Are you (comfort) feeding the issue?

Comfort eating? It's time to address the causes.
Photo: pamelasphotopoetry/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Comfort eating? It's time to address the causes. Photo: pamelasphotopoetry/Getty Images/iStockphoto - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Comfort eating is something affecting many at the moment as a result of the stresses placed upon us by lockdown, but it’s not a new phenomenon, says life coach Debra Thorpe

Debra Thorpe

Debra Thorpe Photo: - Credit: Archant

Firstly, what is it?

We eat not just to satisfy physical hunger. We sometimes eat to meet emotional needs: because we’re bored, sad, stressed, or to reward ourselves, for example. We’re all prone to this at times. The problem arises when it’s done to excess and it’s hard to stop.

Comfort eating doesn’t fix the emotional problem, so indulging invariably adds into the mix feelings of guilt, powerlessness, even shame.

You might be engaging in comfort eating if: a full stomach doesn’t satisfy you; you crave specific foods, possibly linked to childhood; afterwards you feel bad, or worse, about yourself; there’s an urgent need to satisfy your ‘hunger’ - you must have chocolate/pizza/chips/crisps now!

Let’s look at some of the triggers


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There’s little happening in your life or at a given moment in time so you ‘fill it up’ with food. It’s a distraction from a sense of emptiness or lack of purpose. If these feelings persist, you’re likely to add a problem with weight gain to the situation, causing stress or anxiety.


Comfort eating might temporarily assuage feelings of stress, but stress triggers the hormone cortisol, and cortisol triggers cravings for foods that provide a burst of energy. These food types are not great for helping with weight control. If you suffer an extended period of stress you’re likely to comfort eat more.

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Were you rewarded with food or sweet treats for good behaviour as a child? You may still be making the food / reward association. Were you given food to distract you if you were upset? Or were you encouraged to clear your plate but now, as an adult, you still feel the urge to clear it, however large the portion? Childhood messages can remain deeply absorbed into our memories.

Holding back unpleasant emotions

Comfort eating can be a way to literally ‘stuff down’ unwelcome feelings. Whilst you’re distracted by food you don’t have to focus on painful thoughts.

How can you control your eating?

Keep a food and mood diary for two weeks. Notice your triggers and label the emotion: frustration, anger, boredom, sadness, stress? Acknowledging it can diffuse its power.

Determine what you can control about the situation that’s triggered it. If it’s out of your control, how can you change your thoughts about it?

Tell yourself you’ll wait 5 minutes before giving in to the urge, whilst you address the emotion you’re feeling. This is more effective than telling yourself not to indulge - the forbidden becomes more appealing and harder to resist.

Aim to improve your sleep. Studies of those regularly having less than 5 hours’ sleep show they have around a 15% increase in ghrelin, the hormone that instigates hunger pangs, and a 15% decrease in leptin, the hormone that suppresses appetite. And lack of sleep stresses the body. Your comfort eating will be harder to control against this backdrop.

Seek professional help for the underlying issues. Hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming can help.

Debra is based in Hale and offers face-to-face and online therapy. Find her at and discover her full service

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