- Health & Beauty
- Diet & Nutrition
- Weight loss
- WHF TV
Any woman who has tasted double chocolate chip cookies or delighted in the sight of a cheese and dip platter understands the pull-power of food as a form of comfort.
And let's face it, when it comes to feeling sorry for ourselves at the end of a long and emotional day nothing seems more welcoming than a fully-stocked fridge or a supermarket trolley full of endless possibilities.
The image of a bleary-eyed pyjama-clad woman seeking comfort in a block of chocolate is so ingrained in popular culture that commercials advertising the latest sweet treat seem to capitalise on our tumultuous relationship with sugar-laden foods. But why is it sweets that we turn to? And why don't men seem to comfort eat?
According to a 2005 study conducted by Cornell University comparing the difference between male and female eating patterns, women are slightly more likely to turn to comfort foods high in fat and sugar when they're feeling lonely, guilty and depressed - whereas men are more likely to pick steaks, pasta and soups when motivated by positive emotions. The same study found that women were 50 per cent more likely than men to admit feeling guilty about indulging in comfort foods.
Research suggests that comfort eating is a learnt behaviour instilled in us from childhood. "As children, if we're crying or need soothing, adults will often offer comfort food and because of this, comfort eating is a learnt reaction that we link to feeling better," says DAA [Dietitians Association of Australia] dietitan Susie Burrell.
As adults, sweet treats replicate the same feeling of comfort triggered by a lollipop from the doctor or a Freddo Frog from our parents as a reward for good behaviour. But as adults, we use food to salve bigger and deeper problems. "Comfort eating is linked to an emotional response, whether it be a sadness, a loneliness, a depression or a guilt and the food is being used as the soothant for that," says Burrell.
"It's not a physiological reaction, such as craving carbohydrates at 4pm, but rather an emotional one."
To overcome comfort eating we must first address the root of our problems. "The first thing is to try and identify the trigger," suggests Burrell. "In what situation are you comfort eating? Is there a set pattern? Is it happening on a Saturday night? Is there something wrong at work? Have you had a fight with your boyfriend?"
Essentially, it's about taking the problem away from the food and identifying the trigger. The next step is to find an appropriate way of managing it. This may mean enlisting the help of a counsellor or psychologist to help you address your problems.
Many people will admit to comfort eating but when you ask them why they seek comfort in food they're not entirely sure. Heather Mckinierny, a self-described partially-reformed comfort eater says that the first step for her was recording her eating habits in a food diary. "My psychologist suggested it - and at first I was mortified. I felt as if my power had been completely taken from me, but it turned out to be extremely helpful."
Heather identified that she was most likely to turn to food on the nights when her husband was entertaining clients or working late. "I felt insecure in my relationship and instead of discussing my fears with my husband I subconsciously turned to chocolate. I never got to the point of binge eating [which is characterised by secretive, excessive and planned outings], but it completely undermined my hard work at the gym and my efforts at making healthy dinners. Come 9pm, I'd grab a handful of Tim Tams and would be back for more in the next ad break," she says.
Heather sought marriage counselling and says that she now has greater control of her eating habits and is a lot happier in her relationship.