Indulging a bit in your favourite food when something upsets you is okay and everybody is likely to do it from time to time. However, comfort eating may be a problem if you are regularly feeling sad, angry, hopeless, bored or lonely and are using food to cope with these feelings. Comfort eating will not fix your problems, and can even make you feel worse afterwards. Then you are left with same emotional issue and guilt from overeating.
Emotional vs. physical hunger
If you have found you often eat for comfort, it can become difficult to distinguish between comfort and physical hunger. Because emotional hunger can be so powerful, it can be easy to mistake for physical hunger.
- Sudden hunger: if you find that you suddenly get an overwhelming and urgent feeling of hunger, it is likely to be emotional hunger. Physical hunger comes on slowly, and does not feel urgent or dire unless it has been quite a long time since your last meal.
- Craving Comfort Foods: When experiencing a craving for fatty foods, and sugary snacks, this is more likely to be emotional hunger. This is because of the quick rush the fat and sugar gives to your body. When you experience physical hunger, anything, including healthy food, sounds good.
- Overeating: With physical hunger, once you are full, you stop eating and feel satisfied. With comfort eating, you keep wanting more and more until you are uncomfortably stuffed.
- Guilt and shame: When you finish eating a normal meal, you typically will not feel shame or guilt after eating it. With comfort eating, you often feel guilt or regret for eating so much or so unhealthy.
Managing your eating
If you are concerned about your eating habits, or notice you use comfort eating in response to certain emotions, there are a number of things you can do to manage your eating.
Be aware of what makes you eat
It is helpful to look at your eating patterns and try to work out what is causing you to eat. Every time you overeat, or experience an urge to overeat, write down what you were thinking about, feeling, and how strong the feeling was. This can help you to identify your triggers for overeating.
Comfort eating involves eating to help you deal with how you are feeling. There might be things you could do to “feed” your feelings in a healthier way. You could try exercising, chatting to a friend, writing, or taking a bath. Find an alternative that works well for you.
Dealing with boredom
It is common to eat when you feel bored. If you find that this happens regularly to you, think of some things you can do instead. Ring a friend, do some exercise like kicking around a football, dancing, running, going for a walk, or reading a book. Get involved with something – volunteering in your spare time can work really well, as you can keep busy and meet new people at the same time.
Create more healthy habits
If you have become used to coping with difficult feelings with eating, it can take some time to change this habit. By creating healthy lifestyle habits, such as exercise, getting more sleep, making time for relaxation, and connecting with others, you will be more prepared to handle stressors as they arise.
Talk to someone
By talking to your local doctor or a therapist, you should be able to work out some of the reasons why you might be comfort eating and different ways to manage it. They can also help you to set goals, and start working to overcome comfort eating.
Nicole Paulie is a Counselling Psychologist, and co-author of “How to be Happy and Healthy – The seven natural elements of mental health.” She provides therapy in the Dublin city area. Contact us to learn more or to book an appointment.