November 30, 2012 7:45 pm

What’s so bad about comfort eating?

Why shouldn’t we have a bit of chocolate to lift us up, or tuck into a bowl of pasta to calm us down?
An illustration depicting comfort eating by Laura Carlin©Laura Carlin

The Sage

I don’t know why people think comfort eating is a bad thing, since I’m not sure there’s any other kind worth doing. Perhaps we should indulge in the occasional session of discomfort eating, stretching ourselves with strange new flavours, textures and ingredients. But for the most part, what use is food if not to soothe us in some way?

Of course, bingeing on huge tubs of ice cream when we’re feeling miserable isn’t usually a great idea, although even that might beat sitting around being morose. But why shouldn’t we have a bit of chocolate to lift us up, or tuck into a bowl of pasta to calm us down?

The feeling that we really ought not to depend on food in this way is tied up with the misconception that we are, or ought to be, essentially spiritual and intellectual beings and that food and drink are merely fuel; if we allow our wellbeing to be influenced by them, we are giving in to our baser side and doing a disservice to our higher nature.

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This is poppycock. We are physical beings through and through, and it’s those among us who want to exclude food’s role in the good life who are in denial.

Using food to improve our mood is not to descend to the level of animals because eating for comfort isn’t just about pushing a few biochemical buttons. Many comfort foods are deeply tied to memory, and eating them helps us to reconnect with aspects of our histories that remind us of where we came from, and therefore who we are. Food also comforts because it reminds us that what really satisfies us in life is often simple and basic. We can easily kid ourselves that life requires the transcendent and the permanent to be meaningful, and yet a good meal is both transitory and supremely satisfying.

A person who can’t take appropriate comfort in food and drink hasn’t come to terms with their own all-too-human nature. Far from a glass of wine or a slice of cake distracting us from our true, higher nature, they remind us of what we really are.

The Shrink

It has been pleasing of late to hear researchers extol the physical and psychological health benefits of chocolate. What a relief. Perhaps we don’t need to feel guilty about self-medicating with it. Other things that provide life’s little props – wine for instance – have also been praised, when used in moderation. Does that mean we can embrace comfort eating?

If we looked behind the headlines, we’d undoubtedly discover that it’s a bit more complicated than that. The types of foods we associate with comfort eating – fatty and sugary by and large – tend not to be healthy for us overall, even though they may yield good short-term effects. Indulging in them now and again may not be a problem, but relying on them to lift our mood on a regular basis can clearly encourage and entrench habits that are not to our advantage.

The main question is whether you have a pattern of retreating into eating or drinking as a way of avoiding dealing with life issues. If you do – and even if that dependence is not yet having negative consequences on your health, finances or social life – it may be an idea to face your problems and find alternative forms of comfort.

But maybe you are addressing your issues, eating a generally healthy diet and not given to stuffing yourself with greasy comforts at the drop of a hat. There are moments, however, when you feel a bit down and you know that, while eating a piece of chocolate won’t make your problems go away, you could do with a little boost.

We have to choose our battles and cut ourselves some slack. We don’t have unlimited energy and if we make it too much of a priority never to eat or drink to comfort ourselves, we may be left with fewer resources to deal with important things.

And we don’t always have to address problems head-on. If we’re feeling weighed down by an issue, shifting our focus temporarily on to something else could help to put things in perspective. That thing could even be an edible treat.

The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, comment below or email shrinkandsage@ft.com

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