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  • Writer's pictureThe Merge

Why Do We Find Comfort in Food: Understanding Emotional Eating

Updated: Feb 25, 2023

Emotional Eating & food concept

Food has always been an integral part of our lives. It sustains us and provides us with the energy and nutrients necessary for survival, but it also holds a much more emotional and psychological significance.

Eating can be a source of comfort, satisfaction, and even joy. But why do we find comfort in food, and how does it affect our emotional state? In this article, we will explore the reasons why food is often sought as a source of comfort and the impact it has on our emotions and mental well-being.

Statistics have shown that a large number of people turn to food as a source of comfort when they are feeling anxious, stressed, or emotional. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that 43% of people reported eating in response to stress. The National Eating Disorders Association states that emotional eating affects more than 50% of individuals who struggle with binge eating disorder. Emotional eating is a coping mechanism that people use to deal with negative emotions. It can quickly spiral out of control and contribute to developing unhealthy eating habits and patterns.

The reason why food is often used as a source of comfort can be traced back to our earliest experiences with food. When we were children, our parents may have used food as a way to comfort us when we were upset.

For example, when we skinned our knees, our parents would offer us a treat to make us feel better. This association between food and comfort is reinforced every time we eat something comforting when we are feeling stressed or emotional. Over time, this connection becomes ingrained in our psyche, and we instinctively reach for food when we are feeling overwhelmed or stressed.

Food also stimulates the release of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, in our brains that are associated with feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. These neurotransmitters play a crucial role in regulating our mood and are often referred to as “feel-good” chemicals. When we eat something that we find comforting, our brain releases these neurotransmitters, and we experience feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. This is why we often feel better after eating something comforting, even if only temporarily.

However, this type of comfort eating can quickly turn into a negative cycle. Overeating can lead to feelings of guilt and shame, which can trigger more emotional eating. This cycle can be difficult to break and can contribute to the development of unhealthy eating habits and patterns.

Moreover, emotional eating often involves consuming high-calorie, unhealthy foods, which can lead to weight gain and other health problems.

It’s important to note that emotional eating is not the same as hunger. Hunger is a physical sensation that occurs when our body needs food to function properly. Emotional eating, on the other hand, is driven by emotions rather than a physical need for food. When we eat emotionally, we often eat more than we need, and we eat quickly without savouring our food. This type of eating can negatively impact our physical and emotional well-being and contribute to feelings of guilt, shame, and self-loathing.

So, what can be done to break the cycle of emotional eating?

The first step is to recognize when we are eating emotionally. This can be done by paying attention to our feelings and emotions before and after we eat. If we find that we are reaching for food to cope with stress, anxiety, or other negative emotions, it’s time to take a step back and identify other ways to cope with these emotions.

One effective method for breaking the cycle of emotional eating is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of being present at the moment and paying attention to our thoughts and feelings without judgment. When we eat mindfully, we are more aware of why we are eating, how much we are eating, and how the food makes us feel.

This helps us avoid overeating and make more conscious, healthier food choices.

Incorporating mindfulness into our eating habits can also help to reduce stress and anxiety, which are often triggers for emotional eating. Research has shown that mindfulness-based interventions can effectively reduce binge eating behaviours in individuals with binge eating disorders (BED) (International Journal of Eating Disorders, 2014).

In addition to mindfulness, finding alternative ways to cope with negative emotions can also be effective in breaking the cycle of emotional eating. This can include exercise, talking to a trusted friend or family member, or engaging in a hobby that brings us joy and peace. Exercise, in particular, is a powerful tool for managing stress and anxiety and can help to reduce the urge to turn to food as a source of comfort.

It’s also important to identify the triggers that lead to emotional eating and to develop strategies to manage these triggers more healthily. For example, if stress at work is a trigger for emotional eating, taking a walk or doing a stress-relieving activity before or after work can help to reduce the urge to turn to food.

By understanding why we find comfort in food and the impact it has on our emotions, we can take steps to break the cycle of emotional eating and develop healthier coping mechanisms. By doing so, we can improve our physical and emotional well-being and lead more fulfilling life.

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