by Sona DeLurgio, Psy.D, LMFT

On a recent rainy day I took my workout inside to the local gym. As I was dutifully (and boringly) trudging along on the treadmill, I looked up at the TV screen and saw a shot of a fork lifting out a bite of ooey, gooey, mac and cheese. Now I tuned in more intentionally. After all, on a grey and rainy day that shot of the mac and cheese made my morning. The show was an episode of “The Chew,” a daytime cooking show that I wouldn’t typically be watching. But, hey, I was a captive audience.

What struck me was the attraction of the warm and creamy texture of this delectable food. It made me think about how often mac and cheese serves the function of a comfort food. The kind that will be soothing, calming, nurturing, and just all around feel good. I also started thinking about the need this type of food meets for anyone indulging for emotional reasons. Like those times when distress, anger, sadness, anxiety, etc. lead someone to the ice cream, pizza, mac and cheese, and “you fill in your favorite here.”

I recall a connection made with comfort food and mother’s milk. That sweet, warm, creamy food that is often someone’s first food. Yet, more than just first food, the experience of drinking mother’s milk comes in very nurturing, bonding, loving moments. That mother/child bonding is forged partly through the hormone Oxytocin. This hormone is also what brings people together with warm feelings of connection and love.

In checking this out I found a some research on the levels of Oxytocin and eating disorders. But one that caught my eye in particular was how chimpanzees show higher levels of Oxytocin when sharing their food than when they are grooming (which is an important social behavior for them). So, sharing their meal with other chimpanzees provided more social bonding. This has also been written about for humans. When we come together with others over a meal it impacts our appetite and we eat less.

What does this mean for emotional eating? I’m always one to support intuitive eating and, if you are truly craving something, to listen to that and allow yourself to eat it. However, if this craving becomes an allowance for binging, perhaps some focus on the feelings needing soothing are in order. And, since we know a desire for a nurturing, loving experience is likely being sought to soothe that intense feeling, perhaps an effort to connect with others will better meet these longings.

A phone call with a friend, a hug? What can you think of for the next time you’re in that spot?

Sona DeLurgio, Psy.D., LMFT