When did “comfort” become a dirty word?
You know – “you have to get out of your comfort zone“, and “urgh, all I crave is comfort food“, and even “I guess I just got too comfortable“.
I write – and talk, for those of you who know me in person – quite a lot about my constant need to achieve. But it is only over the last few weeks that I have really narrowed it down to “comfort”.
So first let’s talk about food. Something definitely stirred in the back of my mind when I saw Rachel’s post aptly titled “Comfort Food is Not Comforting :(“. As a lover of all things starches and carbs and calories, I raised my eyebrow and read on about Rachel’s experience with frozen pre-packaged pies and how she felt after eating them. My initial reaction was to think that I actually quite enjoy some pre-packaged all-additives-included products, but then I remembered that in fact I have shifted my diet back towards whole foods – more grains, legumes, and pulses – as I realised that my increasing reliance on lower carbohydrate protein sources and meat analogues was creating a void in my meals and my love of cooking.
And as with pretty much everything else related to our mental and physical health and wellbeing, it became obvious what the problem was – our comfort has been commodified. It has been turned into something which is sold to us. Think about it – advertising generally sells us one – or two – of three things: the promise of sexual pleasure, the promise of financial gain and success, or the promise of peacefulness and comfort. We don’t know how to be comfortable.
I could start hypothesising about the rise of social media enabling more comparison among peers, creating senses of inadequacy and envy, and that that is why we are increasingly chasing something without always knowing what. But I am not a sociologist or any other “ist” with any knowledge in the subject – so let’s keep this centered around food and health.
Last Saturday I awoke feeling very unwell. My stomach was upset in a way that it has never been before, and despite getting up at 8am I wasn’t able to eat anything at all until after 2pm for fear that it would come right back where it came from. Even then, I was uncertain as to what I could eat but I had an unmistakable craving for miso soup and raw carrot. My body knew exactly what it needed: lots of water, a good whack of salt, and a little bit of sugar (hence craving carrot and not the cucumber I also had in the fridge). That was comfort food. I felt like a video game character powering up. There was nothing dirty about that comfort.
Comfort food is synonymous with starchy carbohydrates for a reason. Starchy carbs and sugars lead to serotonin production which is what helps regulate (and elevate) mood. In winter, lack of sunlight is thought to lower serotonin levels (by increasing removal of serotonin) – so that’s why we associate hearty “comfort food” like mashed potato and root vegetable stews with winter. But most people know that these days, so what point am I trying to make?
Well. These traditional “comfort foods” take a while to prepare: root vegetables need to be chopped and boiled or baked; sauces need to be simmered and reduced; grains and pulses need to be soaked and boiled for the best part of an hour. Yet we know that cooking is slowly going out the window as people have less time to prepare foods from scratch – so, these staple “comfort foods” were one of the first items to be turned into pre-packaged commodities, thus placing them directly in the line of fire to receive the blame for making us fat and unhealthy.
Don’t get me wrong – I am the first to admit that ditching the heaping mounds of grains and pulses that I would enjoy every night for dinner was the biggest thing that helped me shed fat from my abdominal region. I didn’t need to carb-load for a night of sleep. But as with everything, moderation is key. Those foods themselves were healthy, but I was eating too much of them. Unfortunately, that is the problem with the majority of the population, so an easy way to limit the damage has been to cut out the high-calorie high-carbohydrate starchy foods, rather than to learn to eat smaller amounts.
Therein lies the root of the problem. We don’t trust ourselves. “If I sit down, I’ll never get back up“. “If I don’t go to the gym today, then I’ll never go again“. It is a strange coincidence that after a few weeks of my own (mild) soul-searching, I found myself in the gym changing rooms just yesterday lending a shoulder to a fellow gym-goer having a similar fraction-of-life-crisis. Depending on how long you have trained for, the thought that maybe a good training session isn’t the highlight of your week any more can range from mildly intriguing to downright terrifying. And depending on how long you have thought potatoes, bread and pasta were the devil on a plate, it can seem a lot easier to continue avoiding them altogether.
Luckily, I have passion. I have a sport that I am passionate about, I love cooking and creating delicious meals from whole foods, and I feel strongly about not using animal ingredients – and I think that is the key. When I start to doubt myself, I have to remind myself why I do what I do. Without fail, everything falls into place. That is my definition of comfort, and is it most definitely a good thing.