Overcoming comfort eating

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Comfort Eating

Comfort eating is common, occurring in up to 80% of the population!  Comfort eating (AKA emotional or non-hungry eating) is the urge to eat for reasons other than physiological hunger. In our culture where food is incredibly abundant, comfort eating has become a convenient way for us to manage uncomfortable emotions.

Just to clarify, the term comfort eating is not eating to alleviate raw, open emotions. It is rare for most people to consciously feel their emotions while eating.

Instead, comfort eating occurs in response to emotions that we are mostly unaware of. Though they may be under the surface, emotions become too difficult to control in the normal course of the day, and food provides a powerful distraction.

What feelings are avoided with comfort eating?

Anxiety, fear, loneliness, anger, guilt…any uncomfortable emotion may be at the root of emotional eating. Some of the common emotional triggers are:

Anger – Whether you are angry at yourself or another person or situation, you stifle your feelings using food rather than confronting your feelings and releasing them. It’s easier to smother the problem than to deal with it.

Hopelessness – When bleak thoughts hit, for example: “Nothing matters anyway. Nothing is ever going to change or get better for me, so why should I care about my health or weight? Anyway, eating makes me feel better.” All or nothing thinking.

Lack of Control – We’re overwhelmed and we think: “My life is out of control. There is nothing in it that I am in charge of. Everyone and everything around me rules my life, except for eating. I can eat whenever I want, whatever I want. So I will.”

Feeling Unappreciated – Perhaps you have been doing things day in and day out for others but no one seems to notice. Even if they did you’d probably diminish their appreciation in some way. You find yourself tempted to compensate by ‘treating’ yourself with food. “I deserve it.”

Boredom – There’s nothing to do, nowhere to go. Perhaps you feel lonely. There is nothing at home to occupy you, but there is a pantry full of food that will kill some of your empty time.

How does comfort eating soothe negative feelings?

Eating does several things to relieve anxiety and other negative emotions.

  • Food changes the chemical balance in the body. Some foods increase endorphin levels, which in turn creates a sense of happiness or contentment.
  • We associate being full with comfort. Fullness increases comfort, which counteracts negative emotions. And if a person eats past fullness to discomfort, the physical sensation distracts the mind from other problems.
  • Eating takes time that might otherwise be spent thinking negative thoughts. A person uses even more time in preparing food and cleaning up after eating.
  • Celebrations usually involve food, and a person may therefore be conditioned to be in a more celebratory mood when eating.

Some different strategies for dealing with comfort eating

Anger 

Current behaviour – You have an argument with your partner and then head straight for the cupboard.

Alternative behaviours – Breathe! Take a walk around the block (or a couple of blocks!), head to the gym, write in a journal, do some housework, take a long, soothing bath.

Hopelessness

Current behaviour – You feel disappointed that you didn’t lose weight this week. You think: “Why bother?”  You head for the nearest sweet treat.

Alternative behaviour – Practice gratitude.  Write a list of all the positive things, habits, choices you made that week, make sure you have your ultimate goal written down and go back and look at it to remind yourself of what you REALLY want, turn your disappointment into action – don’t go home straight away, hop on a treadmill and walk or run your negative thoughts away and release some feel good endorphins.

Lack of Control

Current behaviour – You spend 3 hours cleaning the house, everything is ‘perfect’ and within 5 minutes the children, your dog and your partner create chaos and mess again. You get angry, feel stressed and upset and look for chocolate instantly.

Alternative behaviour – Tell yourself not to sweat the small stuff.  Remind yourself of the things that are really important. A messy house will not kill you. Stop and think before you act. Remind yourself, you cannot have control over other people or situations – You can however, choose the way you respond to people and situations and choose healthy options.

Feeling unappreciated

Current behaviour – You make a special effort to dress up and prepare a romantic dinner for your loved one. They arrive home late, criticize your meal and head straight to the couch to watch TV after dinner, while you are left in the kitchen to clean up in your glad rags. The pantry is calling your name.

Alternative behaviour – Express how you feel to your loved one, sit down with a cup of tea and write your thoughts in a journal, leave the dishes and go and get into a warm, soothing bath (and stay there for hours!) call a girlfriend or your Mum and let off some steam, take your dog (who always appreciates you) for a long walk.

Boredom

Current behaviour – Magically, you have the house to yourself.  You’ve longed for it, now’s your moment.  Within 5 minutes you’re bored, missing the kids and looking for something to eat.  Biscuits, lollies and chocolate fill the void.

Alternative behaviour – Have a hobby that occupies your hands and thoughts after dinner, call a friend, go to the gym, go for a walk, do some stretches, take a long bath, meditate, find a great book and take off to your bedroom (away from the food), put on a funny DVD and have a good laugh.

For next time…

Come up with your own list of solutions and have it at the ready where you will see it in your moment of need.   Accepting that challenges will come your way and being prepared for them is a big step towards breaking the cycle of comfort eating.

Stop, think, be prepared and make choices that lead you towards your dreams.

Thanks to Fernwood for their contribution to this article.

Brenda Rogers

With over 25 years experience as a corporate trainer, naturopath, yoga teacher and wise woman educator, Brenda is the head clinician and coach at Quintessence Health.

"A healthy mind and body simply ensures you have the time and energy to fully express and manifest your life’s purpose – it facilitates the unfolding of joy."

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