Do you find yourself reaching for your favourite snack when you’re having a stressful day at work? Or, do you indulge in an extra-large portion of pasta when you feel tired and anxious? If so, you may be engaging in comfort eating, a form of emotional eating that can have both short and long term effects on your health. The effects of comfort eating are not limited to your physical health but also your mental health.
What Is Comfort Eating?
Comfort eating, also known as emotional eating or stress eating, is the act of eating in order to alleviate negative emotions, such as:
- anxiety, or
- repressed anger.
When you’re feeling stressed or anxious, eating can provide a temporary escape from these feelings.
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When Does Comfort Eating Happen?
Comfort eating typically happens when you are experiencing strong negative emotions. For example, you may find yourself eating more after work to alleviate stress from a heavy workload. Or, you may comfort eat when feeling anxious, as this gives you something to do with your hands and provides a kind of distraction from uncomfortable, nervous or anxious thoughts.
Whenever you are wanting to:
- dampen, or
emotions and feelings, you are most likely going to reach for less healthy food options.
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Short Term Effects of Comfort Eating
Comfort eating can provide a temporary boost to your emotional state, creating pleasurable and happy feelings. Reaching for your favourite food is rarely going to make you feel awful in the short term. Consuming energy-dense foods that are rich in fats, refined carbohydrates and sugars, do have a direct effect on your brain.
Sweet foods such as chocolate will make you feel more relaxed and at ease. The simple act of feeling as though you’re treating yourself increases this positive feeling around specific foods. However, it’s important to note that this temporary boost in mood is short-lived.
Stress eating can make you far less likely to reach for healthy alternatives such as fruits and vegetables, which are important for maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet. By relying on comfort eating to cope with negative emotions, you may be setting yourself up for long-term health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Long Term Effects of Comfort Eating
In the long term, comfort eating can lead to less favourable outcomes. An increase in high sugar, high salt, refined carbohydrates and high fat foods can cause obesity and problems with your cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
Even in the short term, if you are eating a lot of sugary foods when emotional eating, you may be experiencing spikes in energy and sugar crashes. This could leave you feeling sluggish and worse than before.
The more you eat these foods, the more your brain associates feeling better with your emotional eating, inextricably linking food and stress. This can lead to disordered eating if the pattern is repeated again and again.
To learn more about the underlying causes of comfort eating and how to develop healthier eating habits, check out Mindless Eating – What Causes it? which explores the psychological and environmental factors that contribute to overeating and offers practical tips for breaking the cycle of mindless eating. By understanding the root causes of your comfort eating and learning how to make more conscious food choices, you can improve your overall health and well-being.
3 Tips for Breaking Free from Comfort Eating
If you find yourself stuck in a comfort eating cycle that you want to break free from, there are some steps you can take.
Here are three (3) tips to help you manage your emotions so that you can learn to develop healthier eating habits:
Tip #1 – Identify Your Triggers
Make a list of the situations that trigger your comfort eating and the feelings or emotions that are triggered. Develop a list of at least 10 different ways to help you alternatively cope with them. It’s important that you implement a minimum of 3 of these to manage both the situation, feelings and emotions before turning to food.
For example, journalling, going for a walk, deep breathing, calling a friend.
Tip #2 – Planning Food
Plan out your meals in advance to minimise impulsively reaching for unhealthy foods. It’s well known that if you are hungry, tired or dehydrated that you are less able to manage stress and stressful situations including negative emotions. Ultimately, this will lead to comfort eating.
Make sure that you have healthy snack options on hand such as fruits, nuts, yoghurt, healthy dips or veggies.
Let’s not forget about hydration. Most people are dehydrated as they don’t drink at least 2.2 litres of pure water (including herbal tea without caffeine) each day. Know how you like to drink water so that you can grab a drink of water to boost your hydration levels.
Tip #3 – Practice Mindfulness
Managing your stress throughout the day is vital to managing triggering situations, feelings and emotions. Make sure that you take breaks throughout the day to be:
- journal, and/or
- be active.
Pay attention to your body’s hunger and fullness signals, and try to eat mindfully. Not eating enough, eating too much, eating too fast or not being hydrated adequately all place stress on your body.
By learning how to overcome comfort eating and how to better manage your stress, as well as developing healthier eating habits, you can improve your overall well-being to build a more positive relationship with food.