Comfort eating

When we’re feeling upset, it’s natural to seek out the comfort of our all-time favourite foods. However, this might be a problem if we’re regularly using these foods to cope with emotional problems. Find out what comfort eating means, how to know when it becomes a problem, how to manage the situation, and what to do if you’re really struggling.

This can help if:

  • You can’t control the urge to eat
  • You turn to food as a way of dealing with difficult emotions
  • You want to know how comfort eating can be managed

What is comfort eating?

We don’t always eat purely because we are hungry. We also turn to food as a way of dealing with difficult emotions. This is known as comfort eating, and some of the reasons we do it are:

  • Boredom
  • Loneliness
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Stress relief
Even if chowing down on treats like chocolate, ice cream and fast food might seem like a delicious remedy, it’s not a long term solution. The good thing is, there are some easy ways to manage the problem that can take comfort eating entirely out of the equation. 

When it becomes a problem

When we’re dealing with difficult emotions, it’s not uncommon to dip the spoon in a few more times, sneak a couple more cookies from the jar, or polish off that jumbo packet of salt and vinegar chips. 

There’s no denying that junk food is yum, and it definitely has its time and place. However, if you’re eating just for the sake of it, excessively, at unusual times, or if your first reaction to life’s problems is to snack out, then it’s a good idea to start tackling your emotions head on before things get out of hand. 

So, how to stop?

First up, you’ll need to figure out what your triggers are. Whatever they might be, identifying them is the first step to giving comfort eating the flick. You’ll be better equipped to use positive coping techniques that will make comfort eating a thing of the past: 

  • Stressed? If you’ve got too much on your plate, think about how you can share the load. Pull back on some of your commitments, or break your big jobs down into smaller, more manageable chunks. 
  • Relationship problems? Talk it out. Have a think about what exactly is bugging you, and have a chat to the person about it. Get some tips on how to communicate and good listening skills to make sure it goes smoothly.
  • Bored? Call up a mate or use the time to tick some stuff off your to-do list. If you’re out and about, it’ll be harder for you to have a solid comfort eating session.
  • Lonely? Why not get in touch with your buddies and invite them over? Or just give someone a call and have a chat. Find out what to do if you feel lonely often.
  • Angry or down? Write down exactly what’s got you so wound up/down, and figure out a plan of attack for how to deal with it. If you’ve been feeling angry or down for a while, it’s a good idea to talk to someone about it.
While you’re getting used to these positive coping techniques, you can put some alternatives to comfort eating into action:

  • Doing the everyday: Who knew doing mundane tasks like doing the laundry could actually come in handy? Accomplishing everyday tasks not only keeps your mind off eating, but also works to keep your life in order. Score.
  • Fun activities: Whip out your list of activities and start ticking them off. Perhaps juggling four balls at once? Indulge in an extra-long bubble bath, kick a footy, hurl paint at a blank canvas, or hand-write letters to all your friends. 
  • Eat healthy foods: Comfort eating usually involves foods at the unhealthy end of the scale. Next time you’re reaching for the chocolate bar, pick up a banana instead. You’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll feel afterwards. 

If you’re really struggling

If you’re really having a tough time with managing the things that are triggering your comfort eating, it’s important that you talk to someone about it. This could be a trusted friend or family member willing to give advice, or your GP who can help set out a plan and figure out the best techniques to suit your situation.

What can I do now?

  • Talk to a health professional if you’re worried about comfort eating.
  • Check out some good ways to relax.
  • Have a list of alternative activities ready to go for the next time you feel like comfort eating.

Last reviewed: 28 June, 2017
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  • m-y93    (1070 days ago)

    Welcome to RO Mardijane! Thank you for sharing your story and allowing others to learn from your experience. I completely agree with you in realising the importance of seeking help and talking to others it can help so much! Hope everything is going well for you

  • rt262    (1070 days ago)

    Thanks for the comment Mardijane. It's always so uplifting to see positive stories and comments. Well done to you for taking the steps to seek help and talk to someone, it's not easy! Hopefully we'll see you around the forums too, helping others or letting others help you :)

  • mardijane    (1072 days ago)

    I was thinking about food constantly and told my doctor about it who referred me to a dietician and I started getting treated for Binge Eating Disorder. It turned out that as soon as I felt stressed or anxious, I turned to food. So the real problem was anxiety, but I didn't even know I was an anxious person because I would eat the second those feelings kicked in and I wouldn't feel them any more. Eating made me feel numb and careless, but now other things do.

    It's really worthwhile talking to someone if this is something that worries you. And it's way more common than you think, in fact, the media these days actually sells food as comforting and relates it to feelings of happiness, and uses psychological tricks to make certain things you see every day, like the Maccas tick or a sale sticker, trigger your brain into telling you it's time to eat. It's much easier to control though when you know what's happening.