Anyone else been comfort eating recently? I noticed that what I normally class as self-care and the occasional reward, started to morph in to self-indulgence. Otherwise known as comfort eating.
There are SO MANY apps, guides, experts out there who tell us WHAT we should eat . Not many however have answers on how to stop the addictive patterns of emotional eating.
Comfort eating is a roller-coaster and the no. 1 challenge that women face when it comes to achieving long lasting results with weight loss. You spend all that time working out during the week, only to go and ruin it with a binge at the weekend. Human beings are more likely to avoid short term pain and gain long term pleasure (eat the cookie), than put ourselves through temporary short term pain but give us long term pleasure (eat a boring salad instead now, but achieve killer abs).
I became fascinated with this topic 6 years ago, when as a new mum, I was indulging daily in comfort eating. Emotional eating has been a ‘thing’ for me since I was pregnant with our first child. Sadly, I’ve spent the majority of my life watching what I eat. Even as a teenager (when I would read manuals about nutrition and exercise instead of revising for my Geography exam!)
When I was younger the interest in food, nutrition, exercise and skincare was purely to be ‘thinner and more attractive’. Unfortunately I was your typical self critical teenager who compared herself to everyone around her – including the models in Cosmopolitan. Luckily I grew out of that phase. Nutrition, exercise and skincare just became part of who I was in my late 20s and early 30s. Health was super important to me, yes because I wanted to look my best, but more because I wanted to feel it.
So after a lifetime of not indulging in whatever I felt like, I got pregnant and saw it as a free pass to eat whatever I wanted. However after baby arrived, the bad habits remained. As a tired new mum, I found that the only small part of my day as a stay at home parent that was ‘about me’ was when she was having a nap and I would enjoy a cup of tea, and a biscuit (or 5). Eating had become a reward for a job well done, and a moment of connection with myself during a tiring day.
Food soon turned from what had always been fuel or an occasional indulgence; to a ‘daily reward’; even though I hated myself for doing it every single day.
Breaking the Pattern
It took me 3 years of struggling to get out of those learned bad habits (as I had another baby 22 months after the first one) to develop the more positive patterns of eating to nourish my body again. In 2020 I had found myself starting to indulge in bad habits again, but convincing myself and trying to justify that they were ‘rewards’ and ‘comfort’ because of how rubbish things had been.
This is called MAKING EXCUSES in order to justify something I know will bring me pain in the long term, in order to make it ‘ok’ in the short term. When this starts to become a daily occurance, it turns from an excuse in to a BAD HABIT. And after a couple of weeks, it turns from a bad habit in to an ADDICTION.
We all need treats and indulgences here and there, but when you are scoffing the kit kats every day and telling yourself that this is your little daily moment of pleasure (and then hating yourself afterwards) is not a great cycle to be in – physically or mentally. The self loathing starts here.
Want to know how you know whether something is self care or self indulgence? Self care ALWAYS feels good – short term and long term. You don’t regret it. Self indulgence feels a tad out of your ‘control’ and often afterwards you feel like it wasn’t worth it, or worst still, you hate yourself a bit for it.
Why We Comfort Eat: “I have no will power”
Have you ever wondered why you resort to comfort eating or emotional eating in times of stress, boredom, depression or low energy? Well I wondered this, and so I started to research the topic in order to come up with some solutions that could really help me, instead of just saying every Sunday ‘ this week I will be good’. Also worth reading my blog I’ll Start on Monday if you’re a classic ‘I’ll start again tomorrow’ type gal.
It’s all to do with ASSOCIATIONS you attach to the food / drink in question, and WILL POWER. You knew that already right?
But here’s something you may not know. Will power is like the engine of a car. If you don’t top up your will power regularly, and find yourself running on empty, that’s when it becomes impossible for you to keep travelling forward towards your destination. Will power, like any fuel, runs out eventually if not topped up.
Somehow we’ve all been hoodwinked into thinking that will power is this endless source of strength that the successful people out there have in bucket loads, whilst us lesser mortals struggle to even locate our source of this infinite power. “I have no will power.”
When I told my husband that I had researched it, and will power runs out unless you replenish it he laughed! I mean, it’s the world’s perfect excuse to have the extra slice of jam sponge right? Oh my will power ran out – sorry. No resistance left. Pass the cream.
The truth is though, as has been proved in a number of experiments, will power is like any muscle. You have to work at will power to pump it up, and to build it. You need to feed it well to maintain results by doing things you DON’T want to do (like exercise when you are tired) but do it anyway.
Like any muscle, the will power muscle has finite energy and can become tired, fatigued and therefore weakened when it is under stress. This is when you give in to temptation that at other periods in your life, you’ve managed to resist.
Hence in Lockdowns, why we’ve all resorted back to comfort eating, when we’ve managed to maintain more positive habits for long periods of time before.
Will Power itself, needs to be Nurtured and Cared For.
That’s right. Will power is finite. It runs out. And it can run out by doing things completely unrelated to the goal you have set yourself.
For example, you have promised yourself you are going to drop a dress size by Christmas. You will work out at 6am 5 days a week, and eat clean for the next 2 months. Sounds simple. You just need to do it. Like the thousands of other examples of weight loss success stories before you.
So you get up and do the work out (this uses will power), but also gives booster points back to your will power. Then you get your kids up and make them breakfast. They are fighting. You are trying to keep calm (this uses up more will power). You forgot to iron your shirt last night, so you need to find the will power to get the iron out and get this done, or think of a Plan B outfit. You miss your train. You now need to think of another way to get to work on time (more will power used). See where I am going with this?
You rush out the house without lunch, but are proud of yourself for buying a salad on the way to work instead of grabbing a bacon butty (which smelt SO good – more will power used). By the time you get home that day, you’re tired after a stressful day in work, and hungry too.
Instead of the brisk walk and healthy tea you had planned on enjoying, you pop your pyjamas on, eat cheese on toast whilst watching ‘I’m a Celebrity’ on the TV. After the day you have had, you justify that ‘deserve’ it. But then later on you feel bloated and guilty. Tomorrow morning you feel worse when you put ‘those’ jeans on and can barely zip them up. Must try harder tomorrow. More will power needed. But today, I’m frustrated and annoyed with myself and instead say ‘oh what’s the point in anything, I feel fat. Pass the kitkats.’
Compare that with the person who has the same day, but eats that salad, comes home, goes for a walk despite feeling shattered (even though they had a workout planned which they don’t feel like, they still make sure they move), then she nourishes her body with a healthy, balanced dinner and hits the sack feeling proud, satisfied and accomplished.
Who will need more will power the next day, and who will be on a positive roll for the rest of the week?
Will power is like a snowball. Make just ONE good, but meaningful and powerful decision to either avoid temptation and choose a better substitute OR move when you don’t feel like moving; and be amazed by just how much power and momentum that gives you.
Self Care and Rewards are Essential
Going against the plan you made (that you made with the goal of working towards a better version of you) because you are tired, and indulging in bad habits is a very different feeling that planning a beautiful meal to enjoy with your partner / friend. The latter is something that you look forward to and enjoy every delicious mouthful. This is called LIVING, and here at The Best Self Project. we highly recommend it. It’s empowering. There’s definitely much to be said for planning treat meals in to diary to look forward to. A great strategy during all these restrictions as well, when we have very little fun in our lives compared to normal.
Comfort eating on the other hand feels very different. It makes you feel powerLESS to change you life. It makes you feel like you have to ‘start again’ because you’ve ‘ruined’ your idea of what absolutely has to be adhered to in order to make you happy. So before you ‘start again’ you might as well enjoy yourself for the rest of the week and eat what you want because it’s all ‘ruined’ anyway.
I therefore always recommend when you are embarking on improving an element of your life, where you know it will require will power to change something, to plan regular, deserved rewards and treats if you meet mini goals in between.
NOTE TO SELF: This is the problem with extreme diets, detoxes and doing anything that feels like a lot of effort, when deep inside you really can’t wait for it to be over. It’s the first thing to get ditched when you’ve had a bad day.
What is it you are really Looking For?
In addition to will power, in order to be consistent with your efforts to lose weight or maintain health, you also need to know WHY YOU COMFORT EAT.
I think we are all self aware enough to know that it’s not because we’re actually hungry, so advice like ‘ask yourself are you really hungry before having it’ isn’t very helpful. Because the devil on your shoulder says ‘nom nom yes I’m hungry, hand me the chips and dips’.
Notice you don’t really comfort eat when you’re having a fantastically productive day at work? Or you’re learning a new skill? When you’ve been consistently exercising and feeling amazing every day? Perhaps when you dress in your favourite outfit? It’s because you don’t NEED anything else to feel good. You feel amazing internally.
But when we feel empty or not entirely whole internally, we seek external gratification.
So you have to understand what FEELING It is you are searching for when you eat. Because that’s why we comfort eat. We eat to give ourselves a better instantaneous feeling.
For example if you eat when you are bored, you are perhaps craving feelings of EXCITEMENT, INTEREST, PASSION in your life. Perhaps you are frustrated because your life feels dull, so you eat to give yourself some variation in how you feel.
If you eat when you are low, sad or depressed, you aren’t eating to feel happy. You are possibly searching for more CONNECTION in your life. Whether that be with nature, with your own inner spirit and authentic self, or perhaps with your kids / partner / friends / community. People need different levels of connection in their life.
If you eat when you feel tired, you are perhaps craving more VITALITY and feelings of ENERGY in your life.
If you eat when you are happy and relaxed, that isn’t necessarily an issue unless you’re doing it to enhance a feeling of RELEASE or create a feeling of having something to CELEBRATE so you can justify indulging on something. Often a common one with booze!
It is these associations with the feelings that food / drink momentarily give us that we are cravings. Not the actual food. Figure out what you are really craving, and that’s half the battle.
Now to address the habit itself….
Figure Out Your Triggers
Usually any bad habit can be broken down to a series of actions, circumstances or behaviours that happen in the lead up to the actual comfort eating.
For example, when I ask someone ‘when do you mainly comfort eat?’ then can usually narrow down the time of day, the place and the food. This may seem like nothing, but it’s actually a really important part of breaking the pattern of behaviour.
- What do you like to eat? (in times when you then feel frustrated afterwards?)
- When are you eating it, how does it feel? What emotions or feelings does it give you? For example someone described eating chocolate like a ‘hug’.
- When do you eat it? Is there any particular time when you eat this food? e.g. after lunch / watching a certain program / evening
- Why is it at that certain time of day, you are looking to gain that feeling? What might be missing in your life?
- How can you, for the next 30 days, avoid putting yourself in this position?
So I will provide a couple of examples.
One of my clients once said that she was eating chocolate bars in the afternoon when she was at home, alone. She was focused and strong in the morning after starting her day with a workout. Then she would work from home and after a good morning of productivity she would have her lunch and watch her favourite lunchtime program, and be able to think about nothing else but the chocolate bar in the fridge. The only way to get rid of that thought was to eat it!
So we worked together on that. We identified all the triggers. When she worked at the office, she didn’t comfort eat. She didn’t even really give in to temptation that much when there were cakes, biscuits, sweets etc being brought in every day. There was something about being at home that made her comfort eat and indulge.
We talked a bit and it came out that at home, she just didn’t feel as engaged as she did at work. Not quite as ‘switched on’. When I dug deeper with her, we realised this was because she was feeling quite out of touch with her colleagues. She normally got fired up and switched on when she was around the energy of other people. Home was associated with ‘switching off’. Not helpful for work or weight loss.
I suggested that it could be that home = comfort. Even if you are working in it! So perhaps she could look at hot desking somewhere out of the house. She would still be in isolation but just the change in environment alone might help.
However these days working outside of the home has become more challenging for many. Hopefully this will improve in 2021. However if you have no choice but to be at home all day, try setting up a dedicated home office and then getting up, and DRESSING differently. Sounds weird I know. But having worked with women and their wardrobes for over 10 years, I know the power of an outfit. Instead of slobbing about in your PJS, put on your skinny jeans, a shirt and even your shoes. Dress for work. Be at work. Act like you are at work. When I work from home I even wear shoes in the house so I don’t feel too comfy. The aim is to NOT feel comfortable.
Then I suggested to my client, if she knows that the chocolate cravings come in the afternoon when she has her lunch in front of the TV, then she’s now not to watch TV whilst having her lunch. However with any bad habit, you can’t just stop it and hope for the best. You need a plan of what you will substitute instead, that will make you feel good in a way that you won’t want to indulge in the thing you are avoiding.
Instead I asked her to try eating at her desk whilst doing work, or go in to the kitchen and read a Health and Fitness magazine – something that required her focus that she could get lost in. She wasn’t to do anything that felt too comfortable or relaxing when eating whilst she was trying to break the habit. Then straight after she has finished her lunch, without a second thought – take the dog for a walk.
The idea is literally just to break the habits that led up to the chocolate eating during this first phase. Normally I would promote more mindful eating, but when you have such a strong pattern of behaviour you have to replace it and interrupt it.
After just one week, not only had she not given in to the chocolate after lunch, but she had found at the weekends, she wasn’t drinking as much either. Instead she was going out for more walks, and being more productive in her work. She was dressing better, making more of an effort with her appearance and this was making her care far more about what she put in her body. She found she was feeling more confident in her ability and had gone from feeling a bit flat, bored and demotivated at work to really feeling like she was adding value in her role. It had not gone unnoticed by her boss, who said she had seen a real spark in her performance, and asked her to take on an additional project.
It’s crazy how the breaking of one small bad habit, can lead to so many wonderful things. The key is having and using a strategy that works!! This is usually what people lack and instead try to rely on will power alone.
Steps to Break the Pattern of Comfort Eating.
- Identify your trigger points for comfort eating.
For example, mine, much like my clients, is working from home during the week. So I avoid doing this like the plague! There are also certain programs on TV on an evening that when I sit down to enjoy they feel like ‘comfort’ and this makes me want to enhance that feeling with a creamy hot chocolate or some ice cream. If you can identify your moments of weakness, you have better chance of avoiding them, and controlling your behaviour when they happen.
Do you reward yourself for a week well done on a Friday night with a bottle of wine and a pizza?
Or is food what you turn to when you need comfort and connection with yourself after the world has beat you up a little?
Understanding what drives and motivates you, and what zaps your energy is FUNDAMENTAL to achieving results in any area life – especially weight loss. So figure out your comfort eating patterns, and what activities / people zap your will power levels. Then find ways to avoid them until you work your will power muscle up a bit more.
2. Avoid those situations when you know you often cave.
3. Dress like the person you want to be TODAY, instead of waiting until tomorrow
Don’t underestimate the power in presenting yourself and seeing yourself daily, in your best light. It motivates you to start acting like your best self too.
4. Figure out what is missing (and plug that gap)
We all know we are not eating because we are hungry, but often people don’t know the reason why they are eating. What is the feeling you want? More comfort and relaxation? Connection? With who / what? What could give you that same feeling without the guilt?
For example I love being in nature. It makes me feel full. When I’ve been for a long walk in nature, I rarely want to comfort eat rubbish.
5. Learn to enjoy the process.
This is the hardest thing for people. Finding ways to enjoy things that initially feel hard – like exercise or eating more healthy.
This is where you have to really look at yourself and get to know who you are, what you like, what you hate, and why you usually don’t stick to something.
So for example, for me, I enjoy HIIT exercise so much when I’m around others and there’s good music to workout to. If I’m on my own trying to do a HITT in silence, it’s pure hell, and I just don’t do it. I find working out in my lounge horrible if it’s after 7am, however if I get up early at 5.30am I don’t have a problem. When I run, I like to listen to music and be alone. Company on a run just ruins it for me.
Friday night is the big crux for me – If I pick the kids up on Friday, I then come home and get in to ‘weekend mode’, open a bottle of wine, and by the time my husband gets home I’m already choosing what takeaway I want. The week’s will power has been used up. However we have found a workaround for this – my husband picks up the kids every Friday whilst I finish off my work at the office, and he cooks something healthy and delicious for tea, ready for us to eat as a family when I get in. I then wake on Saturday with more energy for a run to clear my head, and the good vibes continue.
I have managed to change the routine, break the bad habit and create an occasion that I look forward to that gives me connection with my family.
6. Plan regular, deserved rewards and treats if you meet mini goals in between.
Human beings needs pleasure. It’s really that simple. So plan for it. Plan for what you REALLY want and what you will really enjoy. Then spend your week looking forward to it
7. Find Inspiration for Your Vision
Have you ever noticed you are less likely to binge on a full pepperoni pizza whilst watching Love Island or Biggest Loser? There’s something that feels very wrong about being in the presence of people who have achieved what you want, or working towards it, and doing something that you know is taking you further away from that very same goal.
So spend your time looking for inspiration. I like Pinterest Boards and Instagram. I like beautiful arty pictures of healthy food, saving workout ideas, getting outfit inspiration and looking at bodies that inspire me because you can see the dedication that has gone in to creating them.
You have to create ways to get excited about what you are creating and why you are doing it. Your vision has to something, that is so compelling, that even on your worst days, you still value the feeling of working towards that vision more than anything else.
Changing Your Emotional Eating Patterns For Good.
If you are getting frustrated of the constant set backs in your progress because of annoying emotional eating patterns you can’t seem to shake, message me through Facebook or Instagram, email email@example.com or text 07787 821124 to organise your free 30 minute discovery call.
If you want to read more about this topic, try reading The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change, Charles Duhigg