Could Comfort Food Be Meditative?

You've probably abandoned your New Year's resolution by now anyway.

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Jan 20 2017, 3:00pm

Image: Jeff Wasserman / Stocksy

The beginning of a new year always brings magical thinking. Even though we've just spent the last 365 days double-fisting poutine and bingeing on Netflix reprisals, we decide it's time to get physically, emotionally, and spiritually fit. Some of us buy overpriced meditation cushions and throw out the potato chips in our cupboards (or finish them because we're not wasteful). Others arm themselves with poorly written listicles about "successful people" who take up meditation and renounce the pleasure of fattening foods.

I'm here to tell you to get over yourself. Evidence suggests that making New Year's resolutions is misguided, so while it's wonderful to bring more mindfulness into your life, you don't need to throw out everything in your fridge. Mindfulness isn't just for vegans. Break out the ice cream and get comfortable on your couch. In fact, I ate comfort food as an experiment to determine whether it could be considered—in some abstract way—a form of meditation.

The effect of eating comfort foods (foods that typically have high salt, fat, and sugar content) can indeed feel a lot like the best parts of meditation. These serene feelings are so potent that some studies indicate people who eat comfort food in high stress situations are actually 'self medicating.'

Leslie Korn, nutritional therapy practitioner and author of Nutrition Essentials for Mental Health, explains that during meditation we're increasing blood circulation in the right hemisphere of the brain—the regions that govern creativity. We're also increasing neurotransmitters that reduce stress and anxiety.

"That is what I think we're doing also when we're seeking out certain foods because certain foods increase neurotransmitters," Korn says. "Under stress we decrease serotonin. Why do we gravitate towards a big sandwich when we're freaked out? Because it gives us lots of tryptophan—the amino acid that becomes serotonin." She encourages her patients to use a 90:10 approach to eating which allows for occasional comfort food indulges.

High-fat, high-carb comfort foods induce feelings of pleasure, and contribute to that delightful feeling we think of as a 'food coma.' So my natural assumption was, with a bit of slow, deliberate ritual, I could turn eating like an unsupervised child into a deeply spiritual experience. I wouldn't be the first. Many credible meditation teachers have used the consumption food and beverages as a spiritual practice.

Lodro Rinzler, a buddhist teacher and co-founder of the NYC meditation studio, MNDFL, incorporates food and adult beverages into special mediation workshops that help participants explore different approaches to our time-honored habits and vices. During mindful drinking workshops, Rinzler, the author of six books including The Buddha Walks into a Bar, says participants are treated to a talk on how to approach the evening with a certain measure of intention. Mindful drinkers get their cocktails in silence, and take some time to smell and taste them. At every point of the experience, meditation practitioners are checking in to notice what thoughts, feelings, and sensations arise.

When I asked whether I can ditch regular meditation altogether to do shots and eat burgers, Rinzler shut me down with the quickness, saying it's not that simple. "The more we train in traditional forms of mindfulness the more we're actually able to then apply mindfulness [to all aspects of our lives]. A lot of us might say, 'I totally show up for when I eat,' but then we sit down and a minute later, we're like 'oh right! I have inhaled half of this and I haven't been here for any of it because I've been doing my taxes in my head,'" she says. "That's the distinction with a lot of this: Can we show up for each bite, and treat that as a practice in the same way we show up for each breath, as opposed to just calming down and eating food? The effect can be similar, but the intention going into it is a little bit different."

Which brings me back to my experiment. I made a ridiculous amount of baked macaroni, and tracked my brainwaves while meditating after eating it. I used a gadget called Muse, an EEG headband that works with your smartphone to measure brain signals and optimize your meditation. When the sensors determine your mind is peaceful, you hear chirping birds and bubbling streams, but when your mind ventures into a more active state, the sounds change to high winds and stormy weather.

First, I tried the headband on an empty stomach. I sat for about five minutes and, despite getting way too excited every time I heard birds chirping, my data indicated that I only spent about 31 percent of my time in a calm state of mind. The following day, I ate my bowl of macaroni and strapped the Muse to my head. Immediately, I was struck by how much calmer I felt this time around: My belly was full, the smell of cheddar cheese still lingered on my breath, and I felt magnificent. I was so calm, in fact, that I wasn't even distracted by the birds chirping in my earbuds.

So I wasn't surprised to learn that, in this five-minute meditation, I spent 50 percent of my time in a calm state. The mac-and-cheese meditation felt more pleasant and, though these were relatively short meditations, my brain waves gave some validity to my feelings.

Ilene Ruhoy, neurologist and founder of The Center for Healing Neurology, said while she isn't aware of any studies that explore the effect of comfort food on meditation, my results aren't surprising.

"Knowing how [meditation and comfort food] can affect the brain, obviously there could be somewhat of a symbiotic or cumulative effect where you just feel a little bit more content overall, so that the meditation effect can potentially have a greater hold," she says.

My idea that meditation could be made better with decadent foods was tempered when Ruhoy warned, "Everyone has different definitions of what their comfort foods are, so I'm generalizing clearly, but for the most part, comfort foods are very proinflammatory, whereas meditation is anti-inflammatory. They are not the same in terms of their overall health benefit."

Sounds about right. Eating too much food with high salt, fat, and sugar can induce inflammation, which is said to be the culprit behind countless ailments including heart disease, stroke, and dementia. In the same way that dropping acid might help you see the face of God or encourage you to run naked down a California freeway, scarfing junk in the name of inner peace might not be a sustainable modus operandi.

Still, as we sprint into a New Year full of ridiculous expectations, please remember that austerity is not the only path to well-being. Eat your favorite foods because life is short, and any time we abandon autopilot and give our full attention to the moment, we reap the benefits. Giving your full attention to something, also known as mindful attention, is proven to enhance the pleasure and quality of whatever you're experiencing.

If using an app like Muse helps you choose mindfulness over mindlessness, go for it. But if you prefer to duck into a dark corner of your favorite burger joint, at least take time to smell the burger, and feel the grease roll down your chin. If you bring your full attention the sensation of caramelized onion, bacon, beef, and cheddar hitting your tongue at once, then you're probably more meditative than most.

"What was the Buddha doing when he was sitting under that fig tree meditating?" Korn mused. "Buddha was probably eating figs, and they are very rich in tryptophan...Some people think the Buddha was just getting high on tryptophan, and that's how he got enlightened."

We can't know for sure, but that might explain why the chubbiest depictions of Buddha always find him looking happiest.