If you’re trying to be healthier or eat more in line with what your body needs, as opposed to the quantity you enjoy, how you eat could prove to be more important than what you eating. Your attitude towards food, as well as how you balance your personal eating habits, has a key role in how as well as why you eat.
What is Comfort Eating?
Comfort eating is also known as emotional eating. It’s one way of dealing with stress, conflict, anxiety, boredom, depression and unhappiness as well as loneliness. If you are comfort eating, you’re literally reaching for food to counteract and distract yourself from these and other emotions.
Comfort eating could have you stretching for a specific snack like chocolate or chips or just rummaging around in the fridge to find something to satisfy a craving. It doesn’t help us that eating for comfort is reenforced by the media. How many movies or books have you come across where a good friend brings wine, chocolate and/or ice-cream along with them when they come to cheer someone up?
In many settings, food is central to socialising and celebrating. This translates to us having a happy feeling associated with food such that, when we want to reward ourselves or self-cheer, we automatically think of what would be good to eat. Often this is an association or habit formed in childhood.
The Comfort Eating Cycle
Emotional hunger is insatiable when it comes to food. As a result, it’s quite easy to develop an emotional eating cycle. And once you do it can become a self-defeating cycle which is repeated and repeated, especially if the underlying cause isn’t resolved.
5 Questions to find out if you are Comfort Eating?
If you suspect that you are eating for comfort, as well as when you’re actually hungry, then ask yourself these five questions. Do you:
- Tend to snack when you don’t have anything planned or urgent to do?
- Eat when you stressed, need to calm down, sooth or distract yourself when something has happened?
- Reward yourself with food?
- Have a “go-to” snack close by for when things aren’t going well and you need a quick pick-up or energy boost?
- Eat when you aren’t hungry or carry on eating when you are already feeling full?
Answering yes to the above questions may mean you are comfort eating rather than physically hungry.
Why Comfort Eating is Bad
The primary reason why comfort eating is bad is because while it fills a void it doesn’t resolve problems. Instead, it delays facing up to what’s wrong, acting as a distraction and ultimately compounds things by adding another challenge into your mix.
3 Self-Help Strategies to Stop Comfort Eating
There is a starting point in helping yourself to stop feeding emotion hunger. Thereafter you can implement strategies to curb your habit and change your response to a more helpful and long-term healthier one.
1. Identifying if you’re Emotionally or Physically Hungry
First things first, before you reach for something to eat, ask yourself:
- Are your suddenly hungry? Emotional hunger is instant. Physical hunger tends to be gradual and less demanding.
- Are you craving specific things? If you feel like something very specific it’s likely you are emotionally hungry. Usually, it’s something unhealthy that has a quick-fix rush of pleasure or creates an energy spike. When you’re physically hungry everything, including veggies, seems like a good idea.
- Is your tummy growling? If it’s not and it’s more like a thought that you can’t get out of your head, then what you’re feeling is emotional hunger.
If you have already reached for something to eat, ask yourself:
- Did you pay attention? Were you aware of what you were eating and how much? Or did you manage to eat the whole packet of chips or slab of chocolate before you realised? If the latter, then it’s more likely you were emotionally eating than actually physically hungry.
- Did it satisfy you? Even though you have eaten quite a bit or are feeling uncomfortable from eating, do you still feel like eating more? Generally, if you’re physically hungry, you will eat until you are satisfied that your stomach is full and then you don’t feel like anything extra.
- Do you feel guilty, regretful or shame? If you’re physically hungry you don’t feel bad afterwards. You ate because you needed to. If you are emotionally eating, then you’re typically aware that you didn’t need to eat and feel bad afterwards.
2. Ask Yourself Why?
When you identify that you are emotionally hungry or have comfort eaten, then delve into why you think this has occurred. Remember, emotional eating isn’t always associated with negative feelings. Therefore, if you’re feeling happy, it could be that you have a childhood association with food being a reward or linked to happy occasions. If you’re finding it difficult to figure out what triggers your comfort eating, try keeping a food diary where you record what you’re craving and how you were feeling at the time (happy, sad, anxious). It could be helpful to also record what you felt like eating and how you felt afterwards.
3. Find Alternatives
Think of alternatives that you can use as go-to responses in place of reaching for something to nibble on. Some alternatives to comfort eating could be to do one of these when you’re feeling:
- Lonely or Feeling Down: Call a friend, play with an animal or look through some photos of past good times.
- Bored: Watch some TV, go for a walk, read a book or visit/call a friend.
- Tired: Take a break and do something else for a bit, have a cup of tea or a quick nap.
- Anxious: Expend some of the extra energy by doing some jumping jacks, putting an energetic song on and bouncing around a bit or do some exercise.
- Sick: If you need to see a doctor then make an appointment. If you have already, follow their direction. Remember when you’re feeling a bit iffy it’s generally seen as good practice to get some decent sleep, to keep yourself well hydrated and try to relax as much as you can since this can help your body recover faster.
Be Honest with Yourself
Take time to have an honest look at your eating patterns. Think about and implement self-help strategies to help you have a better relationship with food and ideally only eat when you are physically hungry. Part of the battle against emotional eating is about saying no to unhealthy situations that prompt comfort eating. Come up with ways to either avoid, contain or manage trigger-situations.
Are you passionate about changing lives and helping people better understand what makes them tick? If so, why not consider studying at SACAP? SACAP offers a range of accredited counselling courses. Graduates of SACAP’s Bachelor of Psychology Degree are able to register with the HPCSA as a Registered Counsellor.
Comfort Eating FAQ
1. Why is comfort eating bad?
Comfort eating is bad because it is often in response to an emotion which does not get addressed because you are instead distracting yourself with food.
2. How do you stop emotional eating?
Understanding what triggers your emotional or comfort eating is key to curbing the habit.
3. What causes comfort eating?
Comfort eating is triggered by an emotionally charged situation often linked to loneliness, boredom, anxiety, depression or stress. It can also be linked to positive situations such as celebrations and rewards.