Comfort Eating And Why We Do It

The average woman has tried to lose weight at least 5 times in her life, usually with a different diet each time, and obviously without success. Either the diet didn’t work, or it did work but was too hard to stick to and so abandoned. Whatever the reason the end result is the regaining of any lost weight, often with a little extra, and probably a feeling of failure, hopelessness, and resignation to never having the body they desire.
But why is this?
Well as I said, in many cases the diet is just too hard to stick too, whether it’s because the food it permits you to eat are so restrictive you get bored with it, or because it’s just plain weird and drains you of emotional and physical energy.
But I have something to ask you…
Why are you overweight?
Your answer will probably be because you eat too much, or because you eat too much junk.
So my next, and more revealing question, is…
Why do you eat too much?
Have you ever asked yourself that question? Have you ever asked yourself why you eat what you eat?
“I eat because I’m hungry,” you’re probably now thinking. Or maybe you’re even saying it out loud because it was such a stupid question. But I’m willing to bet that you often eat when you’re not hungry. I’m willing to bet that food isn’t just something you eat to provide your body with fuel, because if that was the case you wouldn’t be overweight.
Like many, if not most people, your relationship with food has as much to do with providing positive emotions and limiting negative ones as it does with fuelling your body.
If not more.
For example, when you eat, do you always (or ever) choose the healthiest meal that will provide you with the most nutrients and give your body exactly what it needs to function at its best? Or do you go for what sounds (in other words, tastes) nicest, with little or no consideration for what it will do for your body besides maybe a passing thought as to how many calories are in it?
If you’re overweight, chances are you don’t choose the healthiest option, you go for what tastes the best. And generally, the food that tastes the best is the food that contains the most fat, sugar, or salt. Or all three. Which is why most pre-prepared food is full of them and why it’s so bad for you.
You might already know all this, but I’m feeling lucky today so I’m willing to bet again, this time that your favourite food is something that’s full of fat, sugar, salt, or all three.
Why is this? You know it’s bad for you and contributing to, if not solely responsible for, you being overweight. So why do you do it?
Well for hundreds of thousands of years up until very recently, fat, sugar, and salt were hard to come by. This is no longer the case, but because it has only happened to a small percentage of the population in the last few decades, our bodies still haven’t adapted to the fact that they aren’t scarce resources anymore. That will take at least another ten thousand years (by which point they may well be scarce again, but that’s another matter).
So if our bodies still think those three things are scarce and values them because fat and sugar are full of calories, while salt is an essential nutrient, how can it reward you for eating them over say, a stick of celery or some broccoli?
Easy – your brain tells you they taste nicer.
And it does this by releasing chemicals that cause you to feel pleasure when you eat them.
If you doubt this, imagine how you feel when you see some raw broccoli, which contains very little fat, sugar, or salt. Does it make your mouth water? Does the thought of how it will taste when you put it in your mouth and crunch down on it cause you to feel pleasure or pain? Would you enjoy the experience or hate it?
Now I know people who do actually eat raw broccoli, but they don’t enjoy it and they definitely don’t like the taste. They do it because it’s so full of nutrients that it’s known as a super-food. Even after many years however, they still hate the taste.
Now let’s compare that with chocolate.
Your average bar of chocolate is roughly 33% fat and 50% sugar, and although not high in salt, it’s there. How do you feel when you imagine seeing a bar of chocolate? Is it a lot more pleasurable than when you imagined some broccoli? Is the thought of how you’ll feel the instant the chocolate is on your tongue, giving you that instant sugar rush, good or bad? What about when it begins to melt inside your mouth, sweet and creamy as you then swallow it and receive a rush of pleasurable, nice, comforting emotions?
Does it cheer you up if you’re feeling down?
Does it relax you if you’re feeling stressed?
Does it comfort you if you’re feeling anxious?
Is it almost like taking a drug?
Maybe you don’t like chocolate. Maybe your comfort food is a burger, a pizza, or ice cream. Whatever it is, fat, sugar, and probably salt will be major ingredients, because they are the things that cause the release of the feel-good chemicals in your brain known as endorphins.
You might feel guilty or disappointed with yourself after you’ve eaten them, but only once the effects of the endorphins has worn off. Eating broccoli might make you feel bad at the time, but afterwards you might feel proud that you’re disciplined enough to have what’s good for you. Eating your favourite comfort food causes the opposite response.
So what can you do about it?
Well another way to get the same chemicals, and one that’s good for you, is to exercise. Plus it will help you lose weight which will obviously cause you to feel better about yourself. But going back to eating for pleasure, the next thing I want to ask you is…
When do you do it?
What’s the emotion that you’re trying to get rid of?
Is it stress, depression, anxiety, loneliness, or something else?
Maybe you’ve never thought about it before and have no idea.
If this is the case you need to figure out what’s causing you to eat for comfort, in other words what’s triggering the behaviour, and then what you can do instead. To do this I want you to start a food diary for at least three days. Write down everything you eat, no matter how small the amount, as well as how you were feeling before, what caused the feeling, and what effect eating had on you. You should quickly start to see some common feelings, probably negative, before you eat unhealthy food, and some different, more positive feelings, straight after.
That done, there are two ways you can act differently in the future.
The first is to avoid the cause of the negative emotion, whether it’s stress, anxiety, depression, or whatever. If that’s isn’t possible because, for instance, the cause is your job, the second way is to deal with the negative emotions in a way other than by eating comforting food.
You might already have something else that you do, like smoking, or drinking alcohol, but obviously these aren’t healthy alternatives. So instead try a relaxation technique such as yoga, talk it over with a friend, or, as I said earlier, exercise. If you do this and find yourself eating less fatty, sugary foods, you know it’s helping. That way those things will become a rare treat instead of an everyday snack.