Recent research by Cambridge Weight Plan shows that the majority of Australians comfort eat. In fact, over 90% of Australian women and 86% of Australian men engage in comfort eating.
This is because our relationship with food is complicated and for most of us, food is rarely just about feeding our bodies for sustenance and nutrition. Food means so many different things to so many of us. We use food to celebrate, commiserate, tell someone that we love them, nurture and care about others (and ourselves), for socializing and the list goes on and on.
In terms of comfort eating, 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 and the consumption of these foods (and sugar in particular) reduces these hormones, which means that physically, we actually feel better.
While comfort eating is normal, 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. The same study by Cambridge Weight Plan showed that 80% of Australian women and 66% of Australian men are unhappy with how they manage their diet, which suggests that we need to develop some alternatives to comfort eating.
Top Tips for Managing Comfort Eating:
- Talk about your concerns with your GP or health practitioner.
- If you are wanting to lose weight or change your relationship with food get support – look for a structured program that gives you lots of support.
- 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. A study of young women dieters from the US showed that those women who slip up and beat themselves up, eat more than double the amount of sugar in the days after their slip up, when compared to those who slip up, accept that they have slipped up and allow themselves to move on.
- 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). Furthermore, if you are trying to lose weight, research also suggests that our thinking about food actually increases throughout each day. 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 a break and the space necessary to develop alternative strategies to managing stress, fatigue and boredom, without the pressure of making food choices at the same time.
- Develop non-food related plans for managing challenging periods such as boredom or stress and for rewards. Create a list of activities that are easy to do and which make you feel good.
- Make sure you get enough sleep. Research suggests that when we don’t sleep enough, or we don’t sleep well enough, our appetite hormones increase and our ability to manage difficult emotions decreases. This can set us up for comfort eating. If you have difficulties sleeping www.shrinked.com has a free e-book for download on the Foundations of Weight Management, which includes lots of sleep hygiene tips.
- Exercise. Exercise has a range of benefits. It reduces our stress, improves our sleep, increases our levels of ‘feel good’ hormones, improves our willpower and reduces appetite. Importantly however, we don’t have to become gym junkies or marathon runners to enjoy the benefits of exercise. Short bursts of up to ten minutes will do and any exercise that elevates your heart rate will be effective.
- Learn to identify your stress markers. Everyone responds differently to stress, and it is important that you know the early warning signs that you are starting to get affected by stress. The quicker you can detect that you are being affected by stress, the sooner you can do something about it and minimize the impact that it is having on your body.
- When you start to feel your stress levels rising: use a controlled breathing technique to slow down the physiological response to stress; then create a plan (creating a plan releases feel good hormones); and then wait ten minutes before taking action (a ten minute pause is usually enough to break habitual responses such as comfort eating). One such breathing technique is a 5 x 5 x 5 x 5:
- Breathe in for a count of five
- Hold for 5
- Breathe out for a count of 5
- Hold for 5
- Laugh – often. Studies show that on average children laugh 200 times/day while adults laugh only 15. Laughter improves our immune system, heart health, ability to deal with negative emotions, lowers our stress hormones, decreases pain, improves our mood, adds to our joy, enhances our resilience and makes us more attractive to others!