What comes up when you think about “comfort foods”?
Do you see them as foods that you genuinely enjoy and find deeper pleasure in?
Or, do you consider them the foods where you lose all control?
It’s likely a little bit of both.
This confusion when it comes to comfort foods is very common with my clients.
They often have trouble understanding whether their comfort foods actually serve them or whether these foods are causing them to self-sabotage.
In this podcast episode, I teach you what comfort foods actually are and how you can begin defining them in a way that serves your eating habits long-term.
Hello there. I’m so glad you’re here today. How are you doing? First off, I want to mention that I have a couple of free trainings for you guys. So these are video trainings in which I teach you this material a bit more in depth, so if you want access to those and you want to take this work a bit deeper, be sure to visit my website at KatRentas.com and look under the Free Training section. You’ll find all available trainings there and they’re super, super valuable. Highly recommend. And today, I want to talk with you about the concept of comfort foods. And first off, I’m not here to tell you that there’s anything negative about foods you find comforting. I’m not here to convince you that all of the foods that give you the warm fuzzies need to be eliminated from your diet forever. Because that’s just not my jam. And I know that’s likely not your jam either. No one is going to forever take away my mac ‘n’ cheese or chunky chocolate chip cookies. They can try, but it’s just not going to happen. So, fear not. Comfort foods, or foods that you find comforting, are neutral. We’re not here to classify any foods as good or bad. Because that’s not useful. Comfort foods are not positive or negative. And in this episode, I want to clear up what comfort foods actually are. So you can have that clarity. And I want to explain when comfort foods will serve you and when they will not serve you, so you can have a really clear understanding of this. And there’s no question that our society definitely has a culture around comfort foods. If you’re living in America like I am, I know many of you listen outside of the US, but in America this is definitely the case. I’m not from the South but I live in the South and we love our fried chicken, warm potatoes, they love their hushpuppies down here, which are so amazing, and as I mentioned the mac n cheese. I’m sure other cultures have similar, what they would consider “comfort foods”, but all I know is in America this is definitely the case. And for this reason we can develop this really confusing relationship with these comfort foods. On one end we love them and appreciate them and we actually enjoy them fully. And then on the other end, we’ll find ourselves becoming dependent on them and feeling totally out of control with them. And this is how I felt in the past as it related to my favorite comfort foods. So, let’s see, what were my favorite comfort foods? They were definitely warm homemade cookies fresh out of the oven, mac ‘n’ cheese of course, and then anything chocolate. Those were foods I found very comforting. They just gave me those warm fuzzies. Now, I found it all very confusing in the past. Because on one end those foods gave me a very positive eating experience. Sure, they weren’t the most healthy nutritionally, but I did genuinely find pleasure in these foods. I would relate these foods to past nourishing eating experiences with family and friends. These foods are eating experiences that I would genuinely enjoy. But then, I would often find with these comfort foods would work against me. Or at least that’s how I thought about it. I would begin to feel like a victim of these comfort foods. And this would, almost always, look like me coming home at the end of a stressful work day where I would then proceed to make these comfort foods and overeat them. I would try to fill up with these foods as much as I could. And what ended up happening is I started to tarnish my relationship with these comfort foods. Because I wasn’t using these foods as a way to find pleasure in food and enjoy the eating experience, I was using these foods as a way to feel better emotionally. So, to literally, find emotional comfort in the comfort foods. And this is where I found myself on a slippery slope with these foods. Because I lost the ability to have control with them. I would see myself as addicted to these foods and I began to resent them in a way. And this contributed to my black and white thinking where I would see these foods as “bad foods” which means I would then feel guilty every time I ate them. And eventually, I didn’t even feel like I was enjoying these foods that much. They were just something I turned to when I wanted to emotionally feel better after a long day at work. This experience that I’m referring to here, where you have this confusing relationship to your comfort foods is a very frustrating place to be in. And I know that so many of you listening to this episode will relate to this. At that time in my life, I genuinely could not tell the difference between enjoying these comfort foods and being 150% dependent on them. It all felt very, very confusing and out of my control. So, little sidenote, if this is how you’re feeling you are not alone. You’re a perfectly normal, properly functioning human and there’s really good reasons why this is happening. Because what we’ve been taught are that it’s the foods that are the problem. I was taught in the past that it was the cookies, mac ‘n’ cheese, and chocolate that were the problem. And I know this couldn’t be entirely accurate. Because I knew there had to be a way that I could enjoy these foods I found pleasurable, without feeling like I lost control with them. I knew it was the lack of control piece that was the problem, not the comfort foods that I loved. It’s like treating the symptom rather than the cause, right? This is what I talk about so often in my practice because this is the work I do with my clients. In my coaching, we’re done treating the symptoms. In this scenario, treating the symptom is believing that the comfort foods are the problem. And then you’ll go on to try and change what you’re eating, you’ll try and force yourself to eat the right things, and then your willpower will run out and you’ll quit. Treating the cause is really what you’re looking to do. Because this means the comfort foods were never the problem. The problem is your dependence on those comfort foods to feel better emotionally. And if we solve the cause, it becomes not necessary to eliminate those comfort foods from your life. Because you won’t be needing them to provide you emotional comfort. Make sense? And it’s also useful to know that the term “comfort foods” is something we throw around as if it’s a real technical thing. But you just get to decide what comfort foods mean to you. There is no scientific metric that defines whether something is a comfort food or not. In the past, as I mentioned, it was confusing. Because I would think of comfort foods as the foods that I found pleasurable and the foods that I loved. But then I was also classifying comfort foods as the foods I felt dependent on. Where I would overeat them constantly. And really, I was defining comfort foods as “Unhealthy foods that I feel addicted to”. If I’m being perfectly honest. This was my definition in the past. And the point here that I’m getting to is that you get to decide how you define “comfort foods” for yourself. You get to decide what you make it mean. And I encourage you to do that with anything in life. Not only as it relates to healthy eating. You get to decide what you make anything mean. How you define all of it. A big one is failure. Most of us will have a definition of failure that doesn’t serve us. So, create one that serves you and moves you forward. For more on that be sure to go back and listen to the episode on Food Failure. But, I digress. Here, I want you to create a definition of “comfort food” that doesn’t imply you’re totally helpless and dependent on them. Now, as I was doing the outline for this episode I decided to look up and see if there was a definition for comfort food. And as it turns out, there is one. So, I’m going to share it with you. Merriam Webster defines a comfort food as “food prepared in a traditional style usually having a nostalgic or sentimental appeal”. Now, there’s elements to this definition that are a bit subjective, but I also think there’s pieces that we can take away from this definition that serve us. So, “food prepared in a traditional style”…meh, maybe. But not necessarily. Comfort foods don’t have to be traditional. And comfort foods don’t always mean that they’re super indulgent or hold no nutritional value, it’s different for everyone. It’s just those foods that give you the warm fuzzies. That you find pleasurable not just for the taste. But for the nourishing value it provides. So maybe those foods bring up amazing memories or you just find them genuinely pleasurable. But it can be any foods. You’ll probably have an idea of what they are. The part of the given definition that I do agree with is “food that has a nostalgic or sentimental appeal”. This is a definition of comfort foods that I connect with. So, I want you to come up with a definition of comfort foods that makes sense to you? Are they foods you find very pleasurable? Are they foods that you relate to a memory from your past? Are they foods that hold sentimental value and create nostalgia for you? Are they more traditional foods? You get to decide. The only thing I recommend is choosing a definition of comfort foods that doesn’t imply you need more of that food to enjoy it. And this is really the difference between eating the comfort foods for the eating experience, and eating the comfort foods to suppress a negative emotion. So, eating comfort food is neutral. It’s not good or bad. This is when you’re eating the chocolate dessert at the restaurant and you know exactly how much you want to eat to enjoy it. You’re committed to savoring that dessert as much as possible because you find it genuinely pleasurable. But, you’re not feeling dependent on that dessert to feel better or to suppress an uncomfortable emotion you’re experiencing. And here’s how you know the difference. Because at first, I would find this tricky. What would happen in the past, is I would go to a party or a get together and there would be a try of homemade chocolate chip cookies, which I absolutely love. Especially when they’re warm and gooey. And I would obviously want to eat a cookie because I love them and I find them immensely pleasurable. But, in the past, I felt totally out of control in those moments. There was a lot of drama associated with eating those cookies. So, first I would tell myself I wasn’t allowed to eat the cookies so I would resist them. And then eventuallyI would say “Okay, just one. These are my comfort food. I can’t help it”. And then I would eat that cookie so fast I didn’t even enjoy it. And then I figured “Well, I already cheated on my diet so what’s a few more”. And then I would proceed to unconsciously eat about 6-8 cookies or so. And then after the party, get together, or whatever event I was at I would be in a pool of guilt and despair. Because I was convinced it was because I had no control. Does this sound familiar? This narrative may have really hit home for you. This is something I see so many women struggling with. And something to note about my past story, is that I would use the fact that I defined those cookies as a “comfort food” as a reason to be out of control with it. Meaning, I told myself I wouldn’t eat the cookies. And then I was like “Well, it’s my weakness. Or it’s my comfort food. So, I have no choice”. Or some variation of that. And I want you to watch how you may do that when it comes to foods that you label as “comfort foods”. In what ways do you potentially use that definition as a way to give up responsibility for how much of that food you eat? In what ways is labeling something as a comfort food a “cop out”? Something interesting to think about that requires total honesty with ourselves. Now, here’s how this scenario would look different now. Just to give you an idea. Because here’s the thing. I still consider warm chocolate chip cookies a comfort food of mine. That has not changed. Just the way I eat them has changed. And my approach with the cookies now is a lot less dramatic. In fact, it’s pretty boring. So, now I go to a party or get together and I see the cookies. I decided that I love chocolate chip cookies and I find them very pleasurable and nourishing. So, I’m going to have one. And then I enjoy the hell out of that cookie. Now, here’s the big thing about this. In no way am I thinking about how much I’m allowed to have. I know fully that I can have more than one if I decide to. But, I’m not paying attention to any of this whenI eat that cookie. What I am doing? Enjoying that cookie. I’m focusing on how pleasurable it is. I’m focusing on the texture, the taste, how nourishing it feels to eat that cookie. I’m truly savoring the eating experience. Now, just to be clear, I feel like it sounds very dramatic the way I explain it here. Like, someone who looks at me across the party sees me closing my eyes and swaying around with the cookie savoring it. Like it’s some Ghirardelli commercial. And that’s not the case. This is all happening very normally I promise you. But I’m truly enjoying the cookie to its fullest. And then after I’ve done that, I get to decide if I want to stop eating or eat more. But, the key is I’ve learned to process my emotions separately from food. I’ve learned how to access my hunger, fullness, and pleasure meters with food. I’ve learned how to be so in tune with my body and what it needs that 9 times out of 10, the one cookie is more than enough. Not because I have willpower or restraint. Because I’ve gotten what I need from that one cookie. Which is a pleasurable eating experience that I find nourishing and comforting. Not as a way to escape my life, but as a way to enjoy it. One approach is very urgent and reactive and the other approach is intentional and neutral. See the difference? This is a really in-depth concept, so if you’re still with me bravo. This is something you want to start looking at for yourself, to see what relationship you have with your “comfort foods”, observe whether the experience feels urgent or whether it feels intentional. This is how you can ultimately tell if you have a relationship with your comfort foods that serve you. Alright, this was a fun topic to discuss. I hope you enjoyed it. If you’re looking for high-touch support with this work I invite you to apply for a private consultation with me to see if you’d be a good fit for my coaching program. You can learn more about that at KatRentas.com/coaching. I hope you have a great rest of your day and I’ll talk to you next week.
Hey there! I'm Kat Rentas. I’m a certified health coach for women who believes that eating healthy should feel simple and sustainable. I teach hundreds of high-performing women to change their eating habits without the overwhelm. Want to change your eating habits in a way that is aligned with your needs, preferences, and goals? You’re in the right place. You can read my full story here.