These days everyone is talking health. People are gaining an awareness of what they put in their bodies. One thing most people seem to agree on is that food is fuel. Some however take that a step further saying that food is just fuel. Because of that little "just" we should not eat to reward ourselves, to soothe or manage our emotions. Emotional hunger is different from physical hunger, so they say. They strongly caution against reaching for comfort foods when feeling blue. While we can appreciate the message, our relationship with food is far more sophisticated, than that.
Discovering Our Relationship with Nourishment
Our relationship with nourishment started in the womb where our needs were consistently met. We were neither hungry nor thirsty nor cold nor in want. Our relationship with hunger arrived at the same time as our relationship with separation and need. The need for nourishment and comfort was met the same way: breastfeeding. A baby's social interaction and psychological development cannot be separated from his food supply. That right there is the foundation of each and every individual's relationship with food.
Small wonder that when we need soul-soothing we turn to "comfort foods" or when we need social interaction it more often than not centers around a meal. This isn't a bad thing. It's not something that needs to be corrected. It is just as it ought to be. How many of us, returning home from a long trip, look for one special food? Maybe it is your mom's lasagna or maybe the berries you picked with your grandma. Just the smell can immediately take you back to a place and time. Emotional eating is the closest thing I've experienced to time travel.
Celebrating Comforting Foods of Childhood
My husband is from Mongolian. After we married I lived there for several years. While living there I never bothered to learn to make Mongolian food. It was easily accessible. Then we moved to the United States. For quite sometime, I obliviously ignored my husband's comfort foods. Finally one day he asked, well, maybe begged, for me to make Mongolian Steamed Dumplings. It dawned on me that he had never been away from his home and culture for such a long time.
He craved the nostalgia in a cup of salty milk tea and steamed mutton. I didn't know much about making Mongolian food, but I had seen it done. So I began my journey of becoming one of the few Non-Mongolians in or out of Mongolia that can totally rock such dishes as Tsoivan, Buuz, and Suutei Tsai. For my husband's long sojourn out of Mongolia, it's as much emotional food as it is physical. In fact, I've learned that after a stressful day, Mongolian food means more to him than anything else.
What if comfort foods really did comfort?
The problem of obesity and diet-related disease is not that we eat for comfort. It's that we eat junk for comfort and overeat it when we do. The baby who turns to his mother's breasts for food and comfort is getting a nutrient-dense source of life. When we turn to fast-food we are getting nothing. Hence the need to keep searching and keep eating. It's like going back to your Ex for comfort knowing full-well he or she has let you down every single time. Time to replace the Ex, not swear off love altogether!
What if comfort food really did comfort? What if it really did feed our bodies at the same time soothe our souls? When you want to reach for the candy-bar, reaching for a piece of the darkest chocolate instead, takes intentionality. But, we can relearn and our taste-buds are trainable.
Good Mood Foods
Some foods are naturally better than others at helping to balance your mood. Here are some great go-to foods when you need a pick-me-up.
- Foods high in B12: Think shellfish, grass-fed beef (particularly organ meats), full-fat dairy, eggs
- Foods high in Magnesium: Think leafy greens, soaked nuts and seeds, avocado, raw dairy, dark chocolate
- Foods high in conjugated linoleic acid: Think pastured butter and cream, grass-fed lamb and beef, wild game
- Foods high in tryptophan: Think wild game, turkey, duck, asparagus, seaweed
- Foods high in lycopene: Think guava, watermelon, tomato, papaya, cabbage, carrots
Eating for Comfort and Nourishment
- Involve all your senses, as does the baby at the breast. Don't just shovel it in. Present it beautifully on a plate. Enjoy it.
- Try to eat with others. Proper eating is as much social as it is physiological. Enjoying food in the context of company causes us to enjoy it more, eat slower, and consequently, eat less.
- Sit down. We have a rule in our house that we don't eat standing up. Even if you are alone, don't eat over the sink or even walking down the street. If you get take out, take it somewhere (a park, a bench, home), sit down and savor it.
- Cultivate gratefulness. This may be easy to do if you are eating to celebrate a promotion or buying a home. This may be more difficult if you have just lost a job or received bad news. Yet, eating with gratefulness causes us to digest our food better, enjoy it more and to be more aware. We do this by pausing to light a candles, to say a prayer, to slow down.
Food is a pleasure, a source of joy, an integral part of culture, and critical to the well-being of our whole person.