The Paradox of Comfort Foods

I know this is a really scary time right now with stress levels high and overall emotions weighing in somewhere around…sticky (read: overwhelmed, uncertain, fearful, anxious, sad, the list goes on and on). So now more than ever it’s important to talk a little bit about the immune system, paying close attention to stress, sleep, and nutrition.

I’ve been thinking about the traditional meaning of comfort foods lately. How when we’re sad, we’re provided casseroles and cookies, or we just naturally navigate towards these things ourselves. Okay maybe not casseroles (are these still a thing?) but you get the point.

To me, every meal should imbue some essence of comfort – nourishing, wholesome, fueling. I think the caveat and mindfulness I try to remind myself of is when I pair feeling low/sad/depressed/fill in the blank adjective with the traditional “comfort foods” – those laden with alcohol, sugars, processed carbohydrates, and fast/fake foods. The things that taste good in the moment, but sometimes numb rather than nourish. (also – I’m speaking to my experience and my experience only. These are behaviors I used to engage in before I could understand the reasons why I was doing it. This is definitely not a one size fits all statement and not meant as advice other than advice to myself to read back later).

Ironically, these foods disrupt the microbiome the most – the macrocosm of good bacteria that take up real estate in your gut. There’s a direct highway between gut and brain, so when the gut is out of balance, we feel the effects in the mind. And when the brain is already in the state of disarray during trying times, we may feel the effects of poor diet even more. Maybe not in the moment, but eventually.

I’ve heard a million times that we’re made up of so much bacteria, but it’s hard to really shift into the most rational version of ourselves during chaos and turmoil. When the emotional mind is dominant, all rationality flies out the window and we’re in pure survival mode. But if we practice these behaviors before shit hits the fan – when we feel well and whole – it makes it all the more easier to incorporate them when we’re down and out. That’s where the real wisdom magic happens.

These foods can also whack the immune system out of balance and lead to inflammation, leading us to be a bit more susceptible to illness.

I 1000% relate to that ideology behind listening to your body. I can only speak for myself, but when I was younger, sometimes my mind was really good at convincing my body that it needed something that really didn’t serve me. Even when that decision may end up making the mind feel worse. Especially if you’re like me and can justify just about any /every decision.

It’s taken me a lot of trial and error throughout the past 10 years to get to this point. The goal for myself is having enough emotional intelligence to recognize when I’m eating foods for the highest version of my brain, rather than the lowest version of my emotions. And it’s not a perfect system, changing person by person. Sometimes having ice cream when I’m feeling down is right in the moment for nostalgic value. My dad is an ice cream FIEND so it provides some emotional comfort. My point is never to condemn or demonize a certain food or group of foods, but rather to highlight the importance of really knowing ourselves so that we have more techniques to self-soothe that extend far beyond food during moments of distress.

I save the “comfort foods” – wine, pizza, ice cream, fried brussels sprouts, ramen, scallion pancakes – when I’m already in a good place mentally and physically. And with no looming threat of illness on the horizon (ie. during non-pandemic times). To fully experience these foods, tasting all of their flavors, rather than to just mindlessly consume and rush through them. It is during those times that I have the cognitive resources to REALLY experience these foods. Furthermore, when I’m happy, it’s way easier to listen to my body and to hear it’s satiation cues. To know I’ve experienced something to its fullest, and know confidently when I’ve had enough. When I’m sifting through heavy emotions, it’s an all consuming process, so there’s less space to focus on the present experience.

Ultimately each meal can be seen as an opportunity to feel better and a way to collect data. And that’s what the overarching goal in this little corner of the internet is – to always FEEL BETTER. To be the best version of you to go out and do good and help make others feel good too in all arenas of your life.

There is no right way to do something. In my oh so humble opinion, the most meaningful data is collected on ourselves when we take a look at our behaviors without judgement, shame, or embarrassment. Simply observation, curiosity, and awareness. Journaling / writing down how you felt about something so you can remember for next time.

The next time you’re feeling down, anxious, a little under the weather, or just overall “off” – simply observe what you’re craving. You are the ultimate scientist of your own experience, and in these moments we collect the most valuable information.

Here are some things I do during times of distress:

  • eat a few extra vegetables for nutrients
  • make a loaded sweet potato for added prebiotic fiber
  • toss an extra forkful of kimchi on a meal for probiotics
  • be diligent about taking a probiotic
  • use my light lamp in the morning (and take a vitamin D supplement)
  • take a few walks outside
  • call or FaceTime a friend / family member
  • listen to podcasts that make me laugh
  • whip up a tasty smoothie
  • go to homegoods and feel all their fuzzy blankets (or currently: around my apartment and feel different textures)
  • do a quick 5 minute body scan
  • jump up and down and dance
  • do something that involves the senses – buy some paints and paint something, bake bread, play with silly puddy

What about you?! I want to know! Leave it in the comments.

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3 Responses

  1. Katie- this is so so good. I feel like it’s such a good blend of using intuition as well as engaging your mind to make the best nutrition choice. Not necessarily always the one that FEELS like the I-HAVE-TO-EAT-IT-RIGHT-NOW. Sometimes I feel like the IE world can tend more towards impulse, so I love the balance you describe here. Thanks for posting!

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