Me, Myself & Ice Cream – Why Do We Comfort Eat?
Comfort eating is when we eat to deal with stress or as a reward, not to satisfy hunger. I think it’s fair to say that everyone comfort eats to some degree, it’s part of human nature and built into our family and social lives.
There are rare occasional times when comfort eating is helpful and necessary. For example, try telling someone who’s just been dumped not to eat that ice cream as its bad for them and they’re just comfort eating!
However it’s when it becomes a consistent daily habit or routine and starts to affect your health, happiness or interferes with your daily life, that it should become a concern. It differs from eating unhealthy foods because you are in a rush or nothing else is available.
There are many warning signs of when comfort eating has become a problem. The main ones I’ve personally experienced myself or with clients, are:
- Eating Alone
- Lying to partners, family or friends about what or how much you ate
- Hiding empty packaging
- Deliberately avoiding eating with family or coworkers
- Large fluctuations in weight and clothes sizes
- Regularly trying extreme diets or detox’s to lose weight or as punishment for binging
- Eating large portions very quickly after a stressor in work or at home
- Storing or having secret stashes of sweets or chocolate to binge on – alone
- Not enjoying the binge
- Feeling guilty, disgusted or ashamed after eating
- Eating in bed
- Eating in the dark
- Eating when full or not hungry
- Feeling like food is a friend
- Using food to avoid intimacy
- Mindless eating, not even realising you’re eating or paying attention to eating
- Feeling powerless or out of control when it comes to food
- Believing you won’t be happy until you are thin/skinny. Being thin/skinny etc is not a precursor to happiness.
- Extreme cases leading to occasional vomiting, induced diarrhea, binge eating disorder, anorexia or bulimia. You don’t have to be overweight for comfort eating to be a problem.
Comfort eating is self destructive but I guess is a form of self-help. We’re stressed, anxious, lonely, down, feeling unhappy or expecting bad news or events to happen, so we use food in an attempt to manage our mood and emotions, or at least as a distraction from them.
Paradoxically sometimes when we feel happy, we then reward that feeling with a celebration of food. However this I think, is way less serious and less destructive, than eating to alleviate a negative feeling.
Personally I’ve always struggled with comfort eating. I was once very overweight and since getting in shape 10/11 years ago, have always struggled to maintain my weight. I assume I always will. It of course goes back to childhood. I was always rewarded by family for good behavior, with food and we always had the availability of sweets and fizzy drinks in school. I wasn’t taught in school about nutrition and although I had a good healthy family mealtimes, I had pocket money to spend on lots of cheap unrestricted unhealthy foods as well.
I also used food as a way to get attention from my mother, she worked hard, long hours in work and then trying to do housework and look after 6 kids meant I wasn’t necessarily able to spend as much time with her as I’d have liked. I was a shy needy kid and definitely a mammy’s boy. So when she came home from work, if I came into the kitchen and was playing, she’d tell me to go into the sitting room but if I went in and asked for something to eat, she’d make it and I guess we’d talk while she was doing it. We bonded over food and if you do the same with your kids, perhaps it isn’t the best way to? I learned to associate happiness, attention and comfort from food, at a young age.
I obviously don’t blame my family for becoming overweight, that didn’t happen until I was in my late teens and early 20’s and I have myself to blame for that. Ignorance and stupidity played a large part, for example I thought it was perfectly fine to have a packet of crisps and an energy drink for breakfast.
A large part of comfort eating is to do with sugar, the cravings from it and the unstable blood sugar levels it causes. You don’t eat a chicken breast or salmon fillet (protein) when you comfort eat do you? A previous article I wrote covers this.
How do we avoid or at least control comfort eating?
Here’s my tips on how you can get back in control, however if you suffer from an eating disorder these tips will not work and may exacerbate the issue, please click here or see the links below for help with eating disorders or for anyone with extreme eating issues.
- Identify when you’re emotionally eating, acknowledge it and even if you can’t stop yourself, try to think about what was the trigger for it. Can you change something next time?
- Chat about it with friends, partners or housemates to get the stressor in the open, don’t bottle it up or keep it a secret.
- Can you reward yourself or deal with stress by getting your nails done, getting a massage, playing sports, going for a run, doing a boxing class?
- Exercise regularly, to get a nice dose of endorphins to feel good
- Plan cheat nights or cheat meals, have controls and limits however, it can’t be an all out binge.
- Are you able to control a small portion of your weakness? For example eating 2/3 squares of dark chocolate every evening is not excessive and you should not feel guilty for it. Eating a large amount of chocolate may be excessive however.
- Plan your meals in advance. Plan, shop for and prepare your meals on a Sunday
- Don’t eat alone where possible or in secret
- Don’t eat watching the TV
- Don’t use food as the only reward or ways to spend time with your kids, nieces and nephews
- Drink lots of water when eating
- Don’t eat white carbohydrates like white rice, bread, potatoes, pasta etc. My crude but memorable saying is “If it’s white – it’s shite”. Switch to the high fibre complex carb version, so wholegrain bread, wholegrain/wheat pasta, wholegrain rice or sweet potatoes (with the skin) and fist size is a good portion guide.
- Identify any enablers and feeders in your life, they deliberately or subconsciously encourage or enable your bad eating habits.
- Get enough sleep
- Keep unhealthy foods out of your home, get support from the people you live with
- Keep a food diary to get started tackling comfort eating
- Find a hobby, if your after work life is just sitting watching TV
- Realise you are not alone, millions of people struggle with eating, there is lots of help available 🙂
- Speak to a counsellor if it’s affecting your life negatively. Can this continue? Is comfort eating good for your long term health?
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Irish based website on help with Eating disorders – www.Bodywhys.ie
Dublin based counsellor I highly recommend – www.bwell.ie
Great article on emotional eating with lots of tips and useful books for further help – click here.
Binge eating disorder website – www.bedaonline.com
Overcoming overeating website – www.overcomingovereating.com
Binge eating disorder article – click here