The holiday season is in full swing now, replete with holiday foods. At my sister’s house, this means a big ham, loads of cookies, pimento cheese for crackers, and other really rich foods that we don’t eat much of other times of year.
The holiday season is also hectic. For me this means parties and fun holiday events, the frenetic pace of turbo-grading, getting ready to fly to see family with a large checked bag of gifts (trying not to forget my toothbrush), and then hanging out with them, not in my home eating and activity environment.
Enter comfort eating. I kind of hate this term, because it’s super judgy. I mean, we eat. Food comforts us sometimes. We enjoy that feeling of satisfaction from eating the food. What’s the problem?
Health and medicine folks often talk about comfort eating as eating in response to loneliness, anxiety, and sadness. The idea is that comfort eating represents a mis-match of sorts: we feel a certain way, but our response is confused. Instead of eating, we should (according to one of three gajillion websites on this):
- phone a friend (or text if phoning is even more stressful)
- relax and stretch
- write in a journal
- make a list
Right. Oddly enough, plopping down to write in a journal seems like a less feasible and efficient response than a brownie when I’m at yet another party, overtired and under-exercised.
But it’s comfort eating! It’s so bad for you! You MUST find something else to do, as it will kill you in the end. I mean, this is serious– so serious that the internet is filled with all sorts of lists containing every possible thing you might do INSTEAD of eating something to comfort you. And their ludricrousness is in proportion to the panic that the very idea of comfort eating provokes. Like this:
Someone must be really worried about what might happen if people got it into their heads that comfort eating was a viable response to, well, discomfort in their lives. And the idea that I should do ANYTHING– including learning 10 yoga poses or cleaning out my closet– rather than eat a donut says more about the list-makers than the comfort eaters themselves, don’t you think?
Is comfort eating all that bad for us? As usual, the answer is complicated. But a new study came out this month by UCLA researcher Janet Tomiyama and her colleagues, concluding that
“Comfort eating—irrespective of consuming high-fat/sugar food—may be associated with reduced (my emphasis) mortality in older adults because it may promote greater body mass, and greater body mass is associated with lower risk of mortality (me again with the emphasis) in nationally representative samples. Interventionists might consider both beneficial and detrimental aspects of comfort eating across the lifespan.”
Yes. this. I had to read it through carefully again myself. Here’s the deal.
We know that people of every age engage in comfort eating. It reduces stress responses. There’s also some evidence that it may contribute to poorer metabolic health (i.e. insulin resistance, increased risk of type 2 diabetes, some other conditions as well).
Less research has been done on the effects of comfort eating in older adults (generally this means over 50). Tomiyama and her group’s results are surprising to the general public, as they show both lower all-cause mortality risk for comfort eating among older adults, and they show that high-fat/high-sugar content consumption doesn’t increase the risk:
…regardless of how much high-fat/sugar food participants consumed, greater comfort eating was related to lower odds of all-cause mortality because it was associated with greater body mass,(my emphasis again) which may be important for longevity in older adults.
The paper itself is pretty interesting, so check it out here if you like. They raise a bunch of questions, too, like:
- What are the psychological and physiological effects of comfort eating via meals vs. snacks?
- Are the stress-reduction effects of comfort eating (e.g. reduced cortisol production) more important for health in later life than earlier in the lifespan?
- Do older adults tend to comfort eat healthier energy-dense foods than younger people do? If so, why?
Of course, as they say, all this is strictly academic… What does it mean for us at this time in the winter season? Not so much. We do what we do, and you do you– I’m not offering any advice at all.
But science is saying clearly in this case that comfort eating– a ubiquitous, feared, much vilified practice– may actually play some adaptive health role for older people.
Of course we can all own our particular eating practices, and can tell people to mind their own beeswax if they try to steer us away from the cookies and toward the celery, citing health concerns. But it doesn’t hurt to have science on our side.