Though this article may be more relevant at the moment with COVID-19, comfort eating is affecting a lot of people today regardless.
So what is comfort eating – essentially it is about satisfying an urge and fulfilling a short-term gratification over actually being hungry. And this often involves not only overeating, but choosing refined and processed foods, high in sugar like chocolate, and bad fats like crisps.
In my opinion comfort eating has not only a psychological root but also physiological reasons. In the following, I will explain the differences.
– your body’s desire at a cellular level to fulfil its needs
Here are three physiological reasons for comfort eating:
1. Blood sugar
Blood Sugar is defined by how much sugar is in your blood at a specific time. High blood sugar in the short term can cause an agitated nervous stage, making people feel very excited, also called the classic “sugar high”. Your body then needs to control the sugar amount in your blood by using Insulin for blood sugar regulation. So when your blood sugar is on the lower side, you remember what foods gave you a “pick-me-up”, so you can get the high again – which often leads to poor food choices such as chocolates and sweets. A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine noted that consuming sugar alters mood, possibly through its ability to induce reward and pleasure, leading to the seeking out of sugar.
Strategy: Eat balanced meals / Replace refined carbohydrates
First try to replace the refined grains and carbohydrates like white rice to more whole versions, like brown rice. These whole versions of carbohydrates convert slower to sugar. And secondly eat balanced meals, which means having good fats, protein, fibrous carbohydrates (vegetables) along with the slow starchy carbohydrates like brown rice or whole grains. Fat and fibre are the real keys to blood sugar balance. This means lots of leafy greens, coloured vegetables, good fats like avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds, and eggs and fatty fish like salmon.
2. Mineral imbalances
Our body has an understanding of what foods can satisfy our needs. For instance, many women, before their menstruation, have an innate craving for red meat due to its high iron content. The same can be said for magnesium, which is estimated to be deficient in over 30% of people over the age of 40. Raw cacao is very high in magnesium, which leads many to enjoy chocolate to get their fill. These are what I call hidden cravings.
Strategy: Eat a nutrients-dense diet
The antidote to nutrient deficiencies is a nutrient-dense whole foods diet with the possible inclusion of supplements like magnesium, iron and Vitamin B12 if needed.
3. Cortisol imbalance
Under times of stress, the body requires as much fuel as possible to fight or flee, and sugar is the ultimate fuel. Cortisol raises blood sugar, and it also increases the desire for sugar and salt. As an example, the adrenal glands that produce cortisol use a considerable amount of minerals like salt during stressful times. This may lead to craving salty foods like crisps or sweets.
Strategy: Stress management
Do you notice that you eat more junk food or sweets when you are under stress? Stress management activities like meditation, relaxation or only activities that make you feel good can help balance the cortisol response of your body and reduce the need for extra sweet or salty food. What do you do to make you feel good and relaxed? Ideally, stress reduction should be practiced daily instead of waiting for the event to occur.
– how the mind is running the show due to programming/habits
Food can comfort like a friend. According to a study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, 75% of Americans experience moderate to high levels of loneliness. This figure is staggering but goes a long way to explain people using food to ‘comfort’ them. American studies can be applied to most of the Western countries worldwide.
Strategy: Initiate Social Contact
In times like these, loneliness is more common – so a strategy is to reach out and get in contact with your friends and/or family members and make social contact part of your daily routine. Studies are showing that people especially vulnerable to loneliness would benefit from having a pet, as we see today, the use of emotional support animals is becoming more widespread and accepted. For those really affected by emotional eating, it is highly recommended to seek a qualified therapist to work with.
Boredom is a feeling of being dissatisfied, restless, and unchallenged. A person often feels that situations and actions lack purpose.
Strategy: Making Healthy Food exciting
According to a study called “Eaten up by boredom: consuming food to escape awareness of the bored self” researchers showed that people suffering boredom could change harmful eating habits by making healthy food exciting. So get out the recipe books or search for new recipes online to get the creative juices flowing.
Pre-programming is a classic condition I see in many adults struggling with comfort eating. What happens when you associate junk food, fast food and sweets to rewards for good behaviour or memorable times like parties, celebrations and family memories from childhood? Sometimes it could become a part of the daily routine, which leads to unhealthy habits.
Strategy: Being aware of and align with your values
The first step in understanding our programming is to be aware of them. This is why mindfulness and awareness is a crucial tool for behavioural change. Awareness is a component of Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), which is the tool that I use to support clients with their choices.
One of the key concepts of ACT is the Choice Point. This can be really helpful for people whose programs drive them to behave in ways that are taking them ‘Away’ from their values, like being healthy.
It starts with being aware of your thoughts and feelings when situations arise.
Then it moves to establishing if the actions out of the situation lead ‘Towards’ or ‘Away’ from your values. There are many exercises in the ACT model that help a person unhook from ‘Away’ moves and bring them back towards their values.
If you are being affected by comfort eating, I hope this article shed some light on possible reasons and some solutions. Perhaps instead of calling yourself weak for succumbing to the urges, you might realise that by changing some of your eating habits, the urges will decrease. And if it is because of a psychological reason, by becoming more aware and re-aligning with your values makes a difference.
Stay safe and healthy!
Craig Burton (BSc, NASM, CISSN) is a practicing Clinical and Sports Nutritionist with over 20 years’ experience as a health practitioner. He holds an array of qualifications in nutrition, as well as in health, fitness, mental and lifestyle coaching. To find out more about Craig or contact him go to www.craigburtoncoaching.com