Noshtalgia: nourishing the link between food, security and affection

Comfort eating is okay so long as you don’t stuff yourself with it

When psychology lecturer Andrea Oskis left home, the first meal she cooked was spaghetti Bolognese. She wanted to feel close to her mother, whose favourite dish this was, so the meal was an act of “noshtalgia” as she put it in an article in the Psychologist.

If you’re a comfort eater, then your eating might be expressing a sense of closeness to parents or other early caregivers. Somebody, as Ms Oskis – a senior psychology lecturer at Middlesex University – would put it, opened the cupboard door. Thus a link between food, security and affection was nourished. And this link, it seems to me, could be a motivator even if your mother was no Nigella Lawson.

If you’re stuffing yourself then it’s useful to ask what emotional need the food is meeting apart from satisfying hunger

Think of a mum who was never taught to cook growing up and who, not just out of duty but also out of love, gives her kids the money to go across to the chipper in the evening to buy the family dinner. She might be indicted for crimes against dietary principles but food will still be an expression of motherly comfort in the future. Fish and chips, or even that Irish delicacy, a spice bag, may ever soothe them more than kale.

When you’re trying to change your eating habits, as everyone seems to be trying to do all the time, it’s useful to be aware of the emotional function the food is carrying out. Eating for comfort doesn’t have to mean piling on the pounds. Italians, for instance, have lower rates of obesity than most Europeans. Yet many of the skills of cooking in Italy are traditionally passed on from grandmother to grandchild – so food carries a huge emotional charge. All of which suggests that comfort eating is okay so long as you don’t stuff yourself with it.

If you’re stuffing yourself then it’s useful to ask what emotional need the food is meeting apart from satisfying hunger. Could you meet that need in some other way? We also want to eat when we’ve had a spike of stress. When you’re bang in the middle of a stressful event, you’re unlikely to eat a humungous slice of chocolate cake. But when the stress is over, that cake had better watch out – the cascade of cortisol generated in your stress response has used up energy that needs replacing. Sugar replaces it fast. So if your comfort eating happens to be triggered by the aftermath of stress, it might be worth looking at other ways to come down from tension, worry or anger. This is especially so if you live in a state of high chronic stress. Comfort food eaten by the “always stressed” feels more comforting.

As Ms Osksis puts it, “sweet foods taste sweeter and we want more of them”. In such a case, finding ways to reduce your chronic levels of stress is vital if you want a greater sense of control over when to eat, how much to eat and what to eat. None of this is by way of saying, “Thou shalt not eat comfort food.” The great psychologist John Bowlby said in relation to food that it’s a mistake to think it’s all about nutrition with comfort, safety and affection being less important.

Maybe that’s also why people who are compassionate towards themselves are better at keeping to diets: when they fall off the wagon they attack themselves less and have less need to reach for still more food. The self-attacking – you’re a failure, a disgrace, weak – creates a spike of stress that calls for the comfort of sugar. Cut out the self-attacking and it’s far easier to get back on an even keel. I mentioned kale. It appears from the research that what’s comforting might depend more on your belief that it’s comforting than on any intrinsic quality of the food itself. That belief is built up over time, maybe even starting in the womb.

So if you’re pregnant and you want junior to turn to healthy foods in his or her future life, be sure to eat up all your greens.

Padraig O’Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a guide to self compassion; his daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (pomorain@yahoo.com)