To Eat or Not to Eat: The Truth about Comfort Eating

Aruna Arumugam

Published on


It is common for many of us to eat when we are feeling stressed, bored, sad or anxious. A small bar of chocolate when we are stressed, that tub of ice cream when our boyfriend/girlfriend breaks up with us, or the extra bag of chips during a particularly tough day at work. In fact, comfort eating has become so widespread that even Hollywood productions such as “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Julie & Julia” portrayed scenes about comfort eating.

Surprisingly, comfort eating is a learned pattern of behavior that has followed us since birth. Think about what happens when an infant cries? Usually the caring mother comforts the baby by feeding it. Recall a time when you were younger and you had fallen and hurt yourself. After bandaging your wounds, your caregivers may have taken you out for an ice cream treat to cheer you up. Over time, experiences such as these continue to reinforce the notion that food helps us feel better.

While many people indulge in comfort eating, the behaviour becomes problematic when an individual regularly consumes large amounts of junk food, usually high calorie food, in order to manage feelings rather than hunger cues. Unfortunately, severe comfort eating may lead to problems such as:

  • Obesity
  • Diseases related to being overweight such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure
  • Feelings of guilt and shame after periods of overeating
  • Loss of control over eating habits
  • Patterns of dieting and overeating

The good news is that because comfort eating is a learned pattern, this same behavior pattern can also be unlearned. Here are some tips on managing comfort eating:

BE AWARE OF WHAT MAKES YOU EAT

It is helpful to look at your eating patterns and try to work out what is causing you to eat. It could be that you are eating because you are feeling sad or stressed. It is also important to be aware of how often you have these feelings. If it is happening regularly, then you may need to look at other ways of managing these feelings.

KEEP A FOOD DIARY

This helps you become increasingly aware of your eating patterns. Often times, awareness of what you eat and how often you eat certain food will be enough to stop the habit. The diary can be just as simple as what the food was (i.e. two chocolate bars), the event that took place right before food was consumed, followed by the time and date.

REPLACE SNACKS

If you really feel like you have to munch on something, keep healthy snacks such as carrot sticks or sugar-free cereal and fruits around you.

REMOVE THE TRIGGERS THAT LEAD YOU TO EMOTIONAL EATING

Stress and loneliness makes most emotional eaters think that food can bring them some comfort. They should find other ways to relax and eliminate these triggers of emotional eating. They can switch over to an activity such as physical exercise, talking with friends or family, or breathing techniques. Traditional relaxation methods like deep breathing or simply taking 15-20 minutes every day to meditate can often be helpful to many people.

MAINTAIN HEALTHY RELATIONSHIPS

Having a strong social network both at and off-work (Academic) can help with managing stress and other negative emotions that are naturally prevalent. Sometimes, having a friend who can provide a listening ear provides an alternative to comfort eating. Make a conscious effort to include family, friends and other aspects which are important into your life.

EXPLORE OTHER WAYS FOR MANAGING FEELINGS

Comfort eating involves eating to help you deal with how you are feeling. There could be things that you could do to help you deal with your feelings in a healthier manner. It could be exercising, drawing or anything that holds your interest.

PLAN FOR DEALING WITH BOREDOM

It is not uncommon to eat when you are bored. If you find yourself doing this regularly, you may find it useful to think of some things you can do when you are bored. It may be speaking with a friend, playing a game, reading a book or going for a walk.

URGE SURF

Delay impulses to eat when you are not hungry, and ride out cravings. Engage in other activities for 10 minutes, such as checking your emails, reading a book or going for a walk, until the cravings have passed.

BE PATIENT AND PERSEVERANT

You may not be able to overcome your habit of comfort eating in just a day. It takes some time. So be patient and perseverant in your pursuit. When you recognize what causes emotional eating and decide to take an active role in preventing it, you will be able to realize the benefits of overcoming that habit. Be sure that change takes time and therefore never get discouraged. Never allow setbacks to keep you from your ultimate goal.

DRINK WATER

Drinking water is a healthy habit. Drinking water gives you a feeling of “fullness”. It can also keep you healthy.

TALK TO SOMEONE

Having a trusted mentor or doctor or counsellor who can be a sounding board and provide helpful, constructive feedback on work and life matters, helps in providing clarity and improvement on ways of doing things, thereby reducing stress as a whole. Maintaining a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle will go a long way in helping you cope with work and life challenges.