Rethinking Thanksgiving: Comfort Food as a Holiday Tradition

Posted by Brittany Dingler

From a reductionist perspective, (ignoring for a moment Americans' propensity for overindulgence) food is crucial to survival.  However, even before McDonalds came around, Ben Franklin recognized this temptation and the consequence it can have on our lives - an understanding that prompted his advice "eat to live, don't live to eat." Following this advice is much easier said then done, of course, as self-medicating qualities of comfort food exist.  As a result, we eat for stress, for comfort, in celebration, in boredom, in sadness, and in happiness. This wheel of carbohydrate-fueled contradictions, however, is consistent in one message: we eat our feelings.  Never is this concept more prominent than during the holidays when, at some point or another, every major feeling on this wheel is experienced.  So it is no wonder that overeating has come to be expected and accepted come late November.  Perhaps then, this could be the ideal time to tackle the underlying issues and find a way to dissect the physical feelings of hunger from our emotions. 

            The first step to tackling this issue is to understand that overeating, especially at Thanksgiving, is not truly our 'fault.'  After we eat comfort food a vicious storm of hormones and neurotransmitters arises where positive, addictive feelings afforded by ghrelin (the "hunger hormone"), serotonin (the "happy hormone"), and dopamine (the "reward hormone") come together in celebration to help (temporarily) alleviate the preceding stressors which caused us to seek consul in the form of food.  As a result, we tend to create an addicting cycle of self-reinforcement for our eating behaviors.  Psychologically speaking, the most toxic component of this cycle is our propensity to become angry with ourselves when we've eaten the 'wrong thing' or even too much of a good thing. Ironically and sometimes painfully, this stress and anger often pushes us to eat more. 

            Taking this back to the Turkey-Day dinner table here are some considerations. We should ask ourselves how this cycle ever gets triggered initially.  We're home with family and taking some much-deserved time off from our biggest stressor as college students: school.  Although these are ideal ingredients for us to attain that romanticized holiday happiness we long for all year, our eating behaviors are one indication that our bodies and brains are dealing with additional subconscious stressors of which we are largely unaware.  As a result, we only pay attention to the positive feelings associated with this family time; we focus on the annual touch football game, catching-up with cheeky cousins and over-sharing aunts, and talking to parents about how no, really this is what I want to major in.  We're distracted, having fun and dodging bullets and are therefore not entirely tuned in to our feelings (and why should we be?).  But come time for Thanksgiving dinner that evening, after most distractions have largely disappeared, the stress is still there, screaming for chemical relief, which can now be conveniently found in the form of cornbread, stuffing, and casserole.  In all,  when considering the predictable package of emotional ups and downs that hail the holiday season, coupled with a nationally shared awareness of how good we feel as we devour our third and fourth servings, can anyone truly be surprised that overeating has become a cultural norm for Thanksgiving? 

            So what do we do? How can we separate our feelings of hunger from feelings of emotion? We must change how we view food.  Instead of using pumpkin pie as Prozac we should work to tune into the relationship between our mind and body, thereby creating a healthy divide between feeling and fueling.  In essence, if we can learn to change our relationship with food we can create a healthier relationship with ourselves.  Some simple tips to control our cravings integrate common sense with mindfulness strategies.  To start, eat small, healthy snacks throughout the day to prevent yourself from getting too hungry.  The trifecta previously mentioned of ghrelin, serotonin, and dopamine is particularly sensitive to low blood sugar, which often leads to grumpy, cranky feelings that could spark a whole host of stressors in the presence of friends and relatives.  Second, ask yourself - before you plop four servings worth of sweet-potato casserole on your oversized dinner plate - just three simple questions regarding why you want to eat it.  One: are you actually hungry?  If yes, try drinking a glass of water first; we often confuse feelings of hunger with signs of dehydration.   Two: are you eating because it tastes good?  Studies show that all you need is a bite or two to make cravings vanish!  Three: are you eating because it feels good?  Even just acknowledging where our emotions are coming from allows us to rethink what and how much we eat.  As soon as we realize when we're eating for emotions rather than  for hunger, we allow ourselves the strength to lean back from the dinner table and find that we can actually find more comfort in family and friends than in food.  As a result, we are better able to consciously acknowledge our stressors, a simple level of awareness that allows us to be more present, so that we can enjoy the holidays in a healthier, happier way.   

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