Discover more from XO, MU by Melissa Urban
XOMU: Is it healthy to use food as comfort?
The Whole30 CEO doesn't emotionally eat, right? The answer might surprise you.
I did my first Whole30 in 2009, and it was truly life-changing. It brought me rocking energy, better sleep, a happier mood, and improved performance in the gym. It also showed me all of the ways that I was using food like I used to use drugs—to self-soothe, relieve anxiety, manage stress, and distract myself from discomfort.
During my first Whole30, I didn’t have access to the foods and drinks I used to use to numb, distract, or evade my feelings. (Homemade kale chips and salmon burgers didn’t do the trick.) I was forced to find other ways to cope and self-soothe during those 30 days—and I did. I came out of my Whole30 with a dramatically different relationship with food, a whole bunch of new tools in my toolbox for navigating stress and discomfort, and a set of new, healthy habits that are still serving me more than fourteen years later.
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So you might think that today, I never use food as comfort, to relieve stress, or to self-soothe. And you’d be dead wrong.
Occasionally, I find myself in a stressful situation, a health crisis (related to my concussion), or a state of emotional burnout so serious, I basically shut down entirely in a last-ditch effort to regain some capacity and perspective. This happened last just between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when I was in a period of serious work stress, grieving the loss of a close friendship, navigating health challenges, and experiencing an overpowering sense of negativity and helplessness. As someone with normally unshakeable self-confidence and optimism, I didn’t know how I was going to be able to navigate everything that was happening.
We didn’t have my son that weekend, so I blessedly wasn’t expected to care for or entertain anyone. I went to bed toddler-early Friday night, then woke up early on Saturday morning and went to the gym as usual. I knew what I had planned for the rest of the day required a movement session. If I had skipped the gym, my mental health wouldn’t have been able to handle the rest of the day effectively. I needed some sense of my normal routine.
I was home by 10 AM and told my husband, “I’m doing nothing today.” I meant this quite literally. Normally, my “nothing” day includes cleaning and organizing around the house, running errands, browsing Homegoods, taking Henry to the park—it’s definitely not nothing-nothing. But on this day, I was going to park myself on the couch and not move for the rest of the day, and I announced that I very much preferred to be left alone as I did it. (Given the amount of stress I’d been under, it seemed like he knew this was coming.)
The most important part of my plan—the thing I knew my day was going to center around—was that I was going to eat things that I knew would make me feel better. Comfort foods. Foods that reminded me of my childhood. Foods that aren’t normally worth it because I’m traveling or working or don’t want the digestive consequences. Foods that are so warm and cozy and delicious, they’d feel like a weighted blanket on my anxiety. I needed maximum comfort but also wanted to be alone in my feelings, and in that context, food and Netflix are about as comforting as it gets.
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My comfort day
I’m not going to get into the details of what I ate, because that’ll distract you from the point. Plus, there’s a good chance it’ll disappoint many of you. Some of you would say, “I can’t believe you ate (fill in food I’m judging as way too junky).” Others would say, “Wait, (fill in food I consider healthy-ish) is your ‘YOLO’ day? How unrelatable.”
My point is, when I asked myself, “Is it worth it, do you want it?” the answer to just about everything was YES. If I wanted it, I ate it, and in the moment it was worth it because I wanted it. (The exception is alcohol—I didn’t want it, and it would have made everything worse, so it wasn’t on the menu.) I ate between meals—if I felt like a salty snack, I found something. I DoorDashed ice cream, because I wanted some and we didn’t have any at home. I recreated a lunch from my childhood, because that felt sweet and comforting for this day. I didn’t once try to process my feelings, or journal, or meditate, or talk to my husband.
I sat on the coach, watched Netflix, scrolled through my phone, and enjoyed delicious food. I deliberately ate my feelings. But here’s what makes this experience for Present Melissa different than how it showed up for Pre-Whole30 Melissa, and why this behavior still feels healthy and balanced and valid as a coping strategy for me today.
By 8 PM, I was bored silly of sitting on the couch and ready to get up and do something with the rest of my weekend. Physically, my body couldn’t just lie there any more, but also I felt ready to do something about how I was feeling. Yes, I was stressed and yes, things were hard and no, nothing had changed between yesterday and today. But my day of recovery, rest, and comfort was exactly what I needed to refill my tank and recover just enough capacity to approach these challenges with a renewed body and mindset.
I was also MORE THAN DONE eating my feelings. I had, as they say, “no ragrets,” and by the end of my day I still felt pretty good. My “worth it” indicator never truly shuts off at this point in my Food Freedom journey, and even when indulging in comfort food, I still subconsciously made choices that wouldn’t totally wreck my physical or emotional well-being. It was delicious! It was fun! I loved every bite of that Cold Stone monstrosity I had DoorDashed. And also, I was very much done.
At no point was I mad at myself for how I chose to spend my day. At no point did I beat myself up for all of the “junk” I had eaten, fill my head with negative self-talk, or tell myself, “Well you’ve already ruined Saturday, you might as well continue into Sunday.” It didn’t even cross my mind.
In fact, on Saturday night (as I also went to bed toddler-early), I remember thinking to myself, “This day was exactly what you needed. Good job.”
In addition, I made no changes to my Sunday to “make up for” what happened on Saturday. I didn’t do an extra-hard gym session. I didn’t cut calories or portions, or purposefully avoid sugar or processed foods. It was very much a normal Sunday, where I slid right into my normal routines of movement, household chores, errands, and meals. Yesterday, I gave my body and mind what it needed. Today, I was going to do the same. The end.
Past vs. Present
ALL of this is very different than Pre-Whole30 Melissa would have handled things. Before my Whole30, I didn’t have many other coping mechanisms besides food, so I used food (and alcohol) frequently to numb or distract, and then I used the negative self-talk, shame, and anger at myself for behaving like that to further distract. I never actually sat with my feelings or unpacked what was behind them.
I also spent a lot of time saying, “What the hell,” as in, “Well my lunch went off-plan, so what the hell, might as well go out for pizza and drinks for dinner” or “Well my Saturday went off the rails, so what the hell, I might as well continue the behavior into Sunday.”
None of that felt good, healthy, or sustainable, and my Whole30 helped me see that—and change it. So even though a Saturday back then might look the same as a Saturday today (where I lie on the couch, avoiding people and eating whatever the hell I want), it feels very different.
I see no reason to eliminate the use of food as comfort, reward, or self-soothing in my own life. It serves a specific purpose, and if I took that away from myself, I would feel deprived, and that might lead me down a dysfunctional path. The difference is that today, I approach these behaviors from a different mindset, and I have so many other tools in my self-soothing/stress management toolbox that food is no longer the star of the show, or even my first (or second, or fifth go-to).
How does this land?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this newsletter. Paid subscribers can leave a comment below. Let me know what you think of the idea of using food as comfort, the role your Whole30 has played (or could play) in your relationship with food, and how you feel about Cold Stone birthday cake ice cream mixed with Butterfinger crumbles and Reese’s peanut butter sauce. Specifically.
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