Comfort eaters generally receive little sympathy. While most people understand anorexia or bulimia, the comfort eater merely seems greedy. In fact, comfort eating is a serious problem – for some a fatal one.
The Nature of Comfort Eating
What used to be called “comfort eating” is more commonly referred to today as “emotional,” or “stress” eating. Whatever words you prefer, it amounts to the same thing: using food to make yourself feel better. Obviously, we have evolved to seek out food. We feel empty, our stomach bubbles and aches, and so we eat to rid ourselves of that sensation. The comfort eater, however, seeks to rid himself of unpleasant emotions. Food becomes a substitute for tranquilizers or anti-depressants. Some are fully aware of this, by the way, deciding that “it’s either this or tablets.”
Unfortunately, comfort eating doesn’t work, certainly not in the long term. Not only is it bad for your body, it worsens your emotional state. As people eat their burger or potato chips, they feel good, but once that high passes their mood tends to crash.
First, comfort eating needs to be distinguished from a mere love of food. Plenty of people describe themselves as “foodies,” or joke that if they had to give up sex or chocolate they’d give up sex. Even people who eat until they are sick are not necessarily comfort eaters. If you are unsure whether you qualify, consider the following. Do you feel satisfied after your burger and fries? Or do you feel empty and flat – maybe even disgusted? Comfort eaters often find little pleasure in food, and yet they eat mindlessly, continuing beyond the point at which they are full.
Comfort eaters also crave certain foods more than others. An ordinary food-lover has his favorites, of course, but when hungry will eat almost anything and feel better for it. The comfort eater, on the other hand, wants something warm, sugary or fatty. Fruit, salads, wholemeal bread, etc., don’t provide what they need. Their hunger also comes on suddenly. Ordinary physical hunger builds slowly.
It isn’t a question of a normal majority and an abnormal minority, by the way. Most people comfort eat at some point. And everyone recognizes the Bridget Jones figure, consoling herself with tubs of ice cream after a break up. The true comfort eater does this all the time. Some people smoke, drink alcohol or explode in rage; the comfort eater uses food.
Perhaps the number one sign is eating even when you are not hungry. The comfort eater does not eat to escape hunger but to escape painful feelings. As the phrase suggests, food is a comfort. The supermarket or fast food outlet is like a toy shop to a child – a friendly, warm, safe place. If you suspect you may be a comfort eater, consider how you feel in the presence of food. Do you feel powerless? Do you feel as if food controls you rather than the other way around?
Reasons People Comfort Eat
People comfort eat for all sorts of reasons, and no list could ever be definitive. Many simply have no idea that that is what they are doing. Boredom often plays a part as well. Just as the unemployed are more likely to develop alcohol problems, so bored people are more likely to comfort eat. It becomes a habit, something they do while watching TV or surfing the net. Indeed, for many, food and TV form a deadly combination that numbs their boredom. There they sit, watching shows they don’t particularly like, eating food they aren’t enjoying, because the alternative is a silent, empty room.
Self-loathing is also very common, especially loathing of one’s body. Rationally, of course, that makes no sense. Surely if you loathed your belly or flabby arms you would eat less. And yet considered more deeply, it does make perverse sense. After all, when you hate something you want to hurt or punish it. Since they believe their body is repellent, it doesn’t matter if they poison it with sugar and fat – only the beautiful matter. Most know that binge eating makes them fatter, or inflames their acne, but the shame and self-hatred are so intense they must escape somehow.
Many simply want the pleasant feeling. When challenged, they reply “it’s my only pleasure,” adding that they don’t drink, gamble or take drugs. Without their pizza and chocolate what would be the point of living? After all, their job is boring and they have no partner. The thought of that tub of ice cream gets them through the day.
And the pleasure they experience really is comparable to a drug high. Human beings evolved to seek out fatty, sugary food. To our hunter-gatherer ancestors these were rare treats; today they are available in every gas station and corner store. And because we evolved to seek them out, nature rewards us when we succeed: sugar and fat release opioids in the brain (the active ingredient found in heroin).
For many, food becomes an escape from unpleasant feelings. The individual is sad, bereaved, frightened, lonely, etc., and so turns to food as a way out. We grow up believing that negative emotions are somehow unnatural and that we ought to avoid them. Of course, chronic depression, or bereavement that lasts years, really do need to be tackled. But sadness, regret, moments of loneliness, etc., are natural. Without them we would not appreciate the good times. People expect too much of life, believing that they have a right to happiness, and that anything less is a failure. Others feel cheated. If they cannot find happiness in their career or relationships, they look for it in the nearest Chinese takeout.
Dealing With Your Disorder
First, pay attention not just to what you eat but how you eat. Be conscious or “mindful” of everything you put in your mouth. And eat it slowly, aware of, and grateful for, every mouthful. There is nothing wrong with enjoying your food, but you will enjoy it more if you eat it in this way. You will also be less inclined to make a glutton of yourself. Many comfort eaters don’t actually enjoy their food as much as they claim, possibly because they eat in this mindless, mechanical way.
It is also important to know your triggers. Obviously these vary from person to person, but certain ones appear again and again. Rejection, for example, can trigger binges, and rejection need not be explicit. It need not mean your boss yelling that you are incompetent, or someone laughing when you ask them on a date. Sensitive people, who struggle with self-esteem, see rejection everywhere: a sigh, a roll of the eyes, a fleeting expression of boredom, even a friend cancelling a shopping trip, nothing goes unnoticed. Many look to food for the comfort they do not get from people. Food never lets them down or turns them away. There it is, warm, comforting and embracing. Indeed, for many their favorite pizza outlet, with its delicious smells and bright lights, is like an old friend.
Closely related is simple loneliness. Be wary of the times when you feel most lonely. For some that may be a Saturday night, for others a Sunday morning. Many feel especially lonely at weddings or birthdays, others on the anniversary of a loved one’s death. Social media should also be treated with caution. You would not be the first person to go on Facebook, look at photographs of friends on vacation with their partner and children, and then head to the refrigerator to cheer yourself up.
Many people find boredom triggers them. If you eat in a mindless way, working through bags of potato chips without even enjoying them, boredom may be the problem. Could you try a new hobby? Maybe you could revive an old one. Ideally, try something creative, or something that involves learning a new skill. How about learning the guitar? Or studying French?
Then there is that great curse of modern life, stress. Eating sugary or fatty food, especially when it is hot, literally soothes and calms the body. This is also true for those who fear something, like an upcoming job interview or a dinner party with the in-laws.
If you tend to binge eat at such times, be wary in advance. And learn to deal with unpleasant emotions in a healthier way. You can start by recognising that such emotions are normal. It is perfectly natural to feel lonely, frightened, bored or unloved. Do not fall into the trap of believing that everyone else is calm, happy and fulfilled. We all make this mistake, and social media, with its highlight reel of smiling friends and sun-kissed vacations, reinforces the myth.
As for how to deal with stress, try meditation, yoga and deep breathing (ideally in combination). With practise, you slip into a meditative state any time life overwhelms you. A good teacher will show you how to monitor your thoughts and detach yourself from them, observing them as you would observe a ranting or distressed child. If you cannot afford lessons, a book like Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now would be a good start.
Comfort eating is perfectly understandable. After all, modern life is stressful, exhausting and often scary. But there are healthier escapes.