Why we comfort eat and how to stop
At the end of a long day, it can be hard to resist the temptation of comfort food and alcohol. Whether it's your favourite burger and hot chips from your local, or chocolate and chips in front of the TV, these blissful treats bring us comfort and joy in a way that other foods just can't replicate.
But why is this?
One reason may be because these indulgent dishes activate the brain's reward system, releasing feel-good chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. Comfort foods may also have personal significance, triggering happy memories and emotions. And finally, they often contain high levels of fat and sugar, which our bodies crave and view as a source of energy. Indulging in a comforting meal can sometimes provide instant happiness and relief from stress. However, stress is no longer a short-lived problem and it's all too common for comfort eating patterns to sneak in as a daily survival trick. So this post today's not about saying no to that slice of pizza – but I do want to help you find some balance in the pursuit of better health and happiness (remember, I wrote the book on this after all).
So, why do we do this?...
Comfort eating is a form of distraction
Comfort eating, or using food as a means of coping with negative emotions, is often seen as a harmful habit. However, many individuals turn to comfort eating as a form of distraction from their problems. Whether it's stress at work, relationship struggles, or simply feeling overwhelmed, sometimes the temporary relief that comes from indulging in your favorite foods can provide a much-needed break from difficult emotions. It's a form of rebellion, which feels great - and when infrequent, it can sometimes be the healthiest choice in the moment. Feasting is an age old practice which feels indulgent and can signify prosperity. In times of stress these practices may help you feel free and happy - until the inevitable remorse kicks in (usually around the same time as the bloating/reflux/headache etc).
Comfort eating leads to weight gain and other health problems
Overeating/feasting or eating indulgent foods too frequently can lead to excessive weight gain, sugar cravings, fatigue and can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and even depression. Additionally, turning to food too often as a form of comfort can also become a harmful addiction that only compounds emotional suffering. When we consume foods which hit the 'bliss point' which flood the body with endorphins, we almost always eat more than we need. Of course, most comfort foods are usually high in calories and lower in essential nutrients - resulting in a reduced metabolic rate, increased hunger/cravings as the body desperately craves nutrients and unfortunately more cravings for easy-energy in the form of junk foods. This leads to weight gain and food addictions which are hard to break.
Comfort eating is a cultural norm
Emotional eating has become so normalized in our culture that we often don't take the time to evaluate the root cause of our cravings. In some cases, comfort eating can become a harmful coping mechanism, leading to a binge-restrictive eating cycle and problems with disordered eating. To make things worse, most of our friends/family know no other way to offer quick relief and will usually encourage us further to make unhealthy choices. Their intention is good of course, they just want to help boost your spirits - and it works temporarily. This is why many of our stress-relief and social activities are also tied to comfort foods - when did you last watch a movie without eating popcorn and a choc-top? Have you ever found chopped fruit and creamy yoghurt on offer as a healthy alternative at the cinema? Did you go to cheer a friend up recently with some fresh lettuce heads or a fruit basket? Nope, didn't think so. Buckets of ice-cream/boxes of chocolates or a pizza night are much more likely. This is of course great in small doses but when it becomes a frequent habit - in many cases multiple days per week - the comfort foods can do more harm than good.
So what's the solution?
The first step is acknowledging that comfort eating is a short term fix and not actually helping anything really. With this, start to really pay attention to how you feel after your food - all kinds, treats/comfort eats included. If the 3rd row of chocolate makes you feel nauseous and you're really paying attention, you're far more likely to stick to 1 or 2 next time. This is a mindful eating practice which works incredibly well. This kind of attentive treat-eating is something I work through in my 8 Weeks to Change Your Life program.
The second is to look at what is triggering the need to practice comfort eating - think of some other things you could do instead. Getting to the root cause is the best way to successfully treat your reliance on unhealthy habits.
Remember - There are usually more effective, longer-lasting ways to treat the underlying feelings.
For example, when comfort eating due to exhaustion, improving your sleep, drinking more water and exercising more frequently will combat the exhaustion for the longer term whilst also preventing further energy crashes due to overeating.
If you're comfort eating due to stress and overwhelm, think about what you could change in your day to help with this - possibly reducing your coffee intake, taking time to plan out your week or making some changes to your working hours could assist. If your habit kicks in when the kids are driving you crazy, maybe you could pop in your headphones and call a friend to vent - or listen to some music whilst you cook/tidy up/dance around the living room. The mood boost that we get from music, healthy eating, movement and friendship is far longer-lasting than comfort eating - they may be less enticing than losing yourself in a block of chocolate but they are long-term solutions that improve your health rather than deplete it.
Here are some tips for breaking up with comfort eating
So, you've realized that your go-to strategy for dealing with stress and emotions is to feast on chocolate and a bag of chips- or order a triple deck cheeseburger from UberEats?. Welcome to the club! Comfort eating is a common coping mechanism, but it's not exactly the healthiest solution.
So how can you break away from this pattern? One option is to have healthier comfort foods on hand - maybe some of your favourite sliced veggies and a tub of beetroot hummus with some crumbled goats cheese, or maybe you try baked/airfried sweet potato 'fries' instead of regular French fries. I like to always keep a BC bar (or ten) at home - the choc mint and choc brownie crunch are my favourites. During stressful times I find a decaf coffee/green and jasmine tea plus one of these bars can completely satisfy the urge - they are super chocolatey but yet also low in sugar, high in protein and really quite filling. So even if I wanted to binge on them I'd struggle - though honestly they really hit the spot so I really don't feel the need.
I'd also recommend knowing your trigger foods. Some foods are really difficult to eat in moderation - like salty potato chips. So, whilst you're trying to break the habit - maybe don't keep them in the house. If you're craving salt, snack on some salted cucumber/ olives / goats cheese on top of sliced cucumber or apple. If you're really in need of some chips, go to the shops and buy a single serve - so that you'd have to walk back for another pack. This may seem overly simple but it works.
What else can we do?
Another solution is to find comfort in activities that don't involve food. Maybe you can try scheduling in some relaxation techniques such as yoga or meditation, listening to music, or reading a book - ideally before the overwhelm and comfort-eating urge hits. Schedule some catch-ups with loved ones that encourage healthy habits - a walk with coffee / a session at the gym / a beach picnic with veggies, homemade guacamole, chopped fruit, creamy yoghurt and a small cheese-board with olives, semidried tomatoes, avocado topped w' lemon and some cheese.
It is also a really good idea to take a moment to sit with and acknowledge your feelings before turning to food. Sometimes it's just a good idea to ask yourself 'what am I really lacking?'. You may be craving chocolate icecream at night because you're exhausted and the prospect of another long and busy day the next day is overwhelming - realising this (and knowing how sugar before bed negatively impacts sleep) might help you make a different choice - like taking some magnesium/drinking some camomile tea and going to bed for an early night.
Often we are craving comfort foods for a reason. Sometimes it's stress and overwhelm - purely lifestyle. Sometimes however it is an underlying physical problem - such as iron deficiency, which results in intense chocolate cravings, essential fatty acid deficiency which results in cravings for greasy foods, or adrenal fatigue - which results in intense salty carb cravings. It's definitely worth considering booking in for some blood tests with your health provider/nutritionist to check for any nutrient deficiencies that might be exacerbating your cravings.
And finally, know that it's okay to indulge occasionally - rather than completely cutting these treats out of your life, try allowing yourself a certain number of 'treat days' per week - where you give yourself permission to enjoy some comfort foods without guilt. On a treat day, we maintain healthy habits of drinking our water, exercising, having protein and veggies with meals - but we may also have a slice of pizza / glass of wine or two / eat dessert. The idea is to allow the indulgence but set limits to how much is acceptable - ensuring that the balance is still shifted in your favour.
Whatever you decide to do, comfort eating doesn't have to be your go-to coping mechanism anymore! Breaking up with comfort eating takes patience and self-compassion, but it's worth it in the long run for your health and happiness. You've got this!
Until next time, stay deliciously healthy.
Jennifer May BHSc(Nut.Med).Adv.Dip.Nut.Med.ATMS