How to know when comfort eating is becoming a problem

A lot of us have turned to food for comfort during the pandemic, and I write that as someone who sat down to write this article, then went to eat some leftovers from dinner.

We comfort eat for many reasons, says Tamara Cavenett, Adelaide-based clinical psychologist and president of the Australian Psychological Society.

"There's a fair amount of anxiety during the pandemic, and people are also worried about finances or feeling the effects of habits from lockdown," she says."In these situations, food can actually offer a short-term relief either from boredom, anxiety, or the feelings of uncertainty."

Foods we might reach for at these times — chocolate, for example — may also give us a feel-good hit. "Eating certain foods causes a spike in the production of those neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine," says Tamara."Serotonin helps to promote appetite regulation, sleep and mood, and dopamine is linked to motivation and reward. "When we're feeling negative, food can offer a bit of relief."

When comfort eating is ok

No matter what your go-to comfort food is, you might be relieved to know that comfort eating isn't necessarily a bad thing, according to Melbourne-based dietitian Heidi Sze.
"We're programmed to seek comfort in food and find that pleasurable," she says.
"Babies … they don't just feed when they're hungry, they also feed for comfort. And we continue to do that throughout life. There's nothing wrong with preparing comforting meals, whether it's after a long day, or opening a packet of a favourite food, when you're feeling a little tender or in need of some comfort."

Tamara also agrees that it's normal for people to comfort eat from time to time, plus we often use food to socialise and celebrate.

When comfort eating is a concern

There are some instances where eating for comfort might be a problem.
Both Heidi and Tamara say it's when comforting yourself with food is no longer serving you, or if food is your only coping mechanism to deal with emotions.
At that point, it can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing.
"Ideally we want people to have a range of different options available to them when they feel negative emotions," Tamara says.
"These can be things you'd normally do when you're unhappy, bored, or need a pick-me-up, and they're all really individual choices." For some people, that might mean listening to music or watching TV, or going for a walk or calling a friend. "Being mindful of what you're feeling and what you truly need in that moment can help break the routine of reaching for food," Tamara says. For others though, it might be a relief to know you don't have to solve the issue of comfort eating on your own."I would recommend reaching out for support and ideally working with a psychologist or trauma-informed mental health practitioner," says Heidi, "because there can be so many different reasons why people turn to food for comfort."

A different approach to eating

According to Heidi, intuitive eating can be a liberating framework for people who follow lots of rules when eating, diet and feel guilty about what they eat.
"The aim is to break away from diet culture and to pay attention to your body," she explains.
"It's about realising that our bodies are unique, and our needs change constantly as we go through life from season to season, as we go through ups and downs.
"It's about finding out what feels good in our bodies, and bringing a little bit more kindness to them."
That kindness can be as simple as talking to yourself as you would talk to a friend.

Intuitive eating is about knowing the nutritional value of food, having self-compassion, and not associating guilt with eating.
"For example, in winter we tend to want to eat heartier meals, and that's for warmth and it makes us feel good," says Heidi.
"We shouldn't feel bad about that."


If you or anyone you know needs help with an eating disorder:

Butterfly Foundation on 1800 33 4673
Lifeline on 13 11 14
beyondblue on 1300 224 636
MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
Headspace on 1800 650 890
QLife on 1800 184 527

Source: here By Jennifer Wong

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