Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
The term “comfort food” is generally associated with warm memories and a sense that everything will be alright – truly, comforting feelings. Comfort food is part of the larger continuum of Emotional Eating/Stress Eating – the tendency to respond to stress by eating, particularly when one is not physically hungry.
Often stress eating ends up as eating food with minimal nutritional value, full of full of refined sugar, fats, and salt. Stress eating is a coping tool to manage uncomfortable emotions and situations. The solution to stress eating is not to restrict sugar and fat, but rather to understand WHY we are craving these things, and address that need within us with different tools. Using mindfulness techniques to become aware of our emotions, we can wade through the turbulence of discomfort and come out the other side with a better understanding of ourselves.
Our health has many facets and this applies to emotional eating as well. The way we handle stress, sleep and movement influences our eating habits. Using mindfulness for this habit is certainly helpful, but just one piece of managing the urge to eat through our emotions.
How can we distinguish Physical Hunger from Emotional Hunger?
|Physical Hunger||Emotional Hunger|
|Gradual (if after an adequate previous meal)||Sudden (regardless of last meal)|
|Aware of amount consumed||Mindless of amount consumed|
|Satisfied once portion has been eaten||Unsatisfying even after physically full|
|No emotional charge||Leads to guilt, regret, shame, pride|
|Can lead to “H-Anger” & Headaches when undernourished||Can lead to overeating or under-eating|
In the short term, stress hormones can shut down appetite. As stress becomes daily or chronic, cortisol levels ramp up and increase the motivation to eat, specifically to eat easy-to-access sugar and fat. If you’d like a review on how cortisol and stress are connected, read here.
Next, before we dive into mindfulness and meals, let’s start with some basics in the stress/sugar/reward cycle:
- Our brains love dopamine. Dopamine is a reward neurotransmitter that rises with novelty, socializing, sex, love, and lots of things we enjoy, including consuming sugar and fat.
- Sugar and the sweet flavour signal to our brain and nervous system that we are in a safe place and satisfied. Fat fills up empty bellies and lasts for longer.
- Stress increases cortisol levels. Cortisol’s job is to increase our desire for sugar. (As sugar will supply the fast energy we need to get us out of a dangerous situation). Even biochemically, sugar soothes our stressors.
- One way we deal with stress is by chewing, which releases the cortisol precursor. That’s why we grind our teeth, chew gum, and part of why we emotionally eat.
- High sugar diets increase insulin levels and this insulin send sugar into our cells, and this can cause stress on our system.
- Low sugar diets increase cortisol levels which encouraging sugar craving and fat deposition.
We crave sugar primarily for three reasons:
- We need dopamine
- We have depleted our energy sources
- We feel unsafe
There is a physiological and psychological need for sugar. To effectively repair our relationship with food, we need to address the physiology of energy management in our bodies while simultaneously addressing the psychology of addiction and reward. If we address one without the other, emotional eating will find its way back into our habits.
Now the path:
How do you use mindfulness to manage emotional eating?
When you feel an urge to eat, take two minutes between placing the food in front of you and starting to eat.
In that time, ask yourself:
How am I feeling?
What’s going on emotionally?
After you answer these questions, continue on to eat. Maybe you are physically hungry or maybe you need comfort food – what is most important is that you are aware of why you are eating. Occasionally leaning on food as a comfort is a healthy coping mechanism. However, continuously and consistently relying on food to deal with feelings is destructive to health. Over time, you will notice the when and how often you soothe yourself with food and you may decide to find a different tool for comfort.
How do you find different tools?
a) Identify your triggers. That could look like:
- Pressure from your work or life/
- Uncomfortable feelings
- Fear of an unknown
- Habits from childhood reward
- Conforming to social norms
b) Match an action to address your specific trigger. This list is incomplete. Add to it!
- Admit the pressure and ask for help
- Speak up, write, build something
- Run, do jumping jacks, dance
- Reach out and ask for a hug
- Cozy up with a bath or blanket
- Identify the constellations, Invite someone for tea
- Drum up a small project that requires planning
- Start/finish a chore
- Turn toward an activity you enjoy (reading, sport, music, cleaning)
Thankfully, this list is endless.
There is some research that shows that under the same triggers, some individuals turn to food, while others turn to alcohol or smoking
Stress eating is a reflection that you may feel powerless over your emotions. Allow the feelings – all of them – to rise up and subside naturally, instead of shoving them into the box of “things I don’t want to feel”.
Use The Pause to open up the feelings box and take an inventory:
How are you managing your energy levels? This is the triad of sleep and food and movement.
How are you managing your stress? This is the sugar cycle.
What can you do in your life that will be rewarding? This is the dopamine and satiety cycle.
Regardless of our coping tool our work is to turn toward healthy activities that give us that same reward. Mindful food moments are a graceful movement toward a positive food relationship.
Dr. Thara Vayali is a Naturopathic Doctor & Yoga Teacher in Vancouver and is also a UBC alumnus. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. She is the creator of Change Natural Medicine: Budget conscious, membership-based health consulting.