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Column: Why do we comfort eat?

Increasing numbers of people are reaching for chocolate and crisps in response to stress, sadness or boredom – but what is making us become emotional eaters? asks Roisin Finnegan.

EATING IS DEPENDENT on many things not necessarily related to the feeling of hunger. The increasing prevalence of eating disorders and obesity in the western world has raised many questions about the role that emotions play in the cause of these problems.

In relation to obesity for example, it is increasingly recognised that for some individuals, dieting and exercising alone may not be sufficient treatments, and that unhealthy eating habits may have psychological roots.

But what about the seemingly harmless grazing and thoughtless eating while bored, or the comfort of a sugary snack when feeling lonely? Over time,these small excesses add up and have an unfair cost (a moment on the lips…). So what does it mean to comfort eat?

What is comfort eating?

In the literature, “comfort eating” is equivalent to “emotional eating” or “stress eating.” It is defined as ‘eating in response to emotional arousal (such as depression, anxiety, or anger) as opposed to feelings of hunger’ and is related to overeating in both children and adults. Furthermore, this eating style is strongly related to an increased incidence of depression, sensitivity to stress, and impulsivity.

Emotional eating is thought to occur in between 15 per cent and half of the general population, and to a much higher degree among people with obesity and eating disorders. It occurs more frequently among women than men and adults than children. It also appears to be on the increase.

While for some individuals stress suppresses appetite, in many cases the consumption of fast food and chocolate has been found to increase in times of stress with a decrease in the consumption of fruit and vegetables. Negative mood has been associated with greater intake of snacks rather than main meals, and emotional eaters tend to skip meals and snack more when stressed.

Comfort eating is different to normal hunger

One study found that over half of individuals with depression surveyed craved chocolate and believed that it provided relief from low mood. Comfort eating is different to normal hunger which increases until the person has hunger pangs. A comfort eater does not get the gradual rise in hunger. Rather it is an immediate ‘I need to eat food now’ sensation. It has an addictive tone.

The question of whether comfort foods actually comfort the eater is a key one. People who eat when bored or stressed derive some sort of benefit from the eating. Understanding the reasons for this however is not straightforward; early research suggests that eating is most likely to reduce negative feelings associated with emotion that is difficult to identify or describe, such as boredom.

Another theory is that comfort eating may improve mood through serving as a distraction technique from negative feelings, however this often leads to secondary feelings of guilt and shame. There is support for the popular idea that chocolate, one of the most commonly craved foods during a negative mood can directly lift mood. Chocolate leads to increased serotonin levels, improving both feelings and thoughts. One study showed that chocolate could reverse the sad feelings induced by watching a tear jerking film, but the effect was short-lived, only 3 minutes.

Why are some people more inclined to emotionally eat than others?

The reasons for why some people emotionally eat are unclear, though it seems likely that it is combination of genes and environmental influences. It has been found that people with a weakened resilience to stress are more likely to turn to food for comfort. The stress hormone (cortisol) in and of itself often leads to increased craving for salty and sweet foods.

Another reason people may comfort eat relates to the recall of comforting childhood memories that revolve around food. Certain foods may make us feel safe and more connected to people, and so be powerfully comforting or rewarding in times of distress. Mindlessness, or difficulty identifying, paying attention to or even avoiding certain feelings and sensations in the present moment has also been associated with higher levels of emotional eating.

More recently, adverse emotional experiences in childhood have been implicated as important in the development of emotional eating. Recent research is revealing that an individual’s attitude towards sharing their feelings (in both childhood and adulthood) may be closely related to the development of emotional eating.

A difficulty in regulating emotion can lead to comfort eating

A child develops emotional states and learns to process and regulate these emotions within the home environment and through important relationships with caregivers. In some cases, the child develops an understanding that negative emotional states are not okay, for example, anger. This may result from emotional experiences not being validated in childhood, or expressions of emotion being met with punishment or neglect, leading the child to turn to alternative means of comfort, such as food.

As an adult, when stressed, angry or lonely, a similar pattern may result. Negative attitudes towards expressing emotions may serve to block the processing of important emotional information, and thus food may act as a coping mechanism. People forget that one very important role of being a parent is to notice how your child is feeling and to then tell the child, give them the words, so they learn the vocabulary of feelings.

It seems that young girls might be told more of what they are feeling, their mother’s might spend more time discussing feelings with them than their boys.  This might in some way explain the difficulty or discomfort that many men have with exploring their feelings.

So what can one do to cut down on emotional eating?

Whilst the causes of emotional eating may be multiple and varied, there are a number of things that people can do to cut down on emotional eating, and develop healthier habits.

  • Learn relaxation techniques: if stress contributes to your emotional eating, try a stress management technique, such as yoga, meditation or relaxation
  • Check-in with yourself: is your hunger physical or emotional? Is it a craving that will pass? Mindfully pay attention to feelings and bodily sensations throughout the day
  • Keep a food diary: monitoring what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, where you eat, and how you’re feeling when you eat has been shown to be very beneficial in reducing unhealthy eating habits. Over time, patterns may emerge revealing connections between mood and food. When you notice these feelings, try and distract yourself by doing something different or even better write down what you are feeling and why or talk to a friend
  • Cope in healthy ways: many people use food to cope with uncomfortable or distressing emotions. Developing a safe and supportive social network that you can turn to in times of distress is an important means of coping. Alternatively, journaling is a useful way of processing emotions and has been found to have many health benefits. Exercise or hobbies are other healthier options, and may service to boost mood and fight boredom that can sometimes lead to emotional eating
  • Talk to a friend or confidante: a problem shared is truly a problem halved
  • If you’re having difficulty cutting down on emotional eating, eating mindfully may help increase awareness and reduce the quantity of food you consume. It may also mean that you at least enjoy what you’re eating. Here are some suggestions:
    • Put all your food on a plate or into a bowl before you eat it
    • With every mouthful, take notice of what you’re eating, without judging
    • When you have eaten everything on the plate or in the bowl, ask yourself: “What do I want to do now?”

The goal is to be consciously aware of what you’re doing and don’t deprive yourself: restricting food has actually been shown to lead to more cravings and episodes of binge eating. Enjoying an occasional treat and getting plenty of variety can help curb cravings.

When to seek professional help

If you’ve tried self-help options but you still can’t get control of your emotional eating, it may be worth considering seeking professional support, which may help you understand the motivations behind your emotional eating and help you learn new coping skills.

This option can be discussed further with your GP and they might refer you to one of the new primary care counsellors. Further support is also available on www.bodywhys.ie. If you were unfortunate to have grown up in a very chaotic and upsetting home environment, the HSE have a free counseling service. For more information see www.hse-ncs.ie.

Roisin Finnegan, Trainee Clinical Psychologist at NUIG. She is currently conducting research at NUI Galway into the relationship between people who have a hard time expressing themselves and comfort eating.

Read: Some foods may be addictive – science>

Column: I can’t pinpoint the moment I decided I wasn’t going to eat anymore>

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