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The Limits of Comfort Food

Even people who don’t know much about emotional eating probably know about comfort Food. It crops up a lot in popular culture, from Bridget Jones eating ice cream out of the container to the character Q on Star Trek: The Next Generation ordering ten ice cream sundaes to cope with becoming human.


But while comfort food may sometimes help, it has limits. And even in the best of circumstances, you may also consider other options for comfort.


When comfort food doesn’t help

I began thinking about how comfort food doesn’t always help after starting the book H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. On the day Helen’s father died, she and a friend had dinner reservations at a fancy restaurant. Even after getting the news about her father, Helen insisted on going to the restaurant.


So, they went and ordered meals, but Helen didn’t eat. When the waiter asked if the food was okay, Helen’s friend explained the situation.


In response, the waiter “did something quite extraordinary. He disappeared, then reappeared at the table with an expression of anxious concern, and a double chocolate brownie with ice cream and sprig of mint stuck in the top, on the house, dusted with cocoa powder and icing sugar…. [I was] touched and bewildered that a waiter had thought that cake and ice cream would comfort me….” (p. 13)


Reading that, my heart went out to both Helen and the waiter. Helen, because I remember going to a restaurant when my mom was dying and not being comforted by food. Unlike Helen, I know I ate something because I needed the fuel, but I couldn’t tell you what I ate, only that it felt wrong to be hungry at that time.


And the waiter, doing the only thing in his power to try to help, only to learn that sometimes, even the best and most delicious foods aren’t enough to bring comfort.


In those moments of extreme sadness, loss, grief, and anxiety, food is not a comfort, at least in my experience. This is not restricted to losing a loved one, either. For example, I remember when I was laid off, a little over twenty years ago now. I still clearly recall my roiling disbelief and anxiety, the knot in my stomach as I thought about how long I could live on savings, where I could look for work, etc. In that moment, I don’t think I could have kept anything down even if I had wanted to eat, which I didn’t.


Everyone’s response to these types of events is different, of course, but I think we all have occasions when food simply doesn’t help.


When food can be comforting

For less extreme emotions, though, food can sometimes provide comfort, within reason. No food is going to magically make everything better, but it can offer a distraction and a connection to simpler or happier times.


One of the best examples of comfort food, for me, is having foods I enjoy but that also connect me to those I’ve lost. My mom made pumpkin muffins a lot to have for breakfast or as a snack, and I like pumpkin muffins, too. They’re not a common comfort food, but for me, they can be that way.


Also, while I don’t often have grilled cheese sandwiches, I remember that my aunt Gail liked them a lot, I think because they were easy to make. They still remind me of her, and like many things with melted cheese, they rate pretty high as comfort food.

Other times, favorite foods can be comforting if you simply need a break from a tough situation and want to focus on something else. Of course, you don’t necessarily need food for this – you can listen to a favorite song, watch a funny animal video, look at photos from prior vacations, etc.


But if you choose food, make the most of it by paying attention to what you’re eating. That way you’ll get the maximum enjoyment – and the most comfort.


Comfort food has its place

What we find comforting varies from person to person, but for many of us, food usually fits in there somewhere. Even so, it won’t always work because some situations are too overwhelming.


But for less earth-shattering moments, if you decide to eat, food can offer a degree of comfort. Just remember to go for food you really want and let yourself savor it without guilt. That’s the best way to get comfort from it.


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