It’s one thing to list alternatives to comfort-eating when you’re stressed, or give some advice for avoiding the lure of quick-and-easy junk food. But you know what would be even better? Not wanting food for comfort in the first place!
There are ways to do that with food – eating enough carbs helps, eating enough calories really helps, and to a certain extent you do just have to grit your teeth and power through the “withdrawal” from using food as an emotional crutch. But craving comfort food isn’t just about what you eat. It’s also about how you think about food. Specifically, it’s about making food into a moral issue.
Food is not “good” or “bad” by itself, and Paleo is not some kind of punishment that you “deserve” for eating “bad food.” That line of thinking actually leads to even more urges to comfort-eat. Here’s the proof, and what to do instead.
Food is Not Inherently “Good” or “Bad.”
Even if you don’t usually notice it, you’re surrounded by messages that assign moral value to food – some foods are “good,” other foods are “bad,” and you are “good” or “bad” for eating or not eating them.
To break it down a little more, here’s what it means to live in a society where food has moral value:
- Talking about food as “good” or “bad” in a moral sense. Think of phrases like “guilty pleasure,” implying that by eating the food you’re doing something wrong. How many times have you heard a decadent treat described as “sinful”?
- Judging our own and other people’s worth by what we ate or didn’t eat. If you eat a salad, you’re “being good;” if you eat a brownie, you’re “being bad.” This is the same mindset that makes people think it’s OK to shame and put down people they perceive as overweight.
- Punishing or shaming yourself for eating certain foods, or feeling guilty after eating them.
None of these thought patterns are healthy. Food does not have moral value. You’re not a good person because you ordered the salad, and you’re not a bad person because you ordered the pizza. You might be a person with a stomachache, but that doesn’t make you bad.
These moral judgments about food cause a lot of unnecessary pain, shame, and suffering – and ironically, they also have a very clear relationship with comfort-eating. Treating food as a moral issue inevitably leads to a mindset where healthy eating and avoiding junk food is tied up with shame and punishment, and all the evidence shows that shame about food and your body rebounds in the form of comfort eating.
Why Dieting as Punishment Doesn’t Work
When food is a moral issue, and eating unhealthy food is a “bad” thing that makes you a “bad” person, then trying to eat well and lose
weight becomes a kind of punishment for something you did wrong, and/or a constant struggle against cravings that are trying to tempt you into sin. It’s easy to be cruel to yourself when you see the urge to eat a cupcake as a moral failing on your part, especially with all that language about "guilty pleasures" and "sinful desserts" is right there at your fingertips. It's easy to shame or even hate yourself for eating a cookie if you think it makes you a bad person. And it's tempting to try to shame yourself as a motivational tool (e.g. "You ate a cookie; this is why you're fat and disgusting; now get on the treadmill and don't you dare come off for an hour!")
Unfortunately, shame doesn’t work, mostly because it tends to make people miserable. It’s well-known that negative mood is a strong trigger for cravings – and shaming or punishing yourself is a great way to get a raging negative mood in no time. An incredibly common and well-documented response to being shamed about weight, size, and eating is to turn to food for comfort. When people feel like they’re being forced or shamed into a diet, they actually comfort-eat more in response. That response doesn’t magically go away just because you’re turning the shame on yourself.
Shaming yourself doesn’t work for weight loss, either. This study noted that among patients who attempt to lose weight, relapsers showed more “disengaging coping strategies,” a category that included negative self-talk (beating up on yourself). By contrast, people who successfully kept the weight off used less self-shame and more “engaging coping strategies” like tackling the problem head-on or getting support from a friend.
Shaming and punishment are direct consequences of seeing food as “good” and “bad,” and they rebound spectacularly. But at this point, you might be thinking something like “if I can’t punish myself for eating unhealthy food, how am I supposed to find the motivation to avoid the junk food? If I didn’t get mad at myself or feel shame about my body, I’d have no motivation to stick with it!” That’s not actually true, and you do have alternatives.
Staying Motivated Without Shame and Punishment
The diet industry has spun us all a very convincing lie that we can (or even have to) hate and shame ourselves into being healthy. Just look at the way the trainers treat contestants on The Biggest Loser. But you do have options for convincing yourself to make good choices without self-hatred and moral judgment.
First of all, take a look at the case for habit. Habit is a more effective strategy for long-term behavior change than relying on emotional motivation (positive or negative). The point is not to replace shame with some kind of positive emotion; it’s to replace it with habitual behaviors that don’t require you to get all emotionally fired up before you do them, because they’re so routine you do them on autopilot.
When you do need some emotional motivation, replace “I’m going to punish myself for eating bad food/being a bad person” with “I’m going to respect myself by making the healthiest choices for me, because I’m inherently worthy and deserve to feel great.”
Try it for One Day
It’s pretty daunting to think about completely overhauling your emotional frame of reference for food, so why not take it for a test drive? For one day, try an experiment and see how you like life when you don’t treat food as a moral issue. For your one-day test-run…
- Don’t refer to foods as “good,” “bad,” or “evil” (no, not even sugar!). If you accidentally do, stop and correct yourself.
- Don’t refer to yourself as “good,” “bad,” etc. for eating or not eating particular foods. If you accidentally do, stop and correct yourself.
- Don’t deprive yourself of food in general or specific foods in particular as a punishment for something you think you did wrong.
- Don’t force yourself to do things with the promise of food as a reward. This includes exercising to “earn your carbs.” If you’re alive and hungry, you have already “earned” the right to eat as much as you need to feel full.
- If you start experiencing a craving for a food you know isn’t healthy for you in the long run, say some variation of this out loud: “I choose not to eat ____________, because I respect my body and want it to be healthy and feel amazing.” You have the power to reshape your thoughts; shape them into something positive.
Try it out, just for a day, and see how you like it!
Summing it Up
If you want to avoid urges to eat for comfort, it really helps to completely dissociate food from shame, blame, “goodness,” “badness,” or punishment. Better living through violent self-hatred just isn’t a sustainable way to go, and research shows that it actually increases cravings in the long run.
Instead, focus on habit change and reframe healthy eating as a way of respecting yourself – if you’re skeptical, just try it for a day (or maybe a week, if you want a longer period of time to get more data on how it affects you). Paleo is not a punishment that you "deserve" for anything you may or may not have eaten in the past; it's a way of eating that should make you feel like a million bucks all the time - and you can't feel like a million bucks if you're too busy shaming yourself over food!