Understanding the Link Between Comfort Food and Mental Health

So much of what we do here at Viva is about reducing stigma and de-mystifying mental health in our lives. Today, I want to talk about the link between comfort food and mental health.

The current state of affairs

We can’t talk about comfort food without first discussing what it’s like to talk about food these days. There is a LOT of content about food online; from new recipes to unusual ingredients all the way down to the next superfood you need to essentially live forever. Culturally, we are preoccupied with food in a lot of ways and that isn’t always such a bad thing, but it certainly can be when we internalize shame around what we enjoy eating, especially when the justification for shaming is misguided (and that is putting it generously).

Many influencers (and companies for that matter) make a lot of money by making us feel bad about the food that we eat. This is, I think, the single largest issue that negatively impacts our relationship to food (secondary only to the lack of access for nutritious foods at every budget and location in the United States). The billion dollar diet industry is built on food shaming and many “health” coaches make a ton of money through crafty marketing that tells you you’re only healthy if you eat, and look, like them. Many also demonize cultural foods through recipe gentrification all in an effort to make the “healthy version.”

This is horrible for our relationship to food. It’s not good for our mental health and it needs to stop.

All about comfort food

With this, comfort foods have gotten a really bad rap. Rather than focusing on how we can reasonably fit comfort foods in our regular dietary practices, there is prevailing wisdom that we need to avoid them altogether. That’s unrealistic and unhealthy. That’s not to mention that there is not one singular definition of a comfort food.

Your comfort food may look like grilled cheese and french fries, a meal that you loved as a child. Or it could look like sushi or pho with all the toppings you can imagine. Maybe it’s a brownie that reminds you of nice, quiet evenings at home watching movies with your family.

Comfort foods provide comfort on two levels. Many of them are high in saturated fat, sodium, simple sugars and the like. They may be processed to the high heavens – all of which helps them produce powerful reactions in our brain linked to pleasure (releasing more dopamine in the brain, etc.). They’re comforting because THEY WORK.

Secondly, we also experience foods as comforting because they can help trigger memories of connection and closeness, acting as social surrogates which we often need in times of high stress and challenge. That is, foods that you find comforting likely help you feel closer to positive memories that you’ve shared with meaningful people in your life. They help you feel good!

picture of a small group of black people cooking and preparing food in an all white kitchen
Comfort foods help remind us that we’re a little less alone than we sometimes feel, and that’s OK

How to manage

A healthier relationship with food means cultivating balance between everyday nutritional needs and the pleasure (and comfort!) that food has always brought to humans psychologically and emotionally. Food provides us with energy to move, survive and help our brains work accurately AND food also helps us feel safe and secure, balanced and connected. There’s a reason why we all enjoy going out to eat after all – only part of it is just about the food. It’s also about connection and pleasure.

We can have both.

You can enjoy the foods that you find comforting, whether it’s for chemical or emotional reasons but that doesn’t mean that it’s healthy to binge. You can practice healthy living while giving yourself permission to eat things sometimes simply because they help you feel good. And, sometimes that think that helps you feel good might be something considered very “healthy.”

The key is balance and self-awareness.

If you find yourself struggling to manage your health with your eating practices, consult with a licensed therapist and a nutritionist to figure out what healthy can look like for you.

In conclusion

Eat a variety of foods, eat all the colors that you can find in nature much as possible. Eat more veggies and for goodness sakes, allow yourself to eat the things that you like eating. As they say, everything in moderation…even moderation.

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Viva provides clients with individualized, holistic, and culturally competent care. We focus on working with the whole person and firmly believe that a healthy lifestyle looks different on everyone.

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