I’ve come to be known as the “eating disorder” person in a professional setting. While I have specialized in working with individuals struggling with a wide range of various mental health diagnoses, I would have to agree that my areas of passion and focus are related to body image, disordered eating and eating disorders.
There are times, therefore, when I receive questions from those wishing for guidance whether they be individuals I’ve never met before or close friends or family.
One such question arrived to my inbox recently. The writer asked whether it is appropriate/recommended to use food as a means of reward or comfort. She was specifically asking with regard to children, though I think this can be extended to all.
To begin unpacking this, we must first acknowledge that there are actually two questions here.
Food being used as a reward feels rampant. Whether it be in school (class parties), at home (you can have dessert if you clean your room) or other settings involving guiding the kiddos such as trying to motivate kids (or adults!) to complete a task, food has been used as a means of leverage.
Typically, this is food that would not normally be accessible, such as desserts or candies. I never label this type of food; while I know people culturally call some foods bad, unhealthy or junk foods (and I’ve heard plenty of other well-meaning labels besides these), I stay away from considering one food to be “better” than others. All foods fit, and any model that does not support this is deeply rooted in fat-phobia, not science or research. When these foods are used as reward we teach one another, and even ourselves, that the foods are special and that in some ways, need to be deserved. We do not want to send this message with foods; food should be enjoyed not feared or revered.
By using food as reward we send the message, whether consciously or not, that one must be deserving to eat and that certain foods may be consumed only if earned. I would recommend, instead, using another means of guidance or motivation but definitely staying away from food as a motivator for the kids or for yourself! You deserve food—all types of food, regardless of your accomplishments or size—simply because you are human. I consulted and was discussing this topic with my dear friend and esteemed colleague with whom I work closely, Julia Vukicevic (MS, RD, CEDRD), who reminded me, “If we have permission to eat all foods we don’t have to do anything to earn it.”
Comfort food is quite different from food as a reward. When we are experiencing despair, grief, anxiety, sadness or any number of emotions, food may feel comforting. There is a reason people use the term “comfort food” (and while I hesitate to use labels, as noted above, I include this to show how widespread and understood it is to feel comforted by food).
It is not necessarily bad to turn to food for comfort. Just as it is not necessarily inherently bad to get into comfortable clothes and turn on a familiar movie that provides a familiar, warm feeling. I believe the reason food as a means for comfort has adopted a negative connotation is because people think of this in an extreme way: coping only through food.
Food is one of many ways we can find comfort. We define healthy eating as eating when hungry, stopping when full and having variety. Making food choices according to a desire for comfort does not go against this, just as choosing to wear comfy clothes when feeling down is not a poor decision.
Julia reminded me so wisely, “It’s natural to find comfort in food. Food is associated with many important aspects of life and can conjure up particular memories that can help us feel connected to ourselves and others… It’s also important to approach comfort food without guilt, otherwise you might negate the comforting feelings.”
Food may be a place we turn for comfort, but the essential factor that we need to remember is to have multiple ways of finding comfort. Sometimes having mac and cheese or ice cream can provide a connection to a memory, or activate a delicious sensation. But if we rely only on food for comfort, then we begin to obsess and have a limited way of coping, putting too much pressure on food. Truly, this can be said for any way we cope. It is about taking away the power or energy of relying on one means of coping and instead having a toolbox of ways we cope or skills we can use.
During this difficult time it is important to remember that eating food as a means of comfort is okay. The judgmental voice in your head telling you that you cannot is likely rooted in diet culture. If you find that food is your only way of coping, perhaps take some time to unpack this or seek out additional support. Food is meant to be enjoyed, to provide taste, fuel and even act as a means of comfort or a way of connecting individuals. Food should not be labeled, placed in a hierarchy or used as a reward. You deserve food. As a human, with a soul, you deserve to nourish yourself and to remove worth from food and size, and above all, notice and be compassionate with regard to your judgments—food is okay. You are okay.
Temimah Zucker, LCSW, is the assistant clinical director of Monte Nido Manhattan. Temimah works virtually in private practice in New York and New Jersey (and is accepting new clients!) and speaks nationally on the subjects of body image, self-esteem, disordered eating, eating disorders and mental health. To learn more, visit www.temimah.com.