What if I told you the issue is less with the eating or food and more with the concept that “comfort eating” is something you should try and avoid.
There are a number of layers to this and I’ll do my best to break things down by looking at how this “comfort eating” may look and feel depending on your relationship with food and body.
But first, I want to make it clear that eating for reasons other than hunger, can be a perfectly normal and healthy part of the human experience. Eating for social interaction, entertainment, tiredness, mood changes, practicality (one may need to eat before hunger strikes with the knowledge they may not be able to eat for a certain period), or for the simple pleasure of food itself can all be part of normal healthy eating experience.
When food is eaten with awareness of the food and the reason behind choosing to eat, then it does not need to be a problem. For the person with clear appetite awareness, eating outside of physical hunger can reduce the amount of food eaten at (or delay) the next point of hunger, avoiding excess energy intake. A key point here, is the capacity to feel physical hunger as a clear sensation and to differentiate between other non-physical hunger cues. If you struggle with this, learning how to get back in tune with physical hunger and become aware of non-hungry tiggers is a vital part of developing a healthy relationship with food.
Let’s explore three differing relationships with food
The person with a complicated or troubled relationship with food
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The key points here surround –
Not eating enough (deliberate and unintentional calorie restriction)
Being “too healthy”
When comfort eating is experienced as problematic, usually the two key areas driving the eating are heightened emotions (or unmet needs, i.e. boredom) and food restriction. For many people, dealing with the food restriction first, attenuates the eating in response to emotions/unmet needs and alleviates the level of guilt or sense it is an issue.
Food restriction can take the form of physical or mental restriction of certain food, or simply not eating enough food to meet energy requirements (for example, when pursuing weight loss or following someone else’s advice on what, when and how much to eat). Physical restriction is not allowing yourself to eat food you want to eat, mental restriction is eating the food but thinking you shouldn’t be eating it, or that you need to compensate in some way. Of course people can chose not to eat a food and be perfectly comfortable with that decision, what I am referring to here, is when people are experiencing an active struggle with restriction that then leads to distress or shame when the food is eaten or over-eaten.
It is human psychology to desire more, what you can’t have; it’s a case of “deprivation drives desire” and “the forbidden fruit effect”. All of us have, at some point in our life, experienced wanting something with much greater intensity when we thought it was off limits or not readily available.
The human brain is hard wired to seek out food; eating is one of our most basic human needs, like the need to breathe and need to sleep. When energy intake is insufficient – as with most diets or plans designed to achieve weight loss – the brain releases a chemical that triggers our drive to eat, this chemical actively makes us think about food and makes food smell, look and taste more appealing. If you aren’t eating enough, and you’re not clear about your appetite cues, you might mistake your body’s actual need for food as a form of comfort eating or eating more than you should. For example, if you’re running low on food energy but you don’t actually recognise you’re hungry (probably as your appetite awareness has been blunted), the decision to eat one or two biscuits or squares of chocolate can easily turn into several more because your body actually needs the food energy.
Even if you are eating enough, thinking you shouldn’t be eating certain food can heighten your desire for this food as previously mentioned. Whichever the scenario – just needing to eat more, thinking you shouldn’t be eating something or a combination of the two – the outcome usually leads to sense of failure and the very common diet mentality: “I’ve blown it now, may as write off the rest of the day and be good tomorrow” or “I’ll just finish this packet so it’s not in the house and then never buy it again.”
One other common factor is trying to be “too healthy” – what do I mean by this?
The misguided belief that you’re better off choosing the salad over the toasted sandwich. I’ll give you an example from one of my clients, let’s call her Sue. For many years Sue was enjoying a toasted cheese sandwich for lunch, then one day her young adult son decided to go on a “health kick” and suggested his mum join him. Toasted sandwiches were out and salads were in. Sue really enjoyed the salads, they had chicken, cheese, avocado etc and were very tasty. But soon Sue found herself craving sugar in the afternoons and eating cake or a pastry most days, something she’d never done regularly in the past. When we explored this, Sue learned that her body needed some carbohydrate with lunch, something the toasted sandwich gave her but the salad didn’t. When she went back to having the sandwich, the sugar cravings disappeared. Some reading this may be thinking, “but the toasted sandwich lacks vegetables!” – well it doesn’t have to, and as it turned out, Sue often put various veggies in the sandwich, she also had always eaten a large serve with dinner and so her vegetable intake was not lacking.
The person with a fairly sound relationship with food and appetite awareness, but who has the typical diet mentality of our culture
You have no, or very little, preoccupation with food or eating, you may think of food as good or bad depending on nutritional content, and although you may sense some guilt, you don’t get overly upset with yourself around food. You can enjoy food freely without feeling terrible about yourself or your body.
At the risk of repeating everything I’ve just said about the person with the more complicated relationship with food, the exact same advice applies. The difference for these people, is they may not feel the high level of guilt/shame or anxiety around eating, be that for comfort or just because they feel like it.
The issue here, is more that the typical diet mentality of our diet culture may lead to not quite eating enough (the decision to eat less is nearly always validated in our society as “being good”), or trying to be “too healthy”, or the forbidden fruit effect, all of which can all influence the way we eat as outlined above. Learning how to recognise and reject diet mentality – a central principle of intuitive eating – may be all that is required, along with ensuring you are eating enough and to a level of satisfaction (another core principal of intuitive eating).
Without the diet mentality, you might still choose to eat when you’re not hungry – remember this is normal – but without emotion attached to the food or eating, you just enjoy the food and get on with your day. As mentioned previously, eating with awareness of the food and the reason behind choosing to eat, can delay or reduce the amount of food eaten at the next point of hunger and prevent excess energy intake.
The person with a healthy relationship with food and not (overly) influenced by diet culture
Let me use a client example again to explain, this time we’ll call them Alex. Alex has noticed she is snacking more since working from home, on one particular day during the first week at home she snacks on a variety of foods over the day, she is very aware she is not hungry much of the time, but gives herself permission to enjoy the food without any sense of doing the “wrong thing”. When dinner time comes, Alex realises she has no appetite at all and so decides not to eat, a little later that evening Alex starts to feel hungry and makes herself some toast which satisfies her.
After several days like this during her first couple of weeks working from home, Alex finds herself craving a “decent/square” meal. Several days of snack type foods and not many veggies or protein rich foods, and Alex has become tired of the crackers and dip, biscuits, muesli bars, chocolate etc and returns to her usual pattern of eating. From time to time, she still finds herself standing at the cupboard looking at the biscuits or chocolate, but she acknowledges whether or not she’s actually hungry and if hungry, prepares food she knows will be more satisfying. When she’s not hungry, but just feels like something sweet, she breaks off a few squares of chocolate or grabs a couple of sweet biscuits and sits down with a cup of tea to enjoy them.
I know there will be people reading this who find this idea of being around food almost fanciful, but this is how learning to eat intuitively can change your relationship with food. For some people, the process of intuitive eating may be straightforward and for others it will be complex and can take a long time, but with the right help, you can get there. You can be Alex!
Which ever person you feel you might be, this can be a useful first step to managing your non-hungry-comfort eating
When you find yourself at the fridge and you know you’re not hungry, you could try asking yourself these two questions – “What am I feeling now? and “What do I need now?”. Sometimes just acknowledging how you’re feeling, or that you’re just bored can be enough to close the fridge door. Other times, you might find it helpful to consider what you actually need to manage how you’re feeling, what else could you do in this moment? While this may sound fairly straightforward in theory, it can be much more challenging in practise and that’s usually because what influences our decisions to eat, or any behaviour for that matter, can be complex.
If this is something you really struggle with, and you have the means, you could seek help from a professional, such as a non-diet or anti-diet dietitian who is experienced with understanding the complexities of non-hungry/emotional eating.
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