When chocolate is your closest friend…
With 63% of Australians overweight or obese, it is hardly surprising that a recent Australian study by Cambridge Weight Plan revealed that 80% of Australian women and 66% of Australian men are unhappy with how they manage their diet. One third of us feel stuck in a vicious cycle with food, with women (49%) being most likely to give in to temptation and ‘treat’ themselves often.
Our relationship with food is complicated, and for most of us, food is rarely just about feeding our bodies for sustenance and nutrition. Over 90% of women and 86% of men who struggle with their weight comfort eat, with the major reasons cited for comfort eating being boredom, stress, being exposed to tempting situations and lack of sleep (Cambridge Weight Plan, 2016).
In many ways, this makes sense. We are raised to believe that food is nurturing, and often use food to distract ourselves from uncomfortable feelings such as stress or boredom. Physiologically, our stress hormones tend to increase cravings to eat high fat and high sugar foods, while the consumption of these foods (and sugar in particular) reduce these hormones, which means that physically, we actually feel better. Similarly, when we are tired there is an increase in our appetite hormones and decrease in our basal metabolic rate, which not only means that we are more likely to eat more, but we are less likely to burn it off!
While comfort eating is normal however, it can become problematic if we use food as our primary coping strategy, or if we are struggling to maintain a healthy weight or diet.
Tips for Managing Comfort Eating:
The first step in managing comfort eating effectively, is understanding when you are eating for comfort, as opposed to when you are eating because you are physically hungry. These differences are captured in the table below:
|How quickly did the sensations appear?
|Builds gradually and feels as though you can wait.||Develops suddenly and feels as though it must be satisfied instantly.|
|When did I last eat?
|Generally last ate several hours ago||Unrelated to time and eating. Often related to an emotional cue (boredom, stress etc).
|What sort of food do I want?||Open to lots of options – lots of foods sound good.||Usually have a very specific food in mind – often carbohydrate or sugar based.
|Where can I feel the hunger?||Strikes below the neck – Can feel it in my stomach.
|Strikes above the neck.|
|When will I be satisfied?||Hunger stops when you are feeling full, or dissipates with time.
|Craving isn’t satisfied by a full stomach but is satisfied when the particularly food you are after is eaten, or you reduce the emotional ‘need’.
Adapted from Shrinked.com Module 10: Help I’m Hungry!
Once you understand whether you are experiencing an emotional craving, or physical hunger you can adopt the most effective strategy. For emotional cravings:
- Get support. Changing comfort eating is challenging so look for programs that provide you with structure and lots of support.
- If possible, look to reduce some of your food related decisions each day. Research suggests that we make on average 221 food related decisions each day and that approximately 200 of these are made unconsciously (out of our habits). Having a period of time where you remove some food related decisions through nutritionally complete meal replacements (such as Cambridge Weight Plan), or food delivery services, can give you the opportunity to develop alternative strategies to managing stress, fatigue and boredom, without the pressure of making food choices at the same time.
- Identify your high risk situations – i.e. when you are more likely to comfort eat. Then develop an alternative plan. If you primarily eat out of boredom, identify some alternative activities that will keep you engaged and that are easy to do, such as colouring in, reading, researching, exercising, starting a new hobby, talking with friends etc.
- Boredom and loneliness are key drivers in emotional eating. With the range of on-line options for building social networks, look for opportunities to join groups, which share similar interests to you and can inspire you. The more you can stay connected to others, the less you will feel like comfort eating.
- Sleep – fatigue is one of the primary reasons for comfort eating, and we know that when we don’t sleep enough our production of appetite hormones increases. If you have sleeping difficulties, there are lots of sleep hygiene tips available online. If however, you seem to sleep ok, but are constantly tired see your GP, particularly if you struggle with your weight (sleep appnoea is becoming increasingly common and is often associated with being overweight. It is a serious condition and is treatable).
- Get moving. Research shows that small bouts of exercise reduce stress, improve our sleep, and reduce our appetite (particularly if they are of moderate intensity). The more you move, the less your drivers to comfort eating (i.e. boredom and stress) and the lower your appetite.
- Eat mindfully. When you eat, eat slowly, and focus all of your attention and energy on the food that you are eating. This will give your body the opportunity to recognize that you are eating (and getting full), increase your enjoyment of food AND mean that you are significantly less likely to over-eat.
- Engage in Mindful practice and mindful breathing techniques. Mindfulness is about being focused on the here and now. Not worrying about tomorrow or yesterday, but actually experiencing the present moment. Research shows that people who engage in regular mindful practice (5-6 mins/ day) are happier, less stressed, perform better at work, AND are significantly less likely to comfort eat. There are lots of mindfulness based apps available to assist you (Headspace; Smiling Mind) and online mindfulness based programs (Shrinked.com).
- Look up, put your shoulders back and smile. Research shows that our body language often mirrors our emotional state. When we feel low or powerless we curl in on ourselves, and our body language becomes smaller (known as a low power position). When we are feeling strong and energized on the other hand, we open our chests, look up, smile more and generally make our body positioning larger (high power positions). Research by Amy Cuddy shows that adopting high power poses for two minutes significantly reduces our stress hormones, and increases our testosterone production. Both of these hormones are key in comfort eating and emotional cravings. So look up and smile – especially when you don’t feel like it!
- Remember – If you have an episode of comfort eating, don’t beat yourself up. It’s normal to comfort eat sometimes and its normal to slip up when you are trying to lose weight. Research shows that beating yourself up just increases the likelihood of more comfort eating – so accept that you are human, you slipped up, and get back on track!