Comfort Eating – What It Is And Isn’t

One thing you often become aware of in the field of hypnotherapy is that there is a strong link between the emotions and the way we eat. In fact, one of the areas that hypnosis is often used for is in the area of weight loss.

Often, comfort eating is cited as being an issue lying behind somebody’s weight problem. The link between feeling good and the food we eat is undeniable. It’s just part of being human.

However, it’s important to be aware as to exactly what comfort eating is and what it isn’t. If comfort eating is a problem for you, then being aware of what’s going on will help you have power over it and feel more in control. Knowing what comfort eating isn’t can also be helpful. I know one very conscientious woman who nearly became anorexic in an attempt to avoid comfort eating, simply because she didn’t know the difference between comfort eating and what goes on in the ordinary human mind and body. There are a number of factors involved.

Factor one: good times and abundance

From the dawn of history, food and good times have been linked. On the one hand, having an abundance of food was a reason to celebrate and be happy. On the other hand, a big life event such as a birth, a marriage or even a death, was celebrated or commemorated by lavish amounts of food. Now, it’s not comfort eating to enjoy eating a bit of birthday cake at your friend’s party, even though eating the cake will be associated with feeling happy and will be part of the general fun of the celebration. The problem here comes when you try to capture the feeling associated with a party by eating party food even when you’re not celebrating anything – that is comfort eating.

Factor two: blood sugar

There is also a physical side to the link between food and emotions. When we are low on blood sugar and hungry, we tend to feel pretty terrible. It varies from person to person, but when we haven’t eaten for a while, we get grumpy, snappy, more prone to worry, a bit more emotional and prone to tearfulness and so forth. Any mother of small children – in fact, any parent at all – can tell you that the time of day that’s the worst is the hour just before the evening meal. Everybody is hungry and tired, and everyone is irritable and up tight. After dinner, all that grouchiness and bad temper seems to have vanished like magic.

All that irritability is simply a sign that your body needs some fuel, while some of the worry that kicks in may be, deep down, part of a fear that there will not be enough to eat. This emotional factor should drive us to grab something to eat – it’s like the fuel light coming on in the car to show that we’re low on fuel. And if we do grab a quick bite to eat, we will feel better. This is not comfort eating – it’s just common sense. (Hint to parents facing that “arsenic hour” before dinner: hand out healthy snacks like raw carrots or bits of fruit to keep little people going until dinner is on the table, and have some yourself. Even if it spoils your children’s appetite for dinner, this isn’t the end of the world if the snack is healthy raw fruit and veg.)

Where comfort eating comes in is when we use food as a way to help us feel better when we feel tired, irritable, stressed or upset for some other reason, i.e. when hunger isn’t the cause of our bad temper and anxiety. The classic example here is the stereotype of a woman who has been dumped by her lover and who turns to ice cream and chocolate as a consolation – eating her heart out. Men do it too, of course!

Factor three: past experiences

Our childhood experiences and things that happened in the past can also have an effect on the way we view food and the way it makes us feel. Often, this is one of the things that will be explored in a hypnotherapy session for weight loss.

Eating is an obvious pleasure for children and parents often use it as a tool to help their children learn. To a non-parent, this sounds like manipulation and bribery, but if you are a parent, you know perfectly well that it’s not. You don’t call it manipulation or bribery when you get a pay cheque for turning up to work every day and doing your duties. For a small child, learning to use the lavatory properly and doing chores is work, and food rewards are one form of payment for doing this work. Sure, rewards can be overdone, but this is another issue. If your parents overused food or sweets as a reward for good behaviour or completing tasks, then this may have set you up with the unconscious belief that every time you accomplish something, you deserve something sweet as a reward for doing so well. Celebrations are one thing, but when you get into the pattern of feeling like you are entitled to or deserve an edible reward after doing something difficult or that you don’t like doing, this can become comfort eating. You know the sort of thing – rewarding yourself with a chocolate bar and a full-fat latte at the café after putting yourself through a workout at the gym.

Food can also be used by parents as a comforting tool and as a way of showing love. This is obvious with a baby – when a child is breastfed, the baby gets nutrition and cuddles at the same time (which is why it’s important for parents who have to bottle-feed to give lots of cuddles during feeding). This combination of giving food as well as comfort can continue long past infancy, and a parent can give a hurt or sad child food (which usually tends to be sweet – I’ve never heard of a parent giving a crying child cheese) along with the cuddle to “cheer you up and make you feel better”. Who remembers getting sweets after immunisations as a child? Again, this behaviour may linger when we are adults, and we may seek out sweets as a comfort if we can’t get the cuddles.

Certain foods may also be associated with beloved people. If your grandma always made you pancakes with golden syrup when you visited her, the food and the grandmother become linked. Later on, eating that food may be a way of trying to get that person back, albeit subconsciously. Eating pancakes with golden syrup on the anniversary of grandma’s death as a way of remembering her – and doing so consciously – probably isn’t comfort eating. Turning to the pancakes when you’re in the grieving process may very well be.

Click here to know more about Comfort Eating and its effects.