Why Do We Eat When We Are Sad?

Comfort food should only be for special occasions.

Posted Nov 17, 2019

Food and sadness are old friends. Many of us turn to food for comfort or offer food to our children when they're sad. This idea of comfort food is all around us. Books, magazine articles, and films constantly refer to our need for comfort foods. We see recipes for comfort foods on the front covers of national magazines.

There is nothing wrong with comfort food on occasions when we need extra care, like a job loss, family death, trauma recovery, or just a really bad day at work. But "on occasion" means just that, singular events that happen infrequently.

When we eat comfort foods every day we suffer from under-nutrition. Our bodies are not wired to eat heavily processed foods. And when we turn to comfort food every day for comfort we may also begin to feel sadder. The comfort food may feel good while we are eating it, but within an hour or two we may start to feel ill. Can you think of a time this happened to you? To your child? 

How do we stop the cycle of using food for comfort or offering food as comfort to our children? One way is to take a few minutes to understand your feelings or your child’s feelings. Ask yourself or your child: What is hurting? Is your heart hurting because someone said something unkind? Is your spirit hurting because you feel lonely? What needs comfort?

Then try to find another way to provide comfort. Would a hug help? Would a movie help? Would a trip to the playground help? What would help comfort you when you feel lonely, tired, or stressed?

Finding new ways to comfort ourselves is like a surprise gift. As we find new ways to comfort ourselves, like taking a long walk or calling an old friend just to chat, our brain will connect the new way of comforting and reward us with feeling less stress and hopefully, comfort.

We don’t need to find big things to comfort us. Small things work best. Maybe we give our child a special stone or necklace to remind them of our love and support. Maybe we listen to a song that uplifts us and sparks joy. One of the many ways we caregivers can help our children is to feel worthy of comfort ourselves first. We know that children consistently learn from what we say and do.