Its very name is appealing – comfort food. What could be more wonderful than a food that helps us feel better? Almost everyone can name something that they eat when they’re just feeling sour or sad. Chinese take-out, chocolate cake, raspberry ice cream, banana pancakes and many others make the list.
Of course, we know that food can’t be the solution to our problems, especially the problem of trying to lose weight and keep it off. So why do we find ourselves trapped in the eat/feel better/feel worse/eat some more cycle?
The fact of the matter is that all food makes us feel good. Our bodies are still stuck in the prehistoric period where food was scarce, so we naturally desire to binge until we feel full. Our bodies encourage this by making feeling full a pleasant feeling, and being hungry as unpleasant as possible.
Human psychology takes this a bit further, because we’ve added our emotions into the mix. In addition to our bodies’ natural tendencies to want to eat and feel satisfied, we have mental needs as well. Notice that our workday is very closely married to our eating schedule: We have all the stresses of work lasting all day long, and what do we do when we get breaks? We have lunch, or when we go home we have dinner. Thus the two main periods of the day when we feel relaxed, we eat. This creates a mental association in our head that eating feels good when we feel bad.
It’s easy to see how this can lead to cyclic behavior. We get into a habit, day in and day out, of eating when we’re just getting ready to relax. Once we’ve associated the two for more than thirty days or so, we do it automatically.
Then, something particularly bad happens, and we just feel awful, so we reach for a food that we know makes us feel particularly fine. This is why so many comfort foods are decadent treats; we want to make ourselves happier than usual and we want to feel like we’re “treating” ourselves because we’ve earned it after a hard day.
Then, a few hours later, we feel guilty about the cake we binged on, and this makes us nervous and upset, and since we’re programming ourselves to feel hungry when we’re upset… well, we all know what comes next.
The first part of breaking a bad habit is to stop the repetition of it as a reflex. Remember to use the STOP method as a verbal way of getting control of yourself. Say “stop” aloud. Take a break from the thing stressing you out. Own your outcome: Remind yourself what you’re trying to achieve. Praise yourself for what you’ve accomplished so far.
Using index cards, write down suggestions for your break that have nothing to do with food. Perhaps a quick round of solitaire on the computer, or a brief read of a favorite chapter of a book will help. Alternatively you could put on some quiet music if it’s convenient to do so.
Part two of healthy habit building is the substitution of good habits for bad ones. We’ve already interrupted the reflexive snacking that we reach for, now it’s time to put something definitively in its place.
Write down some of your favorite substitutions on the same index cards that you used for break ideas. Remember how we discussed water as part of a way of controlling appetite? It can have the same benefit here. If you feel reflexively hungry for comfort food, have a nice tall glass of water in slow, steady sips over five minutes. This will give you the feeling of being full without the calories.
Consider tying each substitution you make to a certain emotion. We feel upset in specific ways, so we should have specific solutions rather than general ones. If getting shouted at unexpectedly makes you antsy, consider taking a quick walk to burn some of the energy. If something comes up that makes you feel sad, pick an activity you know makes you cheerful.
If we simply rely on general solutions, they won’t feel as meaningful or helpful. Specific ones that we use in exact circumstances have the power to create more of a connection, and thus become more of a habit.
This is a necessary step because it’s hard to use the method of “same time every day” to build this habit, as we don’t always know when we’re going to want comfort food. But the fact that familiarity builds repetition can be used to our advantage with a little creative thinking.
Remember that we haven’t gone into this effort alone. We have support groups we can talk to. If comfort eating is becoming a challenge to your efforts to lose weight, tell your support buddy about it. Ask them for help in coming up with the creative substitutions that will keep you from overeating. Ask them if they mind being a comfort-friend in addition to a support partner, and if they can come with you on impromptu excursions to relax instead of comfort eating.
About the author: Larry Tobin is the co-creator of http://www.HabitChanger.com/, offering effective and empowering solutions for stopping stress. Try their 42-day program that will help you learn proactive habits to beat stress and keep you moving forward in the right direction.
Photo by Justin Kern