Me, Myself & Ice Cream – Why Do We Comfort Eat?
Comfort eating is when we eat not to satisfy hunger but to deal with stress or use food as a reward. I think it’s fair to say that everyone comfort eats to some degree, it’s part of human nature. 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.
Even if comfort eating isn’t an issue for you, this may help you understand or identify friends or family members that do. Here are some of the warning signs of when comfort eating has become a problem
- Eating alone or in secret
- Lying to partners, family or friends about what or how much you ate
- Hiding empty packaging
- Deliberately avoiding eating with family or coworkers
- 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
- Mindless eating, not even realising you’re eating or paying attention to eating
- Feeling powerless or out of control when it comes to food
Extreme cases can lead to vomiting, induced diarrhea, binge eating disorder, anorexia or bulimia. Very important to understand, 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 etc, 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.
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?
- Plan cheat nights or cheat meals, have controls and limits however, it can’t be an all out binge. Not recommended for anyone suffering from eating disorders.
- 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.
- Plan your meals in advance. Plan, shop for and prepare your meals on a Sunday
- Don’t eat alone where possible
- Never eat watching TV
- 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.
- Keep unhealthy foods out of your home, get support from the people you live with
- Keep a food diary for a week or two, to get started tackling comfort eating
- If your after work life is just sitting watching TV. Break the unhealthy routine by creating another healthy one, get a new hobby, bring the dog for a walk, meet a friend for coffee?
- Realise you are not alone, millions of people struggle with eating, there is lots of help available.
Speak to a counselor if it’s affecting your life negatively. Can this continue? Is comfort eating good for your long term health?
Eating disorders association of Ireland
Great article on emotional eating with lots of references, tips and useful books for further help
Binge eating disorder website
Overcoming overeating website
Binge eating disorder article