Written by Nyomi Graef
What do sex, drugs, food and alcohol have in common? Lots. One thing in particular is that they are all ways to help us cope during tough times.
If we focus on food as a coping mechanism, comfort eating (also known as emotional or stress eating) is very common. How much so? Well a 2016 article by ABC News said that comfort eating “plays a huge role in Australia's obesity epidemic with 83 per cent of overweight or obese Australians eating emotionally, according to a recent survey.”
During the current coronavirus pandemic, this figure is probably even higher.
What are some experts’ opinions on comfort eating? Is it a good idea?
Harvard Medical School summarises my thoughts on this topic well in its health report titled Lose Weight and Keep it Off. It says: “The trouble is, comfort eating ... only works temporarily. Worse, it causes longer-term distress if it brings about weight gain.”
Deborah Beck Busis, program director for the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy outside Philadelphia, USA, also shares my views on this issue. She says that: “It [comfort eating] ultimately just makes the situation worse because it creates more problems by jeopardising weight loss, reinforcing bad habits, and making you feel guilty.”
Comfort eating can be regular, harmful and addictive
If comfort eating was a one-off/rare occurrence, then it’s obviously unlikely to cause long-term harm. But eating salty/sugary/fatty junk food when we are upset can be (and often is) frequent, harmful and addictive. People can comfort eat for years, and find it very hard to stop. A few kilos of initial weight gain can easily turn into many kilos over time, if comfort eating isn’t quickly stopped.
Stephanie Sogg is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. She says that: “We know that there are parts of the brain that are rewarded from eating high-fat or high-sugar foods. And over a decade of psychological research tells us that any behaviour that is rewarded is likely to be repeated. So, if you eat for comfort, and you find that it works, you’re naturally going to do it again.”
Eating to cope does not address the underlying causes of our problems
For long-term happiness we must overcome the root causes of comfort eating, and deal with them in helpful ways.
No amount of food will fill the gap in our lives, hearts or souls. If you comfort eat, stop using food - especially junk food - to fill the gap. As mentioned, comfort eating can be harmful. Find better ways to cope with problems that don’t lead to weight gain and other problems that regular over-eating (especially on unhealthy comfort foods) can cause, such as type 2 diabetes, guilt and shame.
How can we stop comfort eating?
First know why we comfort eat. Are we stressed, angry, sad, lonely or disappointed...? Maybe we feel a mixture of two or more of these emotions.
Now determine why we don't feel good and why we turn to that food to cheer up. Food is strongly linked with celebrations, memories and so on. For example, a particular comfort food might remind us of happy times in the past that cheered us up. Perhaps we used to eat that food with someone we love (or loved), so when we eat that food now (when we feel unloved), we feel loved again. This is just one of many possible reasons. Find the reasons that are relevant to you.
Swap the bad habit with one or more good habits
As mentioned, comfort eating is often a bad habit. It’s best to swap this habit with one or more good behaviours. Next, over time through regular reinforcement, the new behaviours need to become good habits that feel normal to us. Read my blog post about ways to swap bad habits with good habits for further details, if you’re interested.
Think of better ways to cope with negative emotions, and put into action ways that you like
Get help if you need it
Talk to a counsellor, read a book on the topic (on stress/grief/depression, for instance), chat with someone who has overcome the problem themselves... whatever constructive ways that you find work to overcome the underlying causes of your negative emotions.
Use cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
Be conscious of when you are about to comfort eat, and stop yourself turning to food for comfort before you start eating. Lose Weight and Keep it Off recommends using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to help stop comfort eating. This involves swapping negative thoughts (so in this case thoughts that lead to comfort eating), with helpful thoughts that stop us from trying to eat our way to happiness.
Below are some negative thoughts that I have thought of, along with some helpful thoughts to replace them with. Use them, adapt them and/or make up ones that connect with you.
Negative thoughts: I’m stressed (or sad/angry/lonely/other emotion) so I will eat. It makes me happy.
Helpful thoughts: Eating will only bring me short-term happiness. Afterwards I might feel bad (or guilty/ashamed and so on), so eating isn’t worth it in the long run. I’ll do something positive instead.
Negative thoughts: Food makes me happy. It never calls me names (or picks on me/yells at me...) It’s yummy and satisfying, and it always cheers me up.
Helpful thoughts: Food only makes me feel good temporarily. I will respect myself and my health more. This means I’ll now do better things to cheer myself up that don’t make me gain weight/increase my risk of lifestyle-related diseases (or make me feel bad/guilty etc.). I will listen to a happy song (and/or talk to a friend/read some positive affirmations/watch something funny on YouTube...) instead.
Summary and final thoughts
Ikin, S, 2016, Emotional eating fuelling Australia's obesity epidemic, psychologist says, ABC News, https://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-02-18/emotional-eating-fuelling-australias-obesity-epidemic/7175204
Lose Weight and Keep it Off: Special Health Report, 2017, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts, USA: Harvard University