How I enjoy comfort food during the holidays without (too much) food guilt.
I used to have an eating disorder and I’m a Health Coach now, so it’s complicated…
First, I have to tell you part of my story. I want you to understand that being able to enjoy comfort foods or food in social settings wasn’t always easy or free of shame for me. I used to have an eating disorder, so I haven’t always been comfortable enjoying foods during the holidays, or foods at any other social gatherings for that matter. So let’s take a quick trip down the uncomfortable parts of my memory lane…
(I also want to throw out a quick disclaimer. The opinions I’m expressing here are all from my personal experiences, both as someone who struggled with Bulimia, and now as a health coach who has worked with a variety of clients on the topics of comfort food and emotional eating. Some of my experiences, parts of my story, and some of my opinions about comfort food may be triggering for those of you with an active eating disorder or a disordered eating past. Please know that writing about these things comes from a place of deep intention to provide solidarity to what you are going through or have gone through. I know how much it hurts. I always love to hear from readers, so if this resonates with you, please reach out.)
As a child, I absolutely embraced the comfort foods I grew up with and I deeply enjoyed them with no feelings of shame or guilt. I’m thankful that I had a childhood where I was able to do this and that I had a mother who always cooked amazing homemade meals for us. But then I hit puberty and high school. And like every other young girl, was confronted with our modern society’s ideas around beauty, fitting in, gender norms, admired body types, and American diet culture.
I was a skinny kid and a skinny teenager. I didn’t have the curves that the boys were looking for at that age, but I also didn’t have to worry about my weight. I received mixed messages those first years of high school about whether or not it was a good thing to be tall and skinny. I distinctly remember my volleyball coach calling me a “bean-pole” my freshman year. I remember thinking “I’m pretty sure that’s not a good look” and being embarrassed by it.
All through my pre-teens and early teenage years, people made off-handed comments about me being thin. Some of them were negative, but I soon came to observe that the majority of them were envious or positive.
It seemed that at least according to my peers and diet culture at the time, being thin was something to strive for. And if you were thin, it was important not to loose that status.
The only problem was that my body was finally starting to look like a woman’s body and get a few curves by my senior year. While I celebrated this in many ways because boobs always seemed like a good thing and I wasn’t sure mine were ever going to come…I also started to notice that it wasn’t quite as easy to eat whatever I wanted and as much of it as I wanted.
By my senior year of high school, I had started to correlate my self-worth and self-identity with my body image. I feared that if I lost the image of being thin, it would mean I had failed in some way.
I started experimenting with calorie restriction and intentionally throwing up food. By the start of my freshman year of college in 2003, I was in the downward spiral toward a full on eating disorder. I ran cross-country my first year in college and there was a lot of pressure to stay thin.
By the end of my freshman year of college, the struggle with food had turned into Bulimia. I was running almost every day, but I would binge eat large amounts of junk food after running, and then throw it all up. Almost all day, I obsessed about food and body image. I worried about eating food in social settings, I planned my binges, I worked out extra hard to take away the guilt from the previous day’s binging, and I often felt guilty before I had even started a meal. I was still thin, but my face was puffy from retaining water. I had ulcers from throwing up and stress, and I struggled with acne from what I was putting my body through. I was pretty miserable.
The most intense part of the eating disorder lasted about 3–4 years for me, but the lingering effects lasted long after that.
You can read more about my story, my health journey, and why I’m a Health Coach on my website…but for the moment, I’m going to fast forward to my life now.
It has taken years of self discovery, healing, and figuring out the self-love stuff to get to where I am now. And where I am now is not perfect and never will be.
From my personal experience, I think if you’ve ever had a disordered relationship to food or struggled with the desire to control your body (and these come in all levels of severity) the journey to maintaining a healthy relationship with food and with your body is a lifelong one. For me, I have to be intentional around listening to my body, practicing food mindfulness, and leaning into intuitive eating.
Ok…so now that you understand more about my history with food, lets talk about comfort food, emotional eating, and food morality. First, we have to unpack those terms.
The term comfort food is often negatively associated with overeating and emotional eating in our current diet culture, which loves to emphasis an ideology of food morality.
Comfort food typically refers to foods that people find emotionally and even physically comforting in some way. These foods are often specific to a certain season of the year, a holiday, a family tradition, a reoccurring celebration, or a cultural tradition. They are often foods that we associate with pleasant memories or specific loved ones, foods that are traditional to our ancestry and were passed down to us from previous generations, and foods that we grew up eating. Some comfort foods actually give physical comfort to our bodies, such as chicken soup or warm broth when we have a cold, a cup of hot cocoa when you’re walking around in the snow, or a nice cold popsicle on a hot summer day.
Emotional eating is when you seek emotional comfort from eating food. Commonly, it comes as a response to a negative emotion, a triggering stressful event, boredom, social pressure, or an unmet emotional need. When you are eating from a place of emotion, you eat to make yourself feel better, to experience a positive or comforting emotion in that moment, or to numb certain negative experiences or emotions, rather than eating solely to satisfy physical hunger. (You can find out more about emotional hunger versus physical hunger in my other article here.)
Food morality is a deep topic, but in it’s simplest form, it’s when we associate our seemingly black and white concepts of “right & wrong” or “good & bad” with food. It goes beyond the idea of certain foods being more or less healthy or nutritious for you…and starts to creep into the realm of moral judgement. When you believe that certain foods are “bad, unclean, or wrong” to eat…you can start to feel like perhaps you’re a bad or inferior person for eating those foods and therefore should punish yourself for doing so. On the flip side, you can believe that if you only ever eat foods that are “clean, good, and right”…you are superior to others and should be rewarded for behaving so well, as long as you don’t slip up.
There is so much shame and guilt wrapped up in food morality and ideology. And I think we all slip into thinking of food in these ways from time to time, even when we aren’t aware that we are doing so. I also think it’s fairly common to judge ourselves and others based on the foods that we eat. I’ll be honest, I’m not immune to this. There are times in my life where I leaned heavily into food ideologies of different types and judged others for the way they ate.
As a health coach, it’s always a challenge to balance the desire to have my clients and myself eat in the most nutritious way possible to take care of our bodies, … with the desire to provide freedom around food for my clients, and myself. It’s not an easy tug of war, and I’m not here to convince you that it is.
Having a lot of nutrition knowledge around food and a passion for wanting the food industry to have more integrity, also makes it difficult sometimes for me to not judge others (or myself) for eating certain foods. This is why I am a huge advocate for nutrition education so that people can make the best choices for themselves and their unique bodies…but it’s also why I have chosen to focus my health coaching on helping people dig deeper, down to the root issues. I help my clients rewrite their personal stories around food and the way they relate to their bodies.
Even though comfort food and emotional eating often get twisted together and lumped into a negative category…I like to think of them in a different light.
I don’t believe that comfort food in and of itself is a negative thing. In fact, I think there are a lot of beautiful memories, traditions, and elements of beauty wrapped up into the foods we find comforting and that we associate with celebratory events like the holidays.
I also don’t think that eating as a way to seek emotional comfort from food can simply be broken down into a “good or bad” thing either. I think it depends on the intention behind it, and I have come to realize that seeking emotional comfort from food is a very normal human thing. Now, just because something is a normal human thing to do, doesn’t make it the most sustainable choice for your life.
Let me explain my stance on emotional eating. I do believe, from my own personal experience, that emotional eating for the sake of numbing or covering up unpleasant emotions is an detrimental behavior that can lead to or contribute to disordered eating. If you are eating (or not eating) because you don’t know another way to satisfy a deeper desire inside of you, because you hate yourself, because you don’t believe your body deserves your love, because you are choosing to push down some root issues in your life that need to be dealt with, …those are all behaviors that are only going to push you further away from loving yourself and from finding true healing in your relationship with food.
So why the heck did I say that I don’t think comfort food and eating for emotional comfort are necessarily negative? Because I believe it’s the intention behind them that matters.
Let me give you an example of what emotionally eating comfort foods looks like WITHOUT intention, that directly relates to the holidays.
Let’s say that all throughout the holidays at work, your break room is overflowing with the following: Christmas candy, store bought goodies with epic marketing that make you feel like you DO need that treat right now, an endless supply of all things pumpkin or peppermint flavored, and even Susie’s homemade spice cake that she made from her grandmother’s recipe.
Chances are, you’re not being intentional or mindful around choosing to savor some of these festive treats. Rather, you’re wandering into the break room when you’re bored, you’re stressed and tired, a client or customer just yelled at you, your boss just rained on your parade, you don’t want to work on that stupid project, or it’s your lunch break and you NEED some sugar to get you through the rest of the day. Or perhaps you could smell Susie’s spice cake as she passed your desk this morning on the way in and you’ve been obsessing about it since 8am, going back and forth with your inner critic, debating with yourself over the pros and cons of having a slice, berating yourself for entertaining the idea because you already had 2 cookies that morning, bargaining with yourself that if you have a slice of that cake, then you’ll have to run an extra mile tomorrow in your workout….and on and on.
Or we could use the example of the 10 holiday parties you got invited to this month…and you’re dreading/really looking forward to the delicious spread of holiday treats that will be laid out before you at each of these events. You convince yourself before each party that you will NOT over indulge in this Pandora’s box of treats…or you say “the hell with it” and just go full bore.
Maybe you are successful in not eating a single treat at the party, but you get home later and eat an entire package of stroopwaffles from Trader Joe’s (those delicious caramel wafer devils…they got you again!). Maybe, you spend the entire party silently agonizing about whether or not you’re going to have one more cookie, and what people will think of you if you do, rather than enjoying the time with friends and family (Or enjoying the cookie you already had for that matter). Maybe you went with “the hell with it” and ate so many holiday goodies that now you feel physically sick and angry with yourself.
Exhausting…am I right?
I get it. I have done every single one of these things at some point in my life. And sometimes, I still fall into some of these obsessive habits. Who doesn’t? I mean really…who doesn’t at least partially dread/really look forward to the plethora of holiday goodies that are about to parade through their lives during the months of November and December? Hmm….probably my husband. Because he’s just weird/awesome like that, doesn’t obsess about food, and has the will power of a wise sage when it comes to not eating things that aren’t beneficial to him. BUT…I’m not like that. I still struggle with the obsessive thoughts around food sometimes.
So how did I get to the point where I can enjoy holiday comfort food without (too much) food guilt?
I say “too much”…because as I said, I’m not perfect. The struggle with food guilt doesn’t end when you gain freedom and healing from an eating disorder. However, I’m very intentional about working to keep it from a full shame spiral and to keep it in check. I practice food mindfulness techniques, intentional and intuitive eating, and I try to really be present to the memories and the positive emotional experience that I get from eating my favorite holiday comfort foods. Basically, I strive to truly SAVOR the moment.
They are comfort foods, right? Hell yes…so if I’m choosing to eat them, then I’m going to wring out all that delicious comfort from every single bite. Otherwise, it’s not worth it to me.
I also try to pause and ask myself questions before I reach for that holiday goodie…I try to figure out what the root of my craving is first. This way, if the root of my craving is actually because I’m over tired, I’m dehydrated, I’m stressed out, I’m upset, I’m bored…then that pause gives me a chance to make a different choice for myself in that moment. It gives me the chance to figure out if there might be a primary food that would satisfy my craving more deeply than the secondary food I’m reaching for. (Learn more about primary and secondary foods here.)
So what does this look like in practice? Let me give you an example of what it looks like to enjoy comfort food WITH intention during the holidays.
Those treats in the office break room? How about taking the time to pause before you dig in, and ask yourself why you feel you need or want that thing right now. Is it because you’re bored, stressed, or tired? Maybe a quick walk around the office, some fresh air outside, or a cup of your favorite tea will do the trick and actually make you genuinely feel better.
Is it because you honestly look forward to that particular Christmas candy every single year? Awesome…then have some, but ENJOY them! Don’t eat them in a rush, don’t hide them in your desk drawer, don’t shovel them in your mouth while you distractedly work on a stressful project. Take the time to savor the flavors, to feel like a kid again enjoying your favorite holiday treat, and to be present to why you love that particular food so much.
And what about Susie’s spice cake made from her Grandma’s recipe? First…do you even like spice cake that much…or do you just feel obligated to eat it or want some sugar for a quick energy hit? Well…if the second part of that sentence rings true for you…then it’s not worth it. You don’t have to eat anything out of obligation or peer pressure, ever. It’s always your choice. Also, if you’re not actually going to enjoy it that much, then either wait for something that will truly be worth it, or find something else that will give you more lasting energy. Like drinking more water, moving your body, getting enough sleep, etc. Back to that spice cake though…is it truly something that you look forward to every year when Susie brings it to work? Great! Than have your slice, enjoy every minute of it, and move on with your life.
Don’t agonize, don’t beat yourself up, don’t force your body to run an extra mile just for that one slice of cake…just enjoy it and let it just be a slice of cake, not a slice of guilt.
What about your family’s favorite holiday treat that your grandma or your mom is legendary for? It has copious amounts of butter, lard, sugar, crisco, gluten, and all the other things in it that you have heard are “bad” foods. Shouldn’t you avoid it this year, or at least try to make a healthier version of it? Sure! If that’s what you want to do. Or Don’t. It’s an individual choice and either way, it should be a choice you’re at peace with.
There are certain comfort foods from previous times in my life that I no longer eat, mostly just because I honestly don’t find them as enjoyable as my healthier recipes that I have come to love, or because I truly don’t think that the way they make my body feel is worth it.
But there are some things, like my mom’s homemade apple pie…that I intentionally want to keep in my life, just the way it is. Why? Because it brings me joy. It’s one of my favorite things ever. I have a tattoo of it, for real. It makes me think of a million happy memories. It reminds me of time spent with loved ones from holidays past. And it’s fucking delicious. Sorry mom…but it really is that delicious ;) Bottom line, my mom’s homemade apple pie, or any flavor pie she makes for that matter, is truly worth it for me. Sure, I have tried to make healthier versions of pie, and I don’t hate them, but I don’t love them the same way. They don’t hold the same tradition and meaning for me. So, I personally just choose to go with the tried and true when it comes to pie.
So, do I always succeed at being a zen level food mindfulness sage and listening to my body? Nope. I’m not perfect, remember?
But I make these practices part of my life on a daily basis. I meditate on them, I read more about them, I write about them, I coach about them. And when I have a moment of food guilt…or I impulsively shovel something into my mouth from the break room at work during a stressful moment, I give myself grace. I remember that just because I’m a health coach, doesn’t mean I need to be perfect. I remember that what matters is that I’m on a lifelong journey of taking better care of my body, of loving her more deeply. I remember that just because I was impulsive in this moment, doesn’t mean my next moment needs to be that way. I remember that I can start fresh with every single moment, every single meal that I sit down to. And the biggest thing I do?
I let it go and MOVE on with my day. Because there are too many beautiful moments in this life that I don’t want to miss out on, because I was in my head, obsessing about something I ate or didn’t eat.
This is just my story. Write your own new story around comfort food and holiday traditions…but don’t forget that a good relationship with food and with your body comes from a place of self-love and intention.
Enjoy your holidays! XO
Try these steps to be more mindful and intentional with comfort food during the holidays:
- Ask yourself WHY you want to eat that particular food.
a. Is it simply because it’s one of your favorite things and you want to savor & enjoy it? Is it honestly worth it for you? Great! Do it and enjoy every single bite! Then move on with your life, no guilt attached.
b. Is it because there is an underlying root issue for your craving such as: stress, loneliness, dehydration, seasonal/weather changes, boredom, peer pressure, lack of nutrients, hormone imbalances, mood swings, low blood sugar, lack of sleep, etc. Listen to your body and Identify what you believe the root issue is. See if there is a different way to fulfill that need.
2. Eat slowly, chew your food throughly, eat without distractions, try to avoid eating on the go, eat with loved ones & friends, savor the flavors and textures, have gratitude for where your food comes from.
3. Dig into the memories & traditions that surround that comfort food for you. As you’re enjoying that food, have gratitude for the ways that it is comforting to you and the good memories that it brings up.
4. Enjoy the baking/cooking process! That’s half the fun of your favorite comfort food is getting to be around family and friends as you make and enjoy that favorite dish.