How to stop comforting eating
By Juliana Kassianos, Transformational Fertility Coach, Yoga Teacher and Founder of The School of Fertility
Whether we’re stressed, sad or stroppy, we often find comfort in eating, feeding our feelings instead of filling our tummies. But why do we have this urge and how can we stop using food as an emotional comfort blanket?
Many of us will be able to relate to the fictional character Bridget Jones, as we wallow in self-pity, wrapped up in a duvet, spoon in a tub of ice-cream, forming a relationship simultaneously with two men – Ben and Jerry. Part of us knows we won’t feel good after scoffing a whole tub of ice-cream, but, at the time, it seems to be just what we need. At heart, this is emotional eating or, as it’s more commonly known, comfort eating. It’s where we consume food not to satisfy our hunger, but because of how we feel. According to dietician Jane Jakubczak at the University of Maryland, 75% of overeating is caused by emotions. Instead of dealing with our feelings, we turn to food to make us feel better, but this is not the way to satisfy emotional hunger.
Overeating can be triggered by difficult social situations or major life events, such as relationship break-ups or bereavement. But everyday negative emotions, such as stress, anxiety or boredom also cause us to reach for the biscuit tin. If left unchecked, our confused response to routine feelings can take a heavy toll on mental and physical health.
We are all emotional eaters to some extent, but it can become a serious problem for people who use food as their main coping mechanism. It prevents them addressing negative emotions leaves them powerless when it comes to food. If we eat when we’re not hungry, we’re likely to consume too many calories, which are then stored as fat and lead to weight gain. This often contributes to more distress and sets up a destructive cycle..
EMOTIONAL HUNGER VERSUS PHYSICAL HUNGER
How do we tell if we’re stuffing our emotions or satisfying our body’s physical needs? There are some signs that can help us to distinguish between emotional and physical hunger.
When emotional hunger rumbles, we tend to crave comfort food; food that is high in carbohydrates, fats and sugars. Pizza, biscuits and crisps tend to fit the bill. These boost our serotonin and dopamine levels, which increase the feelings of pleasure in the brain. Cravings for these foods come on suddenly and we feel the need for instant satisfaction. They become all we can think about; the only thing that will meet our need. We eat the food quickly without paying full attention and then consume more and more as we try to satisfy ourselves. Engrossed in our feeding frenzy and forgetting to even come up for air, we make our way through a pack of biscuits, until just crumbs remain. We then hide the evidence. But this doesn’t stop us feeling guilt for having pigged out, as we know full well it wasn’t for nutritional purposes. Feeling worse than we did before – and still not satisfied – we mindlessly munch on and on. So the self-destructive cycle continues.
Physical hunger pangs, on the other hand, are the body’s way of telling us we need more energy. We get this in the form of nutrients from our food. To recognise this type of hunger, we have to listen to our body for signs that come on gradually; the loud growling noise our stomach makes, the feeling of weakness and light-headiness. When we do eat, we don’t crave specific food and we have the ability to satisfy our hunger and then stop when we’re full. We also don’t feel bad after we’ve eaten.
WHY DO WE COMFORT EAT?
None of us is born to comfort eat; it’s an early learned behaviour that becomes habit. As babies when we cried, our parents fed us with milk. As children, when we were upset, our parents gave us a treat to cheer us up. If we were ill and visited the school nurse, we would be offered a sweet to make us feel better and if we did well in a test, we would get a treat as a reward.
For many of us, these patterns continue into adulthood. The associations we develop between food and our emotions become part of our subconscious programing, where the former means comfort, happiness and reward. In this sense, it is natural that we use food to self-medicate at times when we’re feeling low.
In some instances, by shovelling food down us, we may be trying to suppress feelings we are not yet ready to face. In others, especially with emotional boredom, we may be filling a void in our lives. Both are signs that something wants our attention.
The link between stress and food can be found in evolution. If we feel stress, our cortisol levels increase, triggering our body to seek simple carbohydrates that give us the necessary burst of energy should we come under attack from predators and need to flee or fight. While this was essential for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, in today’s food-saturated, sedentary world (which seldom involves attacks by wild animals), it’s crucial we learn to manage everyday stress.
HOW TO COMBAT COMFORT EATING
To stop feeding our feelings, we need to listen to our body’s innate wisdom and find a new coping mechanism that doesn’t involve food. Before you get started, make sure you have a food/mood diary to hand. This will enable you to recognise any patterns that emerge between what you feel and what you eat. Once you’re all set up, make your way through these three steps…
Emotional or physical hunger?
Comfort eating tends to happen automatically without our full awareness. The next time you find yourself heading towards the fridge or cupboard for a snack, take a moment to pause and reflect.
Think about whether you feel physically hungry. To help you tune into your body and listen to what it’s telling you, you are going to create a hunger scale. First, draw a long vertical line down a blank page in your diary. Write zero at the bottom and 10 at the top. Add in the following six labels along the line:
10: Stuffed / sick
8: Satisfied / Full
6: Nearly satisfied / Energised
4: Hungry / Grumbling stomach
2: Weak / light-headed
0: Ravenous / Starving
Rank your hunger from zero to 10 using the scale. If you pinpoint yourself on the bottom half of the scale, you’re physically hungry and your body is saying it requires energy. If you put yourself on the upper half of the scale, you’re more likely to be emotionally hungry.
Identify the emotional trigger
Take a deep breath in. As you inhale, open yourself up to seeing things from a fresh perspective. As you exhale, let go of any lingering self-judgements. Then ask yourself the following series of questions (note your thoughts in a diary):
What (if any) negative thoughts are you having right now?
What emotion is associated with these thoughts? Is it loneliness, or maybe anger or disappointment?
What in your life might have triggered the emotion?
What is the need behind this feeling? What are you craving in life? For example, if you feel stressed, the need may be to have more relaxation and rest.
It can be scary checking in with how we are feeling. When it comes to our emotions we can feel powerless and fear releasing long-suppressed anxieties. But to gain control over our emotions, we need to identify, acknowledge, understand and accept them. Only then will they start to lose their power over us. It will also give us a chance to have a better understanding of ourselves.
Meet your emotional needs
Now we know which emotion we are trying to soothe using food, we can begin to find new, healthier, ways to meet our emotional needs and cravings in life.
On a blank page in your diary, brainstorm a list of things you could do to satisfy the need you identified in question four (above).
These will, no doubt, be things that you do for pleasure, relaxation and enjoyment.
For example, my top five would be practising yoga, going for a walk, having a bubble bath, reading a good book and playing with my cat.
These are simple pleasures that make me feel good. Once you’ve written your list, circle your top five. These are going to be your go-to activities, replacing food, when you feel the emotion concerned. So, in my case, if I’m lonely, I play with my cat.
If I’m bored, I go for a walk. If I’m stressed, I have a bubble bath. By creating more options, we open ourselves up to choice, enabling us to choose the best way to satisfy our cravings and answer our body’s needs.
You might find this hard as it means giving yourself permission to do the things you love in life on a regular basis and not just for reward. But by selfishly indulging in simple pleasures, you will feel healthier and happier and be able to be the best version of yourself around others.
We all slip up now and again. So try to remove temptation by replacing any unhealthy food in the cupboard with healthy alternatives. Make sure you forgive yourself, learn from it and get back on track. As you start to manage your emotions without food, reward yourself with a different treat, say, a trip to the movies or a visit to a favourite art gallery. This will help you to create and maintain healthier habits that will feed your soul and remind you that food is fuel, not therapy.
Article published in Breathe magazine, p10-11, Issue 5