The Psychology of Comfort Eating
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The Psychology of Comfort Eating

What is your food story?

Do you understand what role food plays in your life?

Do you feel that you can’t control what you eat, how much you eat, and when to eat?

Feeling that your eating is out of your control is uncomfortable. You know what you should be doing, you understand why healthy eating is important, but you can’t seem to make changes to your eating habits stick. The never-ending conversation with yourself about eating is exhausting, demoralising and frustrating.

You can change your relationship with food!

You’ve had a long relationship with food! It has been your focus so many years that when you think about food, all your mind probably conceives is YOU and FOOD.

Understanding the mental processes around how you eat will help you to focus on setting and sticking to your goals about better food choices, healthy eating patterns and long-term dietary control.

As nutritionalist Elise Museles states, “Your Food Story is multi-layered and written over many years. It’s how you talk about food and your body to yourself – and to others. It also involves how those around you eat and what they say (or don’t say) about their choices. It’s an ongoing narrative that’s always evolving and changing. It’s everything from what’s on your plate to what’s in your mind”.

Learn new eating patterns, find new nutritional choices, and your mindset will support healthy habits.

If you want things to be different, if you truly are now fed up with that chapter in your life, here are some strategies to help you commit and stay committed to nourishing your body with food:

  1. Choose your eating plan wisely. There is a lot of recent scientific evidence supporting different eating approaches. There are also lots of ‘fad’ diets advertising quick results through supplements, food combinations, calorie restriction, and/or elimination of whole food groups.The key to choosing your approach wisely is to understand that changing habits is hard and yo-yo dieting generally results in increased weight gain overall.Similarly, if you are battling comfort eating or binge eating patterns, adopting an all-or-nothing approach to changing your habits sets you up for future failure and you’ll feel bad about yourself. Choose an approach that fits your lifestyle and eating preferences. This will help you stick with it more consistently and for longer – which is the secret to meaningful behaviour change in the long-term.
  2. Aim to approach healthy habits. Anchor your eating goal in the bigger picture. Make all goals about ‘approaching’ healthy habits rather than ‘avoiding’ unhealthy behaviours. For example, a goal of “not eating junk food on weekdays” is not easy for the mind to form as a new habit. A more effective goal would be “I will choose health options during the week because I value an active, strong, healthy body for life”.
  3. Be flexible with your eating goal. For example, if you are trying the Fast800, Mosely suggests 800 calories is too hard, try 1000; if two days of restricted calories is hard, try two consecutive days of no carbs, rather than calorie counting. Flexibility is not a cop-out. It means knowing the science behind the eating path you have chosen so you understand the core principles and how to work within the scope of your plan. You can then adapt what you need to so that it works for you long-term. Keep taking baby steps towards your goal. Consistency will get you there more effectively than giant leaps forward that you can’t stick to and ultimately result in you falling back into old unhelpful patterns.
  4. Celebrate. The New York Times recently ran an article highlighting the importance of accepting praise. The science tells us that meaningful praise hits the brain structures where it counts – boosting motivation, performance and capacity to retain new skills. Recognise and celebrate the small wins along the way; tap into a mentoring system to keep you accountable – whether it is family or friends, a support group, a health practitioner, or a professional mentor. Have someone you like AND trust as your Champion while you are developing new habits.
  5. It takes around 21 days for the mind to learn a new habit. Make a four-week challenge with your mentor/buddy, with realistic, baby-steps towards the first stage of your Big Picture goal. Then celebrate your achievements in healthy, helpful ways that continue to serve your purpose along the way.
  6. Understand the mental structure. When you commit to changing your Food Story, your best success is going to come from devoting time to understanding the mental structure underlying your relationship to eating. By going to the root cause, you will learn how to train your mind to focus on those aspects which are helpful in achieving your goals, rather than repeating old patterns which have kept you stuck and feeling helpless in your relationship with food Consider accessing professional support from a mental health professional or Eating Disorders specialist. They will help you gain insight and awareness about important developmental issues related to managing emotions, interpersonal style, and your self-worth. These all impact goal achievement and a general sense of contentment in life.

Note from author: This post is not about serious eating disorders including bulimia and anorexia nervosa. Such concerns require specialised treatment by an appropriately qualified mental health practitioner.

In recognition of the specialised needs of people who experience severe eating disorders, the Australian Federal Government recently announced that Australians with severe eating disorders will be able to access up to 40 psychological sessions each year under Medicare from 1 November 2019. Currently people with eating disorders can only receive a Medicare rebate for 10 sessions every year. The science, however, tells us that effective resolution of these types of severe mental health concerns typically requires up to five times that number of sessions to achieve lasting change.

You might also be interested in the following resources:

Dina Rose, Ph.D., is a sociologist and the author of the book It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating and the blog It’s Not About Nutrition.

Elise Museles is a Certified Eating Psychology and Nutrition Expert and founder of the Food Story concept. She hosts the “Once Upon A Food Story” podcast, talking about cutting through diet clutter and rewriting your Food Story.

Butterfly Foundation for eating disorders offers a multitude of services and programs that provide support, treatment, prevention, early intervention, education and training.

All the best, Rebekah Doley | Clinical & Forensic Psychologist

BA(Hons) GradDipPsyPrac MSc(InvPsy) MJur(Law) MPsy(Clin)/PhD

Registered Psychologist (AHPRA) | Chartered Psychologist (BPS)