Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
The short answer to this question is not all comfort eating is bad. If you understand it. To give the big picture, we chatted with Susan Albers, Psy.D, author of 50 More Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food: Mindfulness Strategies to Cope with Stress and End Emotional Eating.
“It can be nice to sink into a bowl of mac and cheese now and then to pump out the nostalgic feelings of childhood—it’s when eating is your only source of comfort or way to cope with stress that it becomes a problem,” explains Dr. Albers. “Food can’t be your daily life jacket in a sea of stressful emotions. It can only keep you afloat for a short time.”
When you turn to food as your sole source of comfort, you are only temporarily solving (or hiding) your problems. The first step to be able to work through comfort eating—the kind that is happening every day—is to identify when it is happening.
“Pausing for just a moment to ask yourself, ‘What am I feeling right now?’ can be a key first step,” shares Dr. Albers. “When you get honest and real with yourself, you often respond, ‘Well, I’m just bored.’ or ‘I’m just procrastinating.'”
And if that is the case, Dr. Albers stresses that you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. Don’t judge yourself; instead, celebrate that you checked in with yourself and had the awareness of your feelings. Also, she has a few tips for breaking out of the comfort eating comfort zone:
A lot of comfort eating is just habit. Break out of the habit by keeping a journal with the times and triggers that lead you into comfort eating (relationship stress, nighttime, traffic, etc.).
It’s helpful to build up new habits rather than to trying to stop doing the old ones. New habits crowd out the old. Start building up ways to deal with stress, like running or yoga. Make this your number one way to unwind.
Remind yourself of this statistic: A recent study showed that the good feeling that comes from eating comfort foods like chocolate only give you good feelings for about three minutes. Ask yourself, “Is this comfort food really worth just three minutes of comfort?”
These all help you follow Dr. Alber’s SWAP routine, where you swap out comfort eating and put in it’s place things that naturally reduce your cortisol level (the stress hormone that makes you crave sugary, fatty, salty food).
“This includes natural cortisol reducers like forest therapy, massage, relaxation, mindfulness meditation and acupressure, for example,” adds Dr. Albers. “When you get really clear on how you feel, you can target your intervention to match the feeling. If you feel angry, venting to a friend is going to likely help more than reading a book or burying yourself in ice cream.”
These are just a few of the many ways to make sure your comfort eating isn’t going overboard. But again, a soothing snack every now and then won’t do too much harm.