Comfort Eating and Overeating

Food is linked to our emotions
Food is linked to our emotions

Do you ever reach the bottom of a packet of crisps or biscuits and wonder how you got there? Perhaps you’re someone who needs or would like to lose weight, and know what you should be doing, but can’t seem to follow the seemingly simple advice to “eat healthier” given by your healthcare professionals.

The crucial concept to understand about comfort eating is that food isn’t just a source of fuel and energy for the body. Rather, food is intimately linked to our emotions.

Food and emotions are linked

The connection between emotion and food is one that is set down from birth – your mother soothed you with her milk when you were crying.

As you grew up, she gave you sweets to cheer you up after the upset of hurting yourself, or a biscuit when you got in from a hard day at school, or cooked you a roast dinner when you’d fallen out with a friend.

Food is not just a fuel - it has been conditioned as a soother of emotions for as long as you can remember.

Fast forward to the diagnosis of diabetes and you are suddenly required to cut down drastically on what you’re eating. Not only this, but there are potentially major health consequences if you don’t. Given what you’re read above, it’s hardly surprising that encouragement by healthcare professionals to cut down on fatty sugary food are not acted upon.

You know in your head what you should be doing, but it’s hard to break away from the pattern of food as an instant root to pleasure, distraction and satisfaction.

Changing the reason you eat

However this pattern can be changed. The goal is to reach a place in which you can make a decision about whether or not to eat when you are feeling emotional – rather than it just being an automatic response.

An important point to remember is that everyone - of every shape and size - can use food to deal with their emotions, and occasionally it can be fine to use food in this way. The danger is when food becomes the only way to deal with emotions.

So let’s take a look at what the psychological models teach us about how to break this pattern between food and emotions.

  • The most important step is to become more mindful of your eating behaviour. A very practical strategy you can use to do this is to put a post-it note on the fridge, cupboard, in your wallet if you tend to buy it there and then – wherever you tend to reach for the comfort. Seeing the note itself may be enough to trigger a different response, or you might like to have a question written directly on the post-it. e.g. “Is the answer in here?”
  • What emotion are you feeling as you reach for the food? The emotion may be positive or negative – anything that stirs up strong feelings can be relevant. Start by labelling it, is it anger, sadness, fury, excitement, hurt, disappointment, excitement, sadness, triumph, boredom, loneliness, shyness, feeling unattractive, worthless? You might like to say to yourself, “I am…..” and fill in the blank. For example :“I am [insert emotion] at [insert situation/person/trigger for emotion] because [insert reason]”
  • What are your thoughts about what’s happened?

When it comes to why you are eating, ask yourself at least one of the following questions, or even all of them!

  • Can food solve this emotion, or the problem that led to the emotion?
  • Am I engaging in "compare and despair" - where I compare myself to others, which makes me feel bad about myself?
  • Is there another way of looking at this situation?
  • Am I getting things out of proportion?
  • Am I mind-reading what others might be thinking?
  • Am I engaging in black-and-white thinking?
  • What advice would I give a friend in this situation?
  • Am I putting more pressure on myself, setting up expectations of myself that are almost impossible? What would be more realistic?
  • What do I want or need from this person or situation? What do they want or need from me? Is there a compromise?
  • What would be the consequences of responding the way I usually do?
  • Is there another way of dealing with this? What would be the most helpful action to take? (for me, for the situation, for the other person)
  • Am I exaggerating the good aspects of others, and putting myself down? Or am I exaggerating the negative and minimising the positives? How would a friend see this situation? What’s the bigger picture?

After having done this exercise, you may still go ahead and eat the food – don’t beat yourself up for this!

Change takes time and by simply pausing and thinking about the reasons behind your actions you are making a great start.

At least if you eat this time you will be making the choice and doing it with your eyes wide open.

Soothing your emotions

You might like to think of some other way to dissipate or soothe these emotions - engage in a distracting and enjoyable activity, talk to someone about how you are feeling or write it down – whatever resonates for you.

Finally, next time you go to your diabetes dietician or doctor and they tell you to ‘lose weight’, perhaps you could share some of these ideas with them. Breaking out of the secrecy tied up in comfort eating is one of the most important things you can do.

By becoming aware of your emotions you can see that they have evolved to support and guide you. With time, emotions can become your friend rather than an enemy to be dulled with food.

This is one of series of Psychology articles by Dr Jen Nash, a Clinical Psychologist who has been living with type 1 diabetes since childhood.