I thought now would be a good time to re-visit comfort eating, since struggles with emotional eating or to manage stress has been coming up a lot more in my conversations with not only my clients, but with friends and family as well.
It makes sense that many people are finding that comfort eating has become more frequent (even for those who have never experienced it before), as right now is a pretty stressful time for so many. Worries about finances, health and wellbeing of ourselves and those we love as well as the social isolation that has affected us during this time has had a huge impact on how we are all doing right now. Depending on where you are in the world, comfort eating may also be now being affected by loosening restrictions. You may be finding that increased anxiety associated with this is affecting your eating, or perhaps reduced worries and taking a sigh of relief may also be affecting things as you start to relax.
If struggling with comfort eating has been a concern for a while, or even if it is a relatively new concern brought on by the current situation, you may find the below helpful in coping with comfort eating.
Comfort eating doesn’t make you ‘bad’
Much of the distress that can arise due to comfort eating can often come from feeling like it’s not “normal” or that nobody else struggles the way that we do.
Eating to soothe emotions such as stress, worry or overwhelm is really common. It is also a natural experience to eat for other emotional reasons including celebration, pleasure, social connection or simply because we are finding the food delicious. Eating emotionally or for comfort is part of normal eating and there is nothing inherently wrong with it, regardless of the particular emotion involved. We are all human, and emotion is woven into our relationship with food. Finding some self-compassion can be a helpful first step in beginning to let go of that self-criticism that so many of us carry around with us.
Notice your self-talk before, during and after comfort eating
Giving yourself a dose of self-compassion and shifting your self-talk can be so beneficial in helping you to reflect on your comfort eating. Try to first bring awareness if your self-talk is negative or judgemental (the one that says “You are so bad for eating that”, “Why can’t you stop at one” and the long list of “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”). Noticing these thoughts can be a little confronting, but can ultimately be helpful in allowing us to hear the messages that we tell ourselves everyday.
Reflecting on some of the things you might say to a friend if they were struggling with comfort eating or their relationship with food can also be interesting to notice. What do you notice about the words you would share with a friend, compared to those you automatically say to yourself before, during and after comfort eating? Sometimes the differences can be quite stark. We would never say many of the things to others that we so frequently say to ourselves.
Write down those comforting words that you usually reserve for others, and refer back to them as often as you need. You deserve acceptance, non-judgement and understanding too.
Reflect on what need are you trying to meet
Pausing to notice how you are feeling, both physically and emotionally, can be a great way to bring more intention to your experience before eating emotionally. You might notice that you are hungry, feel like eating "just because" or feel that eating is what you need to provide physical or emotional comfort in the moment. Or, you may notice that you are struggling to sit with the uncertainty, fear or isolation that this situation has brought on for so many people.
If you are able to, notice what is going on for you in the moment. Take a breath. Make a choice that will meet your needs, whether that is coming up with a simple daily routine, calling or video chatting a friend, comfort eating, or something else that will meet your needs. They are all valid choices, and there is no hierarchy of ways to soothe yourself.
Resist the urge to "cut back"
Attempting to limit foods that we have eaten emotionally is a very common response to feeling like we can’t control ourselves around particular foods. However, physically restricting foods (“I won’t buy biscuits because I will eat them in one go”) and mentally restricting foods (“I must only eat one biscuit”) sets us up to overeat on them later, something called the restrict-binge cycle. In the throes of emotional eating, this cycle can provide us with false evidence that we certainly cannot be trusted around food, leading us to further restrict and continue going around and around the cycle.
However, overeating when presented with a food that you have tried to limit, or ending your diet doesn’t mean that you can’t control yourself. Overeating following restriction is a natural human response following not having enough food, desired food or telling ourselves that we must not eat what we feel like. In ‘The Intuitive Eating Workbook’ by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole, they liken this response to breathing: ‘Primal hunger is akin to holding your breath under water until the need for air is desperate and then finally coming up to the surface. Your first breath is a profound, gasping inhalation rather than a polite intake of breath. It’s a compensatory biological reaction.’ I could hazard a guess that you have never berated yourself for breathing too much, and it’s ok to start to bring some curiosity and let go of the judgement around food as well.
Working on your relationship with food, so that you can enjoy all foods without judgement, guilt, or the desire to restrict can help with finding moderation, stepping out of the restrict-binge cycle and reduce that “out of control” feeling around food that often perpetuates emotional eating.
Experiment with eating regularly
Reflecting on comfort eating, it is possible that you are able to pinpoint emotional triggers relatively easily. Another important thing to note is that physical triggers may be playing a part as well. Having long periods of not eating or trying to limit the type of amount of food you eat can not only affect your mood and therefore increase the likelihood of emotional eating, but not eating enough can increase the likelihood of overeating from a physical standpoint as well, as your body is trying to catch up on what it missed earlier in the day. Starting to bring in regular, adequate eating can ensure that you are well nourished throughout the day as well as help you to find some semblance of routine during this time when our regular routines are out the window.
If you are finding that comfort eating is your only coping strategy and/or it is causing you distress, seeking support from a mental health professional can help you to find extra strategies to experiment with when things get tough.
Whether comfort eating has been something that you have been managing for a while, or if it is new for you, please know that you are not alone. We all deal with things in different ways. You are doing your best, and it is enough.
If you are interested in working through your concerns with comfort eating, feel free to reach out. I'd love to support you in finding a more positive relationship with food.
If eating provides comfort for you in times of stress, you feel like you can't 'control' yourself around food or you feel guilty for eating emotionally, you are not alone. And you know what? It’s ok. It’s all ok. You are doing your best. We all are.
Emotions, comfort and food are inherently entwined and eating to soothe uncomfortable emotions in the moment is nothing to feel guilty about. However, if it is bothering you, you may find the below helpful in learning to manage your emotional eating.