4 mins

The psychology of comfort eating

Eating our hearts out 

Eating is arguably at the very centre of our being.  It plays a complicated role in our daily lives and wellbeing, as well as a key part in how many of us socialise and spend time with others.  For very few people, food is merely a means of staying alive; eating only what is needed in order to maintain their health and their ability to function throughout the day. For the majority, however, food has a more complex role in their wellbeing; it can be an opportunity to socialise with loved ones, a rite of passage or a ritual to mark a special occasion (such as a birthday cake or wedding cake).  It can also be a way of self-soothing in times of distress (widely known as comfort eating), and it can also be a sign of difficult economic times and social hardship when food is scarce.

The fact is, for the vast majority, food is one of life’s great pleasures.  Many people, therefore, use food as a way of soothing their emotions from time to time and indeed there is nothing wrong with eating for comfort every now and again.  However, comfort eating, or “emotional eating” as it is more commonly termed by psychological therapists, becomes problematic when it becomes our automatic response to soothing difficult thoughts and feelings.

If every time we got bored, sad, or stressed, we ate half a cake for example, it wouldn’t be long until we struggled with obesity and the many physical health co-morbidities that often accompany obesity, such as a Diabetes, high-blood pressure, muscle and joint complaints, as well as difficulties with basic activities of daily living, such as bathing and dressing.  And with obesity often comes an array of complex mental health co-morbidities too, such as low self-esteem, social anxiety, self-loathing, and depression.  Many people who engage in psychological therapy (and their psychological therapists) often overlook their complex relationship with food and eating when they are being treated for these mental health difficulties.

Emotional eating may prove a distraction from life’s great abundance of stressors; those precious few minutes where it’s just you and your favourite treat.  Many people who have this relationship with food describe these moments as providing a brief pause in their levels of stress, not dissimilar from someone who gets drunk on alcohol to numb their emotional pain.  Overeating by emotional eating often becomes a vicious cycle that is difficult to break: experiencing certain emotions can leading to emotional eating, leading to reduced low self-esteem, guilt, and shame after the episode, followed by greater susceptibility to stress and a greater dependence on food as a method of trying to soothe these emotions.  The irony is that, in time, food ends up becoming the aggravator, and not the comforter.

It is important to know that if you struggle with emotional eating or a complex relationship with food and eating as a method of coping with emotions, professional help is available.  Psychological therapy can support “emotional eaters” to have a healthy relationship with food and with eating, so that they can eat their favourite treats in moderation, but without depending on it to soothe difficult emotions.  This often results in maintainable weight loss without the need for diets and improved wellbeing.  Through psychological therapy, individuals can develop more appropriate strategies to soothe difficult emotions than by emotionally eating; these strategies will in time result in a greater sense of comfort and self-soothing without the subsequent guilt and shame that often accompanies emotional eating.

Dr Elena Touroni

Dr Elena Touroni

7 December 2016

"Dr. Elena Touroni is a skilled and experienced Consultant Psychologist with a track record of delivering high-quality services for individuals with all common emotional difficulties and those with a diagnosis of personality disorder. She is experienced in service design and delivery, the management of multi-disciplinary teams, organisational consultancy, and development and delivery of both national and bespoke training to providers in the statutory and non-statutory sector."

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Dr Stacie Tay

Dr Stacie Tay attained her BSc (Hons) Psychology at the University of Nottingham and worked as a psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health, Singapore, before returning to the UK to complete her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University College London.   

Dr Tay has worked in a variety of settings within the NHS for more than eight years, including primary and secondary care, specialist psychological services and forensic inpatient settings. She currently works as a Clinical Psychologist at the North East London Foundation Trust.  

She has extensive experience working with individuals and groups, providing evidence-based psychological therapies including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Interpersonal Psychotherapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) and Mindfulness-based approaches as well as Schema-informed therapy.   

Dr Tay’s clinical experience involves working with people who present with a range of mild to severe mental health difficulties. This includes depression, anxiety (OCD, social anxiety, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, health anxiety, phobia-related disorders, PTSD), stress related issues, low self-esteem, complex trauma, interpersonal difficulties, grief and bereavement, and long-term health conditions.