsley, mint, soaked chia seeds
- Free of foods you find problematic
e.g. intolerances, allergies
- Prepared from scratch
i.e. made with simple, wholesome ingredients
And it will pretty much always be this:
You absolutely have to enjoy comfortable food. Whether it’s because of its depth of flavours, its simplicity, its fresh crispness, its spicy warmth or its natural, earthy sweetness.
Figuring out your comfortable foods
Comfortable food will be a different thing for different people, so to figure out your comfortable food you may need to pay close attention. With a little experimentation, you should be able to put together a list of foods that are delicious and make you feel nourished and contented. Then perhaps batch cook a couple, or make sure you are always well stocked with the right ingredients, so you always have some at hand.
You may have noticed that you find certain foods more difficult to digest, especially when you are stressed. It might be sugar, or wheat, or dairy; it might be onions, or broccoli, or lentils. It may not make much sense to you right now, but still pay attention to this. So while a bowl of lentil daal may be the perfect soothing, hydrating, anti-inflammatory nourishment for one person, for another it might lead to painful bloating and wind.
Knowing how to prepare food can be really helpful. So in the above example, soaking and rinsing the lentils in advance and cooking them with a bay leaf or kombu seaweed usually lessens the impact. For those who struggle with certain vegetables, cooking them really well might help. You may find that chunky soups that you have to chew are more digestible than blended soups – or vice versa. Or that your digestion and energy levels work better with more raw foods right now. Rather than trying to make sense of it, just listen, and keep listening.
Finally, how you eat is as important as what you eat.
Whether you are eating comfort or comfortable food, savour every mouthful. By doing this, even if it’s just for the first few mouthfuls, you are:
- Allowing yourself to fully enjoy and appreciate your food, without judgement or self-recrimination
- Bringing your attention to the current moment and your physical sensations, which is essentially a mindfulness practice.
For most, this calms down your nervous system’s stress responses, and creates a sense of ease and contentment.
- Preparing your digestive system, giving it a head’s up about what’s coming, so it can deal with it more smoothly and efficiently
In addition, chewing your food well kicks off your digestive processes and triggers movement throughout your GI tract – so even helping with constipation.
Your posture plays an important role, too, especially if you get indigestion or heartburn. Sitting comfortably upright helps your stomach’s entrance and exit points open and close appropriately.
Most importantly, practise whatever helps you feel comfortable with and about yourself while you’re eating. Remind yourself that this food is to nourish your mind and body, so that you can more easily achieve the wonderful act of being you.