Food is an integral part of our culture. Yes, food is needed for nourishment and survival, but it is often beyond survival. Festive times are identified with food and people. Celebrations involve food. Memories are created around food. And somehow we connect more closely with food than we’d like to admit.
Feeling down in the dumps, our feet will find their way to the pantry. It could be a bag of chips, a pizza, a bowl of ice cream, a glass of wine, or endless mugs of coffee. Your pick can vary. Comfort eating seems to be the vent to let that bad feeling pass. But if you want to be on a healthy and fitter scale, mindful eating must be the choice over comfort eating.
This article focuses on how to make the shift from comfort eating to mindful eating. But before we dive into how to address this shift, let’s first understand what exactly is comfort eating, what it is not, and how to recognize it.
What is comfort eating?
Comfort eating is eating when not required. It can be seen as a shallow coping mechanism to manage negative or unpleasant emotions. A person may not be hungry but has this need to eat food. It is often, beyond food. It is about the person eating in action and about the behavior. It involves unpleasant emotions that the person is trying to regulate or manage like may be tragedy, depression, anger, frustration, or extreme stress.
It could involve an emotional trigger from an unpleasant situation. For example, an awkward humiliating situation at work that happened that day or just bumping into your ‘ex’ in the parking lot. The action is trying to get over those floods of emotions by indulging in food or mindlessly gulping down junk or anything available to eat, though one may not be hungry.
Comfort eating includes some kind of anxiousness or restlessness, with feelings of guilt, shame or regret because of the unnecessary eating.
Our senses connect food and feelings. And these feelings could be unpleasant feelings. And so, food could come to the rescue when these unpleasant feelings are not managed properly the way they should have been. We tend to indulge in comfort eating as a way to manage stressful situations.
What comfort eating is not
Having cravings when pregnant is a natural feeling. That cannot be considered comfort eating.
Celebrating after an accomplishment and treating yourself with some of your favorite foods is not comfort eating. You deserve every bit of celebration and pampering yourself with your favorite food.
Snacking over weekends while watching Netflix or some movies is not comfort eating. It is called taking a break. As long as you are in control, you are good to go.
How to recognize the signs of comfort eating
One of the first signs of comfort eating is eating not because of hunger but because of some unpleasant emotion that has triggered the feeling of eating something just for the sake of it. Missing that hunger sign is the first sign.
Another innate sign is that the person may be showing some signs of stress. Of course, stress shows up in different ways. It could be in the form of feelings like anger, sadness, crying, frustration, confusion, etc. Usually, an unpleasant situation may have triggered the stress and then led to episodes of comfort eating. Situation-specific triggers which are unpleasant leading to comfort eating may be another sign.
Another sign is that the person may be opting for repetitive food choices in large quantities. For example, it could be only ice cream. There may be a repeating trend or an evident pattern. Now mind you, this must not be confused otherwise. Someone may want to eat ice cream as a way to unwind after a busy day but having controlled portions, and enjoying every bite of it is a good sign of relaxation. When there is a lack of relaxation but visible or innate signs of stress, then it needs a closer look to make the shift to mindful eating.
If excessive episodes of eating are leading to guilt or shame, then it could be another sign of comfort eating.
Craving for foods high in fat, sugar, carbs, and refined and processed food usually packaged may be another sign. But to be more specific, a craving for a particular type of food, repetitively could be acting as an anchor to comfort eating. Such anchors need to be disengaged to make healthier choices.
Feeling the need to eat at odd times. There is some emotion driving one to just eat. Feeling stuck with the situation or the emotion and not knowing what to do, could lead to just eating as the quickest solution at hand. To get temporary relief, to cope with negative emotions eating at odd times is another sign.
Unlike hunger, which is a gradual feeling that builds up slowly, comfort eating is not gradual. It is unexpected and abrupt. The sense of eating is strong, and urgent, and has little to no explanation for the need to eat, biologically. Because it is more of an emotional reason rather than a physical reason, that could be another sign of comfort eating.
Understanding the science behind comfort eating
Understanding the science of comfort eating helps in better awareness and management of comfort eating. Awareness helps to be more in control.
More often than not, all or some of the senses are involved in propping up comfort in eating to regulate or manage stressful emotions. The sense of smell, texture, taste, and touch seem to aid in temporarily suppressing or minimizing the stress aspect in tough situations.
Whenever there is a stressful event it could act as a trigger to start off the need to manage it. And in this context, it is managed temporarily through eating food as an escape route. This is an unhealthy practice to eat just for the sake of eating and not to manage hunger pangs.
Regulation to minimize stress– One may find ways to reduce that stressful feeling. In this context, they may associate it with food. And get comfort from eating food. The idea is to minimize stress and any sign of distress within.
Seeking relief with the senses– One may seek relief and try to cope with those unpleasant feelings or triggers, through the smell of the food, texture, taste, or touch of the food. The act of gulping down food, without actually savoring it or just mindlessly swallowing large quantities of food may be another aspect to observe.
The consequence of guilt-After having gulped down food, one may be accompanied by feelings of guilt or shame due to poor choice of food and unhealthy eating habits. Added calories, and added pounds are evident outcomes one has to face when piling on those quantities of unhealthy food.
Recurring cycle– Under normal circumstances, one may change the way they react the next time there is an unpleasant trigger. They may just go out for a walk or a jog, talk to their friend or a pet or just sleep. Basically breaking the cycle. But in the case of comfort eating, the cycle repeats itself. Someone may have bucket loads of ice cream stored in the refrigerator just in case there is a situation of emotional turmoil. The cycle repeats itself which is the problem.
Why comfort eating is bad for you
Comfort eating is synonymous with over-eating. And over-eating in any form is bad for your body. As we are already aware, comfort eating originates from eating for comfort and not for nourishment. Here are some foundational reasons why comfort eating is bad for you:
How to stop comfort eating and shift to mindful eating
Now that we know what comfort eating is and how to recognize it, here are some ways one can stop comfort eating and slowly make the shift to mindful eating.
Assess the trigger
Find out the root cause. What is that situation or person or event that is stressing you out? Don’t avoid it and let it pile on. Instead, sit through it, face it and analyze it.
Understand and assess
- What started that unpleasant feeling
- How did it start
- How did it show up in emotions
- What do you exactly feel
- List out what are the possible ways to stop these feelings
- How can you address the root event or situation
- List out practical steps or ways to stop this stressful situation once and for all
- Narrow down your approach to what is possible and what is not possible
- Give yourself some slack and be kind to yourself. Understand the impact of your choices on your health
- What are the other options you can turn to, instead of comfort eating?
- Have an accountable partner. Your partner, friend, or anyone else to check on your choices
- Be strict with your choices during stressful situations
- Assess and understand the trigger well, so you can control its influence on you
Minimize the power
- Find ways to minimize the power and influence of the trigger.
- Drain out its impact by talking more and more about it. Weaken its power by diluting it, talking more, and expressing more about it. Vent and empty your mind.
- Build your self-awareness to tackle the issue. The more you assess the trigger, the more you eventually know how to react to it
Trick your mind
- If your mind is driving you to comfort eat or emotional eat, you need to find ways to work with your mind.
- After assessing the trigger, you will get clarity on the process of how comfort eating is being arrived at.
- While in parallel you assess and explore ways to keep your mind busy. Take a firm decision that you will pick anything but food. But the point here is what is that anything?
- Give yourself more options to choose from to cope with stress. It could be playing music, sleeping, getting on that treadmill, or drinking cold water. The list could be endless.
- Trick your mind by storing lesser quantities of your favorite food, in more internal cupboards. When you take more time to reach these foods, you have enough time to process and think about your actions, control them, and divert yourself to better options.
- Explore newer habits and behaviors, and find new options to delve into, in moderation. For example, painting, composing music, learning a new musical instrument, etc. This not only clears up your mind, but it also helps you vent out the pressure and helps your creative thinking to be activated.
- And further, gets your subconscious mind to work on the problem at hand and revert to more innovative, smarter ways to deal with the stressful situation.
Redefine what self-management and self-care
- Make a conscious effort about what self-management and self-care mean to you.
- List out practical steps and ways to manage yourself and care for yourself.
- Maintain a journal. Record your emotions, progress, challenges, what worked and what needs more work, etc. List everything out to clear out your mind and reinforce what is showing good results for you.
- Practice mindfulness. Opt for slowness and be intentional about your actions. This will build your awareness and control over your decisions.
Ensure you get good sleep
- Ensure that you get enough sleep.
- Lack of sleep will put your body off balance and mislead hormones. Your body will not be able to tell if your stomach is full or not, leading to weight gain and obesity.
- When the body gets less sleep, the ghrelin hormone which increases hunger will act up. And the leptin hormone which signals when the stomach is full slows down.
- Read more about it in this article “Lose weight while you sleep“.
- Lack of good sleep aggravates moodiness, impacts energy levels, slows down metabolism, and leads to bloating and weight gain.
Plan your snacks ahead
- Don’t shun eating altogether. You need to eat good food in moderation, as required for your body to care for its nourishment and strength.
- It is important that you don’t go to another extreme of starving yourself.
- Make sure you plan your snacks ahead. Keep a check on the quantity. And keep only healthy snacks and food options in stock.
- Keep healthy bites nearby. Know when to stop eating.
- Avoid eating while watching TV or any show series. Being intentional about eating can help you keep a tab on when you feel full, chew your food properly, and give rest to your mind from other distractions like digital media.
Move your body
- It is important to move your body in this post-pandemic phase. Leading a sedentary life and working remotely can seriously impact health.
- Move your body by dancing, responding to good music, or watering plants. If not simply walking around the house.
- Keeping your mind engaged, by moving your body is another way to manage and cope with stress.
- A simple workout can pump up good hormones and happy chemicals to help you not only survive tough situations but also, make you feel good.
- Use all senses and engage them well. Observe your surroundings by engaging in smelling nature, looking at visual cues around you, feeling the textured grass under your feet, and touching the plants or the mud. All of this will balance your body, build your well-being, and make you more self-aware.
- In the case of comfort eating, food is the anchor for any stressful situation or emotion. In this approach, it is important to change the anchor. By being more self-aware, make a shift from food entirely into something else in moderation.
- For example, writing your journal could be the new anchor. While it is a huge shift from eating food to writing, it may seem difficult but it is not.
- Another option is combining two anchors together. For example, instead of only writing a journal, make sure you have a glass of coconut water, some juice, or some red wine on the side. Make it a point to take only one glass and not more.
- Remember, moderation is essential.
- The point is re-anchor yourself from comfort eating to something else that you enjoy and can benefit from.
- As pointed out earlier, cut some slack for yourself. Don’t be too harsh or in a rush to make the change. We don’t want stress to be added to make this shift.
- Be gentle and kind and take it slow
- If writing is not your thing, maintain a vlog instead of a journal. Make it enjoyable. Make it your own personal time.
- Talk about what’s stressing you and how you are coping with it. Talk like you are also helping others who are in a similar position. In the process, remove the layers one by one and get to the root of it, manage and control, and shift to mindful eating and more healthier habits.
- Talk to a friend, share your journey
- Build in subtle accountability
Comfort eating is also referred to as emotional eating and sometimes, it may lead to binge eating. The point is not what it is called. But the point is when we eat when hunger is not the reason, then it is time to alert ourselves and find out the ‘why’ and control it.
Interestingly, comfort eating in its subtle form can be seen positively. For example, if you are missing your family get-together during thanksgiving, perhaps eating a turkey meal could help you get over the nostalgia and help you cherish some past moments. But the problem is when things go off on a tangent towards an extreme and control is lost.
Whether it is comfort eating or mindful eating, the answer always lies in knowing when to draw the line, the need to be self-aware, and taking a few steps back with control in your hands to balance things out for your overall wellness.