Change your Relationship to Food…What’s the Deal with “Comfort Food?”

We’ve all been there: You’ve had a craptacular day, and now all you want to do is cozy up on the couch and watch a good TV show or movie with your favourite meal or snack…likely something cheesy, salty, creamy, or sugary (maybe even a glorious combination of all of the above – Cheddar Cheese Apple Pie á la Mode, anyone!?). You are trying to eat “healthy” and have been good about snacking on carrots and hummus and spinach smoothies, but let’s face it, veggies don’t seem to cut it when you’re feeling down in the dumps. Why is that? There’s a reason we refer to these fattening foods as “comfort food.” They actually can provide you an emotional – and physical – boost after you eat them … for a little while, anyway. The problem with turning to these types of foods for comfort is that the comfort is short-lived at best, and can create more long-term problems to pile on to the original problem, which if we’re being honest with ourselves, is still there. Remember the link between stress and the hormone cortisol? Research studies have shown that chronic stress can leave our bodies in prolonged states of fight-or-flight with levels of cortisol remaining high, which can actually stimulate appetite – leading us to eat more and ultimately gain weight. So, to be fair, we might genuinely feel hungry when we are super stressed. And what do we crave? Our favourite comfort foods

My research focus during my doctoral studies and for my dissertation was how we make strong emotional attachments in adulthood. As children, our caregivers become our primary attachment figures (often our parents), the people we run to when we are scared, upset and need protection. As adults, often romantic partners become our primary attachment figures. But what if “my person” – as best friends Meredith Grey and Cristina Yang refer to each other on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy – isn’t available when I need him or her? Turns out, we can form many different attachment relationships in our lives, and they seem to form a ranked list of most helpful to less helpful in times of trouble. For example, my primary attachment figure might be my romantic partner, but if he’s not available to comfort me when I get bad news, I might turn to my best friend or my mom or my sister … or go down the list until I get someone who can be there for me. According to Attachment Theory, the drive to form emotional attachments is biologically innate and universal – we all do it. The quality of those attachments, however, can be different. Just because we are emotionally connected to someone doesn’t necessarily mean we feel secure in the relationship. Relationships can be complicated. In my research and clinical practice I have found that people can even form (one-sided) strong emotional bonds, or parasocial relationships with celebrities (e.g., Cory Monteith), fictional TV characters (e.g., Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey), sports teams (e.g., Oilers), etc., and these parasocial relationships can function like secondary attachment bonds – usually lower on our lists of comfort relationships. Think about the emotional reactions we have when we lose our favourite TV character or celebrity. We cry. We protest. Some fans have even been known to campaign to TV networks to get their favourite TV shows back – remember the show Jericho? As I continue to study adult attachment behaviours, it seems that people may also be forming attachment relationships with their favourite foods. In fact, a study was published in the journal Psychological Science last year in which the researchers found that when people’s favourite NFL football teams lost on Sunday, they tended to eat more unhealthy foods on the following Monday. Similarly, consumer research suggests that people may try to cope with fear by seeking out comfort in their favourite brand when no one is around to comfort them. Sometimes only the real Oreos will do, right?
It’s not breaking news that people emotionally eat. Chances are, you are very aware of those “trigger” foods you turn to for comfort – ice cream, poutine, burgers, mac and cheese? However, as research out of the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab at University of North Carolina reminds us, there is a difference between pleasure and happiness. So, although we might be getting a temporary boost of pleasure from that mac and cheese, we are not getting a meaningful emotional connection like we might from one of our more primary attachment figures. And we may not even feel the boost we were looking for every time, so we eat more, hoping to get a good feeling…but all we end up feeling is UNcomfortably full and maybe even guilty for pigging out. So what’s the solution? Every New Year’s Eve and spring, we tell ourselves, “That’s it! I’m going on a diet tomorrow. No more junk food! Only healthy snacks from now on. I’m going to look great in a swim suit!” And, we really mean it…for a few weeks or so. What’s the deal? Why is it so hard to stick to the diet? I might rephrase the question to ask why is it so hard to give up the foods we love? If I tell you not to think about a pink polar bear…. You are probably thinking about one right now. I imagine you weren’t thinking of a pink polar bear before I forbade it, right? As soon as we tell ourselves we can’t have something, that’s all we can think about – and crave! One of the biggest problems with the popular Atkins diet was that people ended up binge eating potato chips … and they might not even genuinely want potato chips.
Therefore, I’m NOT going to tell you to give up your favourite foods. Rather, I recommend mindfully eating instead of emotionally eating. In my last blog, I talked about mindfulness and being aware of the present moment. Research tells us that when we are eating in front of the TV or when we’re distracted, we eat more and enjoy our food less. So, let’s actually enjoy our favourite yummy foods! Turn off the TV and savour your meal. Look at it, notice the textures and colors, take in all the wonderful smells, notice the sensation of the food in your mouth and on your tongue, really taste all the different flavours, and experience the actions of chewing and swallowing your food. When we eat more mindfully, we eat less and enjoy more. Go ahead and allow yourself to indulge in the foods you love – on your own terms – not at the mercy of your emotions. Let yourself have that piece of chocolate cake for dessert, but acknowledge the cake for what it is – chocolatey deliciousness – not your protector from the world’s harshness. The next time you are feeling a negative emotion, try to acknowledge it and let it be there without dwelling on it. Focus on your breathing and let the feeling pass on it’s own rather than trying to get rid of it by drowning it in food. Let’s stop putting so much pressure on our food to be our safe havens and perfect best friends. You may not need to change all the foods you eat … but, rather, change the relationship you have those foods. And through more mindful awareness, you may find that you want more out of your relationships and that you deserve better.
Bon Appétit!

References and Further Reading:
Cornil, Y., Chandon, P. (2013). From fan to fat? Vicarious losing increases unhealthy eating, but self-affirmation
is an effective remedy. Psychological Science, 24, 1936-1946.
doi: 10.1177/0956797613481232

Dunn, L., Hoegg, J. (2014). The impact of fear on emotional brand attachment. Journal of Consumer Research.
doi: 10.1086/675377

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