Ok, confession time. We ALL enjoy comfort eating. Who doesn't love sitting on the sofa on a lazy Sunday afternoon watching a TV series with a tub of B&J? Or ordering a hot spicy curry from the local takeaway on a cold Saturday night in the middle of winter. Or cracking open the family-sized bar of galaxy (but not sharing it) whilst watching trashy Saturday night TV. Without a question of a doubt, we've all done it. But how does it make you feel the next day? Do you want to do it all over again? More often than not, the answer to that question for me is no. Because it makes me feel sluggish, moody and down (maybe without even realising it). In fact, most people wake up the next morning with regret.
I don't think food guilt is a good thing - it is mentally very unhealthy and can easily lead to food disorders and issues. Food guilt more often than not arises when we comfort eat (or emotionally eat) - food becomes our emotional coping mechanism for when we feel sad, happy, bored, stressed and so on. In other words, we eat to make ourselves feel better rather than to fill ourselves up. This is why we need to learn how to control our comfort eating in order to prevent those feelings of food guilt from arising. This doesn't mean we can't ever treat ourselves to a doughnut or an ice-cream, but it means learning not to over-do it on those occasions and to not stress or worry over the food you've eaten when you do have the occasional treat.
So how can we do this?
- The first step is to identify what triggers you to crave certain foods. Is it boredom, sadness, anger, stress, social influences? Once you've identified the emotions that trigger your cravings you will be able tune into them better and understand the difference between emotional hunger and normal nutritional hunger.
- Once you know what emotions trigger your emotional eating you can learn to distract yourself in other ways - when cravings hit, keep busy. For me, my emotional eating is due to boredom and so I have taught myself ways of coping with this that works for me and my lifestyle. For example, instead of heading straight to the fridge when I get home from work I have a shower or I write a blog post. But there are tonnes of other ways to distract yourself e.g:
If you eat when you're sad, ring a friend who makes you laugh or watch a funny film.
If you eat when you're bored, read a book, go for a walk, make a cup of tea, or go to the gym.
If you eat when you're angry or stressed, listen to some music or do some exercise.
These are just a few examples - it's important to find a distraction that works for you. Finding a way to fulfil yourself emotionally will stop you turning to food.
- Practice mindful eating. This sounds a bit weird and hippy-like but fundamentally it comes down to being aware of your eating habits. A few ways to do this are to enjoy preparing your food, acknowledge and appreciate the nutrients in your food, eat your food slowly and stop when you feel satisfied. Don't always feel like you have to finish everything on your plate - instead, listen to your body.
*Tip: when cravings hit, take a few minutes out of what you were doing and have a glass of water. After a few minutes ask yourself 'am I really hungry or am I feeling emotional?'. Try and listen to how your body feels and if you are genuinely hungry then by all means have some nutritious food*
- I've spoken about gut health before (which you can read more about here) but I am going to speak about it again now because gut bacteria controls our appetite. This means that if we have a healthy gut then we will also have a healthy appetite. When our gut bacteria is unbalanced, the opposite happens e.g. we start craving foods when we aren't actually hungry. Our gut and brain communicate (through the gut-brain axis) and one of the things it communicates about and regulates is eating. When food enters the stomach, the gut sends signals to the brain so that we stop eating when we are full. However, if our gut is unbalanced or unhealthy our appetite and craving signals get crossed. This means we don't get that same feeling of being full when we eat unhealthy, sugary, processed foods. A healthy diet, therefore, is so crucial to having a healthy appetite and controlling any comfort-eating cravings.
So, next time you are craving a big bar of galaxy chocolate or a share-bag of kettle chips just stop and think for 2 minutes - am I genuinely hungry or am I bored/sad/happy/stressed? If you are genuinely hungry between meals then cook up something quick and healthy to fill you up e.g. avocado on a piece of rye bread or some greek yogurt with berries. Try and control your emotional eating and learn how to tell the difference between emotional hunger and nutritional hunger. Good luck!