Did you experience stress or arguments at the dinner table when you were growing up?
Did your parents offer you your favourite foods when you were hurt or upset?
These are two major factors contributing to comfort eating as an adult. How?
Processed foods high in sugar, refined carbohydrates and rich combinations of sugar and fat – such as iced donuts – stimulate the release of chemicals in the brain that are soothing. Eating these foods makes us feel better when we’re in a stressful situation so we soon learn to self-medicate with sweets.
In some families, children also learn that eating interrupts dinner table stress. Eating stops their parents from being angry because mum or dad are pleased with them when they’ve finished everything on their plate. Were you praised for being a good eater? ‘You’ve earned dessert. You can have ice cream now.’ So we learn that eating brings reward and emotional relief.
It’s also important to realise that when we eat in a stressful environment we produce the hormone cortisol which increases our appetite, makes us eat faster, induces sugar cravings and leads to fat being deposited in the abdomen.
So how can we unlearn comfort eating?
By implementing the following three-step process:
- Become aware of when you’re about to reach for food to soothe yourself. Ask yourself before eating: ‘Am I hungry or am I trying to manage how I’m feeling?’
- If emotions are driving your urge to eat, acknowledge what you’re feeling: ‘I feel stressed/frustrated/angry/disappointed.’ If you aren’t able to describe exactly how you feel, simply acknowledge to yourself that what you’re feeling is unpleasant. Labelling the feeling starts to calm down the emotional centre in your brain known as the amygdala.
- Think of something that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. This will produce the endorphins that your comfort food usually triggers. Our mind is very effective at releasing soothing chemicals in response to thinking about pleasant experiences – such as your honeymoon (I presume), holding your newborn, winning an award, or an upcoming holiday. What memories or thoughts make you feel good? Bring them to mind and they’ll give you the chemical hit you need so you won’t reach for food.
Many people try distracting themselves but this only serves to delay comfort eating and may even intensify anxiety because you’re resisting, rather than dealing with, unwanted feelings. What we resist tends to persist.
There is, however, a very effective physical way to curb comfort-eating: go for a run or engage in high-intensity exercise. These activities give many people an endorphin hit so they no longer need a sugar hit. Intense exercise also triggers the release of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which reduces hunger.
The other cure for comfort eating is to just sit with your feelings and feel them. Realise that your feelings won’t engulf you and they’ll pass if you allow yourself to feel them without reacting. Become aware of where they occur in your body and sit with them until they dissipate. This means being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. But the discomfort is short-lived and brings lifelong freedom from emotional eating.