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How to stop comfort eating

Do you find yourself reaching for snacks when you’re feeling anxious, stressed or bored? If your answer is yes, you may be an emotional eater - but you’re not the only one. Whether you’re looking to lose weight or better manage your emotions, we’ll share some healthier ways you can control your emotions so that they don’t continue to trigger bad eating habits. 

What is comfort eating?

Comfort eating (otherwise known as emotional eating) is when a person eats food in order to suppress any negative feelings (such as stress, anger or sadness). Whilst eating may temporarily make you feel better, comfort eating is known to lead to more negative emotions such as guilt over these eating habits. This can then cause a person to be in a cycle of eating too much to “manage their feelings”, feeling guilt or shame after overeating and continuing to experience negative emotions.

If you’re wondering whether you’re an emotional eater, you can look out for the following signs:

  • You eat more when you’re feeling bored, stressed, sad or angry
  • You eat when you’re not even hungry or when you’re full
  • You often eat until you feel you can’t eat anymore
  • You reward yourself with food
  • You eat alone or secretly
  • You feel comforted by eating food
  • You feel guilty, upset or depressed after binge eating

If you can identify with the above, it is likely that you may struggle with comfort eating. The good news is that you’ve identified this and can now take action as well as receive the support you need to better deal with your emotions. 

Why do we comfort eat?

Many of us connect feelings to the food we eat - this is why it’s important for us to be mindful of the types of foods we’re eating. As mentioned earlier, we may comfort eat to suppress our emotions rather than eat due to physical hunger. We will usually crave processed foods such as cake, crisps, chocolate and biscuits when feeding our emotions rather than our stomach as these types of sugary/fatty foods actually target the pleasure receptors in our brain far quicker than other healthier snacks. Below is a table highlighting the differences between emotional and physical hunger to help you identify whether you really need to eat.

Emotional hunger vs physical hunger

 

Emotional hunger

Physical hunger

You want to continue eating despite having a full stomach

You’re no longer hungry when you’re full

You feel negative feelings such as guilt and shame after eating

You don’t usually feel negative feelings when you feed a physical hunger

You feel hungry suddenly

You feel hungry gradually

You often eat mindlessly, not paying attention to how much you’re eating or its taste

You’re aware of what you’re eating 

You don’t feel physically hungry but food is on your mind

You’ll feel hungry and may notice your stomach growling

You crave particular foods (this is usually sugary foods or ‘junk food’ such as pizza)

You fancy eating different types of foods

 

Whilst we’re all likely to engage in emotional eating at some point in our lives, it becomes a problem when it becomes a habit and we find ourselves stuck in the emotional eating cycle. Not only will overeating lead to weight gain and other health issues, it can also have a major impact on our mental wellbeing.

 

Interestingly, research has indicated gender differences when it comes to dealing with stress and other negative emotions, with women being more likely to comfort eat than men. Whilst women may turn to food, men were more likely to drink alcohol or smoke to manage their feelings (Harvard Health). 

Our tips on how to stop comfort eating 

1. Identify emotional eating triggers

The first thing you can do is try to identify what it is that makes you want to comfort eat. There are many different emotional triggers which you may experience, including feelings of sadness, stress, anxiety or boredom. Perhaps eating at certain times of the day despite not being hungry has become a habit (i.e.stress at work may lead you to continuously snack at your desk). Once you’re aware of your behaviour, you can look to better manage your emotions, handling them with actions that have a positive effect on your emotions such as exercise or deep breathing.

2. Be more active

Exercise is an effective stress-buster and a healthy distraction when you’re feeling the urge to comfort eat. If you’re experiencing negative emotions, avoid reaching for the snack drawer and take a short walk instead. Even just a small amount of exercise can trigger the release of endorphins (our body’s feel-good hormones) which will naturally reduce feelings of stress.The NHS advises that adults should exercise every day and engage in at least 150 minutes of moderately intense activities each week. You can find out more about the benefits of exercise on mental health in our blog.

Why not get involved in the #YourMove campaign to get you and your family more active? Get inspired to be more active here - it’s your move. 

3.Find new ways to relax

Feasting on your favourite foods may make you feel better in the short-term but it’s not a sustainable way to manage your feelings. There are many other methods to keep your emotions in order out there for you to try, such as:

  • Practising meditation to refocus your mind
  • Practising yoga to relieve tension in your body and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety
  • Learning deep breathing techniques that tells your nervous system to calm down
  • Exercising - even just a gentle stroll outside and getting fresh air can really help you to clear your mind

4. Snack on healthier foods

If you feel the need to munch away on something and can’t fight the urge, try to opt for a healthy snack - here are a few ideas of healthier food alternatives:

  • Apples and peanut butter
  • Greek yoghurt and berries
  • Slices of cucumber or carrot with hummus
  • Roasted chickpeas
  • Low calorie versions of foods you usually eat to manage your cravings.

5. Avoiding stocking up on sugary or fatty treats

If it’s in the house, you’re more likely to eat it. Try to remove temptation from your home so that you don’t have unhealthy snacks to turn to when you’re next craving them. Once you’ve cleared your kitchen, you can ensure that no unhealthy foods make it to the till on your weekly shop and you can shop for healthier foods. Top tip: never shop on an empty stomach and avoid going to the supermarket when you’re not feeling emotionally stable. If you shop whilst hungry or stressed, you’ll be more likely to purchase unnecessary snacks.

6. Keep a food diary 

Having a food diary to log your feelings and keep track of what you’re eating each day will help you to identify any eating patterns. You’ll also be able to reflect on your relationship with food and any changes you’ve noticed since eating less. 

7. Challenge yourself when you want to eat

Everytime you find yourself craving food, ask yourself whether it’s because you’re genuinely hungry or if it’s to deal with your emotions. If you ate recently and your stomach isn’t rumbling, you probably don’t need to eat and should try your best to avoid eating until the urge passes.

8. Don’t be too hard on yourself

Changing a habit isn’t easy, especially if you’ve been used to doing it for a long time, so you may experience days where you do comfort eat. If this happens, remember not to be too hard on yourself. Instead, forgive yourself and treat the next day as a fresh start. Don’t forget to add what you ate and the emotions you felt before and after in your food diary so you can learn from this experience.

9. Get support

Changing your eating habits can be challenging, especially when there’s an underlying cause for your behaviour. This is why you should get support from family, friends and healthcare professionals (such as the coaches and advisors here at LiveWell Dorset) who will be able to keep you on track. There are also support groups you can join and connect with others who are looking to change their relationship with food. 

Final thoughts

It’s important to regain control of your emotions and avoid eating when you’re not physically hungry or need to for both your mental and physical health. By being more active, combating stress with healthy relaxation techniques and getting the support you need, you can lose weight and feel better within yourself.

If you’re worried about your emotional eating and live in Dorset, we’re here to help. Simply  register for our services or get in touch if you'd like to find out more.

Don’t forget to get involved in the #YourMove campaign and join others in being more active!

Ivan

I drank too much alcohol and had unhealthy eating habits. Pastry is such a bad thing, it's all those pies, pasties and sausage rolls!

View full story

How does this work?

The tailored approach LiveWell Dorset uses to come up with solutions to the things that are stopping us achieving our goals, is based upon work done by University College London developing the COM-B model of behaviour change. In this model, all behaviour is influenced by understanding a person’s capability to change, their opportunity to change and their motivation to change. By understanding which of these is the biggest barrier to change, we can tailor support accordingly. This model of behaviour change is at the centre of the support we offer, online and in person.

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