Food gives us comfort. There is nothing quite like eating a delicious meal when you are hungry. On a cold day, a plate of warming stew or an old-fashioned meal takes us back to our childhood.
There are many types of comfort food and it depends on you, your upbringing, childhood and tastes as to which food triggers your emotional comfort response. Eating for comfort is a basic human reaction to a whole range of emotions and it can help you pile on the pounds. It can also lead to binge eating and dietary problems if it gets out of hand.
Comfort food is usually high in carbohydrates. Fruit and protein does not have the same appeal. This does not necessarily make it bad for you but it does depend on what you eat and how much of it. Eating too much of the wrong foods can cause serious health problems and although carbohydrates are vital for health and energy, not all carbohydrates are the same.
What are Carbohydrates?
In dietary terms, carbohydrates can be divided into two groups. Complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates and this distinction is vitally important when it comes to health and weight. Although both types of carbs contain a mixture of sugars and starch, the differences in their chemical makeup affects your weight, feelings of wellbeing and general health.
Complex carbs are found in natural food stuffs. Potatoes, root vegetables, brown rice, bananas, legumes and grains are all naturally high in complex carbs. These are essential for health.
Sweets, candy, sugar, cakes, white bread, processed food, milk chocolate bars, crisps and similar foodstuffs are simple carbohydrates. Most of the carb food that we eat is derived from simple carbohydrates and not good for health.
Once eaten, carbohydrates convert into glucose, which is then transported round the body in the blood and converted into energy by the cells.
Complex carbohydrates are a great source of energy because their glucose (sugar) content takes a long time to release into the blood stream. By contrast, simple carbohydrates enter the blood stream as glucose very quickly causing peaks and troughs in the blood sugar levels.
In simple terms – simple carbs create an instant and gratifying “high” effect, quickly followed by a low that encourages you to instantly search out more of the same sort of food to get the instant effect.
The Effects of Carbohydrates on your Mood and Feelings
When you eat carbohydrates, they drastically raise your serotonin levels. This vital hormone, often called the brains “feel good” chemical is crucial for happiness and feelings of contentment. When we feel depressed or low, our serotonin levels are down. According to medical opinion, serotonin is crucial for controlling your appetite and for keeping your moods regulated.
When it comes to comfort eating, it is this drive on a purely physical level that leads us to craving carbohydrate rich foods and this is where it can become problematic.
What we need are complex carbohydrates to feel full, warm and full of energy. Unfortunately, what we usually get are simple carbohydrates that make us feel satisfied for a short period of time but often lead to us craving more.
The other reasons for comfort eating are often equally deeply ingrained but emotional.
Very early on in life, we are rewarded with sweets and food for being good. and we tend to keep these happy associations when we are older. Once things get difficult or dull in later life we often look to food as a reward and to cheer us up. It is comforting.
The big problem is that diet is a major cause of diabetes. With obesity levels rising as well as the associated health problems, comfort eating is not as innocent and harmless as it sounds. Eating lots of unhealthy food may not be a sin but it will make you overweight and possibly ill if you look to eating too many simple carbohydrates as a comfort.
Common Comfort Eating Triggers
- Winter blues
Many people find that once the weather gets colder they turn to stews, casseroles and bulky pasta dishes. Carbohydrates are the body’s main energy source and you need your fat resources to help keep you warm. Most people crave carbs in winter and it is a perfectly natural desire. Usually once spring appears and the better weather comes along, it is much easier to increase activity levels and move to salads and lighter foods.
If you are depressed, your body unconsciously craves carbohydrates to lift your serotonin levels. Reaching for the chocolate or the cakes too often may be a sign that you may have low serotonin levels.
- Stress and Sadness
Stress is a common trigger for comfort eating. Personal problems, bereavement, worries and anxiety can lead to eating too much. Some people look to favourite childhood foods in order to make things feel better. Others reach for the snacks.
Although some people find that strong emotions will put them off their appetite, for many people turning to comfort foods with happy associations will see them piling on the pounds in an attempt to numb the pain.
Going on a diet can be depressing if you set too difficult goals for yourself. An extreme diet where you starve yourself all day, often will be so depressing that you will crack and turn to comfort food in desperation.
Once you have demolished the packet of biscuits or the supersized burger meal it just feels like an act of self-sabotage that has undone all your good work.
If this sounds familiar then you need to adopt a more reasonable diet that you can stick to and include and adapt some of the foods that you like. That way you will avoid yo yo weight gain.
As well as these triggers, lifestyle has a major part to play in the role of comfort eating.
Switch to Healthy Alternatives
Sounds obvious, but changing your diet will help minimise the risk of comfort eating and associated weight gain. There are probably healthy alternatives of your favourites that may become a new comfort food in the future?
Switching to wholegrain versions of bread and pasta will help will help you feel fuller for much longer. It is more satisfying and will not make much difference to the experience and taste but it will be less fattening. Because whole grains are more filling it is hard to over eat in the same way as with simple carbohydrates.
If eating chocolate bars is your particular form of comfort food, switching to stronger chocolate with 70% cocoa solids will give you the real mood lifting effects of chocolate and serotonin without leaving you feeling unfulfilled and desperate for more.
The problem with simple carbohydrates is that they are essentially unfulfilling. They taste nice and you get the mood lifting effect but it soon wears off leaving you searching for more.
Social pressure can play a big role in comfort eating. If everyone is oohing and ahhing over the cakes, it is hard to be the odd one out, especially if you are already tempted.
Remember no one will mind if you don’t eat one, or only eat half. Don’t give into social pressure because it is probably not important to anyone else whether you eat it or not.
Idle hands reach for snacks. Being bored watching TV or similar is a real flashpoint for comfort eating and you can find yourself eating without even realising. If you do something with your hands, you will not be so likely to absent mindedly eat snacks and when you do take a break for a biscuit, at least you will notice it. If you like eating while watching TV, oranges can provide a satisfying alternative or some fruit like a bunch of grapes.
Comfort eating is something we all do to a certain extent. Sometimes it is just what we need to make us feel better but when your favourite comfort foods are all fattening simple carbohydrate snacks such as biscuits then it will add to your weight. Long term it can have a real impact on your health – the growing rise of diabetes shows that.
Unusual cravings for food can be a sign that your body is lacking something or there is an underlying health issue, so it is important to look at your particular food cravings, especially if you develop a taste for a new comfort food. Boosting your immune system with a healthy supplement rich in antioxidants may help you keep healthy while you try to lose weight.
- Cakes and biscuits - Your serotonin levels may be low so you may be slightly depressed without realising.
- Chocolate - Rich in minerals and vitamin B, chocolate raises serotonin levels. If this is one of your cravings, you may find that a health supplement that boosts antioxidant levels will help.
- Pasta , rice and potatoes – Often caused by low blood sugar and simple hunger. If you find that you crave these types of carbs, eating more regularly and not leaving it so long between meals will help you. If you are dieting, you may need to eat more.
- Spicy food - Suddenly fancy a curry? Many spices are stimulants and increase blood pressure and heart rate often bringing you out in a sweat. Mildly addictive, you could be coming down with a cold, if you get a sudden craving for spice.
- Bread - Comfort eating on bread could be a sign that you are lacking selenium and other antioxidants that help promote the immune system. Taking a supplement and switching to a whole grain variety will help.
- Crisps – a new urge for intensely salty food may be a marker for serious health issues including diabetes, sickle cell anaemia and high blood pressure. If you notice this, you should visit your doctor. Likewise a new craving for water and drinks. This is also a sign of diabetes.
Most people say that their dieting is derailed by comfort eating. Instead of making your diet difficult, it is a good idea to look at your personal triggers to ensure you can get the comfort without the weight gain. For many a health supplement provides useful support, for others a change of lifestyle. Identifying your particular comfort food problem and working with it, rather than against it, is the first step to losing weight successfully and keeping fit.