Fuck—and I mean this in all sincerity—comfort eating. Comfort/emotional/stress eating, call it however you like, usually comes from the need to feel better and results in overdosing on ultra-processed crappy foods that are high in calories, fat, sugar, and/or salt.
But does comfort eating decrease stress?
Since I started the post with “fuck—blah blah blah—comfort eating” you can guess the answer. Sadly I can’t stop at 60 words because you will go all no no no what kind of post is this please write more sweary words. So I shall continue.
A recent study tested the efficacy of healthy and unhealthy comfort eating for improving psychophysiological stress recovery. 129 individuals were randomly assigned to three groups after exposure to a laboratory stressor:
Immediately after the stressor, poor stressed-out souls did some testing to measure the psychological stress.
Then, off they went to the other lab room where they spent five minutes eating either “healthy” or “unhealthy” food to relieve stress. Oh, let’s not forget those who got jack shit and simply waited for five minutes. Nelson from The Simpsons would yell HAAA-HAAA at this junction.
After the All You Can Eat Thanksgiving Day was over, participants completed a series of questionnaires. The researchers also measured participants’ psychophysiological stress responses. Results?
Subjects who ate “unhealthy” or “healthy” comfort foods showed similar psychological and physiological stress recovery to those who just sat there passively without eating anything:
The researchers concluded that,
“For many, unhealthy comfort eating may be an enjoyable habit, but this evidence suggests that it is not necessarily any more effective at improving psychophysiological stress recovery than engaging in the healthier behavior of eating a fruit or vegetable or simply resting for a few minutes.”
Where does this leave you?
This study shows that food, whether it’s “healthy” or not, is a very ineffective way to stimulate emotional comfort. Emotional hunger can never be satisfied with food because food doesn’t solve your problems. Unless your problem is famine and you’re about to die, of course.
If you need help with comfort eating, the solution is a lot more complex than simply lowering food into your mouth hole. You may feel like it’s helping in the short term but in the long term, it’s no good.
For most clients who I worked with, comfort eating didn’t relieve stress at all but rather created more of it through guilt that usually comes afterward. And so this is the five-step formula that I use with my clients to deal with comfort eating (credit to Tom Venuto):
- Step one: Become aware of your eating behaviors. You can’t stop comfort eating if you don’t know you suffer from it.
- Step two: Watch out for your comfort eating triggers. We all have comfort eating triggers and the more of them you can identify and prepare for, the better.
- Step three: Stop the behavior patterns before they happen. Awareness allows you to catch yourself before making impulsive decisions.
- Step four: Replace the old comfort eating behavior (stress = shoving your face with tasty food) with more constructive alternatives because remember—the new reward doesn’t have to be food. One of my clients came up with these three: 1) If possible, go for a walk and listen to a podcast; 2) If not, play favorite music on Alexa; 3) If it’s an evening, have a bath.
- Step five: Create new beliefs about the right reasons for eating. You must examine your beliefs about food and if necessary, change them.
(I wrote an in-depth article on these five steps here. Go read it, will ya?)
So the next time comfort eating hits you, remember that it’s an illusion that it will make you feel better. On the contrary, you will feel worse—sluggish and guilty. So like I said in the beginning, comfort eating can piss all the way off.
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Originally published by me on Medium on January 13, 2023