Bingeing on Emotions: Why do we comfort eat

Whether it’s a tub of ice cream after a long day or indulging in a favourite meal during difficult times, many of us find solace in the act of eating. Why does food, and particularly highly processed food, become such a source of comfort in stressful situations?

The Biological Factor

Food has the potential to activate pleasurable sensations and trigger the release of ‘feel-good’ brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin. In times of stress, our bodies naturally seek ways to reduce discomfort and promote relaxation. Eating certain foods, especially those high in sugar, salt and fat, can temporarily give us a mood boost, and provide us with a sense of comfort and relief. Do you have happy childhood memories of a warm, home-cooked meal; when you did something well, were you rewarded with yummy food: or when you fell over, were you given a sweet to stop crying…?  Or were your needs not met in childhood and did food give you the comfort you needed? Food becomes associated with positive emotions, security, and nurturing. It is often deeply intertwined with our emotions and personal experiences. During times of stress, we may seek to recreate those comforting feelings by turning to familiar foods that evoke a sense of emotional connection and nostalgia.

The Coping Factor

Everyone (and I mean everyone) uses food as a coping strategy at some time, helping us distract, numb, or escape from the stress and negative emotions that we’re experiencing. The act of eating can serve as a form of self-soothing, for short-term relief. Sometimes, it provides routine and structure, which we can find reassuring. Food can offer a familiar and predictable element in our lives. Preparing meals, following specific eating patterns, or engaging in comforting food rituals can create a sense of control and stability, giving comfort and grounding when we are feeling uncertain.

The Environmental Factor

Our cultural and social environments also contribute to the association of food with comfort. Messages from advertising, media, and societal norms often portray indulgent or “comfort” foods as a source of solace and reward. These influences can shape our perceptions and behaviours, also contributing us to turn to food as a means of seeking comfort and coping with stress. Understanding why we turn to eating in times of stress helps shed light on the intertwined relationship between food, emotions, and our coping mechanisms. While food can provide temporary comfort and relief, it’s essential to recognise the limitations of relying solely on it as a coping strategy. Exploring alternative ways to manage emotions with a more sustainable approach than food, can lead to a balanced and resilient approach to handling life’s challenges.

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