What’s the Deal with Comfort Eating?

The foods we eat influence so many aspects of our health, including our hormones, gut health, mental health, and neurochemistry.

When we eat, we get a release of dopamine—our reward and pleasure hormone, serotonin—our ‘feel-good’ hormone, and GABA—an amino acid that relaxes our nervous system.

Salty, sweet, and fatty foods have a particularly strong effect on our neurochemistry! That’s why it’s easier to keep eating chocolate than Brussels sprouts.

With that in mind, it makes it easier to understand how eating habits are primarily driven by the neurochemical outcomes they have, and how those chemical messages are intimately tied to survival.

Why do we do what we do when we know what we know?

Stressors of any kind—relationship, financial, physical, emotional, loneliness, you name it—all affect the body in the same way, by activating our fight or flight response.

And so eating, by way of triggering the release of those fun neurotransmitters, can briefly regulate our nervous system, bringing us comfort. Hence the term ‘comfort eating’.

This is especially relevant during covid-19 lockdown, where we may be experiencing a change in environment and/or routine. You may have noticed a change in eating habits, or brought more awareness to existing ones. Perhaps you gravitate towards food during times of stress, boredom, or when feeling emotional. And lockdown is certainly a situation which can bring up a lot of those feelings.

There can be a lot of shame tied to comfort eating and overeating. One of our goals with this blog is to help reduce some of the shame by delving into why we experience the want to eat when we’re not hungry, and how meeting that shame with compassion can help 

Meeting Needs

As humans, we have needs which are for the purpose of keeping us alive and well.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs
This hierarchy suggests that people are motivated to fulfil basic needs before moving on to other, more advanced needs.

  1. Physiological Needs
    Air, water, food, shelter, sleep, clothing, reproduction
  2. Safety Needs
    Personal security, resources, health
  3. Love and Belonging
    Friendship, intimacy, family, sense of connection
  4. Esteem
    Respect, self-esteem, status, recognition, strength, freedom
  5. Self-Actualisation
    Desire to become the most that one can be

Feelings are biological drives to meet these needs for survival, safety and wellbeing. For example, hunger is a biological drive to eat. Loneliness is a biological drive for connection. Feeling tired is a biological drive to sleep or rest. Feeling rejected is perceived as a threat to your self-esteem, and therefore your safety.

When we’re not deeply in tune with the more subtle of these drives, our wires can get crossed, and the solutions aren’t as obvious as the likes of: thirsty, drink.

Many bodies understand snacks to be the perfect solution to a lot of problems

Our bodies can often identify the fastest way from pain to pleasure is through food, especially when we aren’t clear with what we’re feeling.

The desire to eat when we’re feeling uncomfortable—maybe bored, sad, tired, grumpy—is not a character flaw, it’s a survival mechanism.

Bored? Snacks!

Angry? Snacks!

Confused? Snacks!

Stressed? SNACKS!

Sound familiar? For some people anyway. There is actually a genetic predisposition towards stress-eating. Some people naturally reach for food when stressed, others do the complete opposite, and don’t feel at all like eating, or eating less when they’re stressed.

Boredom Eating

When our environments aren’t providing us with stimulation, and we aren’t attuned to sitting with stillness (meditation is a great practice to nurture this!), our body perceives this stillness, or space as uncomfortable, stressful—and as we know—food is a pretty speedy way to activate dopamine and serotonin, that distract us from that stillness, and make us feel good for a bit.

We can’t bully ourselves into a happier version of ourselves

So often we beat ourselves up for all the things we have done that we perceive as bad, and don’t give ourselves time to appreciate and celebrate how wonderful we, and our bodies really are.

Are there ways you beat yourself up around food and eating?

Gently approach thoughts and behaviour around food with curiosity. Simply watch yourself free of judgement. From a place of curiosity and observation, we can begin to invite in compassion.

These small shifts can bring about profound changes. It won’t happen immediately—these habits have probably been formed over a long while, and it will take time to cover over those neural pathways and create new ones. Honour where you are, get really curious and honest, and most of all, kind with yourself. 

Compassion brings warmth and understanding to a situation. Perhaps you’re feeling guilty about having eaten ‘too much’, ‘wrong thing’, having deliberately not eaten. Compassion doesn’t berate; it’s not condescending—it’s the total opposite

Compassion comes to the conversation to say, “I understand that you did what you did because you wanted to feel better, and that’s okay.”

Pain passes more quickly when we don't berate ourselves for feeling it.

- Lori Deschene

When we offer ourselves compassion, we have an opportunity to better understand our needs and acknowledge them so that they can be met, rather pushing them down—which can only happen for so long before they bounce back beyond our control. Survival comes first, remember, and survival happens on the basis of needs being met.

Remember to be gentle with yourself.

Disclaimer: This blog post is for educational purposes only. It is not designed to diagnose, treat or cure. We are all unique, for your individual health concerns it is important to discuss these with a BePure Holistic Health Consultant or relevant health professional.