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Why do we comfort eat and how can we break the cycle?


Trigger warning: please do not continue if you feel reading about emotional eating may trigger you. Emotional eating can be classed as disordered eating, if left unchecked it can ultimately lead to an eating disorder. First and foremost, be kind to yourself and if you find you are struggling with a food disorder, text SHOUT to 85258 for support or visit www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk.


We use food for all sorts of reasons. To fuel us for energy, to be social and connect with others, to celebrate, to commiserate, to soothe, to make us happy, to show we care. It is at the centre of so many things we do making it entirely normal to have emotional associations with food. In fact the very act of eating releases a brain chemical called dopamine which makes us feel good!


But ask yourself this, has food become a bit more for you? Do you find yourself reaching for food when you're stressed, tired, angry, sad, worried, struggling in your relationship? Do you use food as a crutch, is it your comfort, do you push down your feelings by eating to avoid ‘feeling’ those difficult emotions? If so you are not alone, with research from the national institute of health stating the prevalence of comfort eating in non clinical samples ranges from 15 to 46%.


If you open the kitchen cupboards, reach into the fridge or pop to the shops for a sweet treat on a regular basis when you’re lonely, bored, sad or low. Then feel frustrated, guilty and shameful once you’ve eaten then, you may be getting into an unhealthy cycle of emotional eating which can be incredibly hard to regain control of.


But be aware that sometimes it’s not just our emotions that drive our need for comfort eating. Our bodies are complicated machinery and just like a car we don’t always know what’s going on under the bonnet. Maybe your urge to eat is not just emotional and if you are constantly hungry maybe the fuel gauge is slightly off and it’s telling you to fill up when in fact, you already have enough fuel on board. This can lead to excess food eating versus energy expended, meaning extra fuel is stored as fat. You are not being weak, your body is signalling (incorrectly perhaps) that you need food and hunger pangs can strike which are hard to ignore or switch off.


This is exacerbated when you are feeling emotional and the urge to therefore comfort eat becomes harder if not impossible to control. But you beat yourself up anyway, feeling guilty or hopeless and the cycle may start again. It can be really difficult and deeply frustrating when you desperately want to regain control of your health and your eating.


What causes emotional eating, what are the triggers that make you reach for comfort food?


Habits - this may come from childhood habits when your parents used ‘treat’ foods to reward good behaviour, gave you comfort food when you were sad or made you clear your plate even when you were full. These habits may have continued into adulthood which means they are now well ingrained behaviours.


Social - being social, eating out, eating with people for social occasions can lead to overeating and it’s a great way to relieve stress with a glass of wine and a lovely dinner. But in these situations you may over indulge, feel pressure to eat as others are or eat due to nerves if you are not comfortable with these situations.


Emotions - you use food as a way of masking emotions as you feel unable to sit with difficult feelings. You use food to ‘stuff’ down emotions like anger, sadness, grief, fear, shame, guilt, resentment which distracts from how you’re really feeling.


Boredom - it is so common to eat when you’re bored or simply lonely. It’s a distraction, it’s something to do, it’s usually habitual and you usually pick all the unhealthy things as you binge watch Netflix.


Stress - is a big one and around seventy percent of people tend to overeat when they’re stressed, eating the wrong types of food. There’s a reason for this, when you are stressed your body is producing the stress hormone cortisol which triggers cravings for high energy foods like sugars, refined carbohydrates or junk food. The body needs quick energy to ‘fight or flee’ when you’re in the stress response and these foods hit the very spot.


By bringing awareness to emotional eating, it helps you spot the difference between emotional and physical hunger. So distinguishing between the two can support help. You know when you feel a gnawing hunger in your stomach and you have that empty feeling, this is physical hunger and this usually comes on quite gradually and can be satiated by pretty much any food including healthy options. It’s also likely you will no longer continue to think about needing to eat after because you have satisfied the hunger.


But emotional eating or hunger can be more powerful than this, it’s generally a knee jerk or overwhelming response to reach for specific foods that provide an instant hit. It’s feeling the desire or need for your favourite pudding, biscuit, cake or take out and it’s a feeling you cannot get out of your head, until you seek out the desired food and that itch is scratched. In addition, typical comfort foods are usually processed which means they can contain ingredients that negatively impact your brain and mess with your satiety signals and the vicious cycle begins.


Something else to be aware of is when you are in the zone of an emotional eating episode, it often becomes ‘unconscious’ or mindless. You don’t even realise you’re halfway through the packet of biscuits and you’re certainly not present. It’s a largely unconscious behaviour which means you may not even get to enjoy the food you’re eating. You are also unlikely to feel satisfied or full after, in fact it can sometimes feel like an endless or bottomless pit that you just want to keep filling until you reach the discomfort of over indulgence. You then feel ashamed or guilty on top which is when you realise you’ve just had an emotional eating episode.


So how can you learn healthier ways to deal with emotions, overcome cravings and break the cycle of emotional eating. This is a complex area and there is no one solution fits all, however there are some simple steps you can take that may support you eating the right foods. In turn this may reduce those out of control cravings, bring more stability to satiety and blood glucose levels meaning you may be more able to control an emotional eating episode in the future.


Go back to basics - there is so much information out there on what you should eat, when you should eat and how you should eat and it’s overwhelming. You need to focus on eating the right kinds of food, foods that keep you fuller for longer and give you stable blood sugar meaning fewer hunger cravings. Eat a portion of protein at every meal and balance this out with a small portion of whole food carbohydrate, go heavy on the vegetables or salad and top off with a small amount of healthy fat. Examples meals include:


A large chicken breast, a palm full of brown rice, half a plate full of colourful vegetables or salad, extra virgin olive oil and a small portion of hummus.


A large salmon fillet, a palm full of sweet potatoes, half a plate full of colourful vegetables or salad, balsamic vinegar and add on a sprinkle of seeds to the salad for more fibre.


Two slices of halloumi cheese, a palm full of mixed grains, half a plate of roasted vegetables, extra virgin olive oil.


The protein should leave you feeling fuller for longer supporting your blood sugar balance and satiety levels, the palm full of whole grain carbohydrates will support stable blood sugar and the veg or salad will add to the feeling of fullness and satiety.


Eat more at breakfast - to avoid the mid morning energy slump that can lead to hunger and comfort eating. Use the same rule of thumb above for breakfast and load up the protein e.g eggs, yoghurt, seeds, plant based or dairy milk, replace the veg/salad with berries or fruit and the healthy fats with nut butters. You may just find the urge to comfort eat may be not quite as intense mid morning or afternoon as your blood sugar remains more stable and you feel fuller for longer.


Manage your stress - to ensure you are in the parasympathetic response when you eat i.e rest and digest. Be fully present when you eat and really chew your food so as not to swallow air which can lead to discomfort and bloating. If your body is in rest and digest this will support feeling calm and satisfied and less likely to reach for the comfort food if you are struggling emotionally.


A scientifically proven way to break the cycle of daily stress is to take five mindful breaths five times a day where the out breath is longer than the in. Try and make this a regular habit by setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to do so. By doing this regularly over a period of time, your body will learn how to leave the stress response (sympathetic nervous system) and return to rest and digest (parasympathetic nervous system) where you are present and conscious, bringing awareness to any potential emotional eating episodes.


So for anyone struggling with comfort eating, be kind to yourself, there can be so much at play. But by focusing on eating better and reducing stress levels these can support you to regain control of your body and mind. This may in turn lead to less urgent cravings for comfort food, allowing you more control when you feel emotions taking over.


I am a mindset & behaviour change coach, specialising in wellness. Focus areas include life balance, stress management and habit change. If you need support to regain control of your comfort eating I can help, email me antonia@healthyhabitslife.co.uk or instantly book a call via my contact page.


Please note I am not a therapist or specialist in emotional eating, but I am certified in ‘functional nutrition for a healthy brain and body’ and ‘functional nutrition for weight management and eating intuitively’ which forms part of my holistic coaching method.


RT Aesthetics - infographic credit

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