How to control comfort food cravings
From the time we are born, we have an emotional relationship with food. As a baby, you were driven by a need for sustenance, based on your innate survival instincts. When you cried, your parents often soothed you with the breast or bottle. At the same time, they cooed and cuddled and stroked your cheek, so the unconscious connection was formed: as well as satisfying hunger, food nurtured you at a much deeper level.
Throughout childhood, the use of food to placate and calm continued. Remember when you fell off your bike, skinned your knee or were teased by the kid next door? While you were still tearfully babbling explanations, your mum or dad would appear with the biscuits and milk and within nanoseconds your eyes were dry and you felt happily diverted but also consoled, compensated and cared for.
Unintentionally, your parents were giving you an incredibly powerful message: food can comfort emotional and physical pain. Little wonder then that as adults we often use food to pamper ourselves after a frantic or tense day — it’s the main strategy we have been taught to employ when dealing with the stressors of life.
The idea of food as a reward is reinforced all through our formative years via our cultural thinking (lollies for filling up your sticker chart at school), practices (a birthday cake for turning one year older) and the way we elevate certain foods above others (the word “treat” to refer to unhealthy snacks).
The use of food as a reward is also evident at many family dinner tables – what child can’t remember being bribed to eat their Brussels sprouts with the promise of icecream at the end of the meal? The trouble is, once you become an adult you don’t suddenly lose this learnt association with food and pampering and it can confuse your understanding of the role food should play in your life. Not only do you hanker for dessert after your evening meal because it was the bribe you were offered as a child, but you may feel you deserve the sweet indulgence because you ate a healthy dinner.
As an adult, using food to boost your mood can turn you into an emotional eater who gains weight when going through a rough patch. Or you may find your approach to food is generally balanced until you have a difficult day, when you morph into a binge-eater, downing a family-sized chocolate bar in one sitting. What is going on in here is complex and multi-faceted.
First, through satisfying your cravings, you are trying to soothe your emotional state. Second, through comfort food you are trying to recreate that childhood sense of being nurtured and protected. Your choices of comfort food may not be confined to cinnamon teacake just like Mum made; you may also crave felafel rolls (because they remind you of carefree days with your friends at uni) or toasted cheese sandwiches (because you and your first lover enjoyed those while lazing at home on snuggly weekends).
All these associations are linked to home and hearth and happy times. The smell and taste of the food stimulates your sensory system, which is closely connected with the memory response, so on a much deeper level the food itself strengthens (and may even kickstart) those recollections of the past. In a potent way, comfort food makes those times and people feel more immediately present. This may be particularly obvious if you’re feeling under the weather and all you want to eat is chicken noodle soup prepared just the way your grandmother used to make it when you were home from school with a cold.
Though you may feel immediately relieved after satisfying a craving, letting stress and anxiety continue in your life while “fixing” these emotional states with comfort food is obviously not a helpful coping strategy. It can lead to weight issues that in turn could cause problems with your health, self-image and body confidence.
By avoiding dealing with the original stressors or problems, you allow them to continue their hold on your life, without ever learning any positive strategies to deal with them head on. Psychologically, it’s not healthy to live with a strong sense that a behaviour or habit has control over you. Comfort eating should be addressed and new coping mechanisms learnt, otherwise it could lead to a situation where you come to feel like food rules every aspect of your life.
To break this pattern, you need to learn and adopt changes in attitude and behaviour that can be utilised on a daily basis and those that can help during one-off stressful life events. Stress-busting strategies may include exercise, yoga, meditation, relaxation, sexual intimacy, playing music and relaxing in a bath or the sun — all activities that stimulate an increase in the feel-good brain chemicals.
Aside from the emotional connection, food cravings can be motivated by biochemical needs within your body and brain. It’s no coincidence that at times of stress you are more likely to find yourself giving in to an insatiable desire for carbohydrates such as sugar, potato or bread. Your body is trying to boost your mood and energy by getting you to eat foods that will provide a quick burst of energy and, in turn, help elevate mood-enhancing brain chemicals. Your body is trying to put the brakes on your stress!
Interestingly, sugar can help to quickly generate certain natural brain chemicals, particularly the chemicals involved in mood and pleasure, such as serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals are also stimulated when people use opiate drugs such as heroin and alcohol. Initially, after eating sugar, the very same opiate receptors are the reason you may notice a feeling of calm and euphoria. But if you overdo it by repeatedly giving your body sugar fixes, you can suffer a rebound effect.
In the middle of a sugar crash, you may feel completely on edge. This is because a large and rapid drop in sugar levels also triggers an adrenalin response. The job of the adrenalin is to push the blood sugar levels back up quickly to give you energy, but it can also make you feel nervous, shaky, cranky, dry in the mouth and tight in the neck and back. So you go looking for your next sugar hit to alleviate these symptoms and the vicious cycle continues.
To minimise sugar cravings and withdrawal symptoms it helps to eat foods with a low GI (glycaemic index) because they break down more slowly in the bloodstream, creating longer-lasting energy and causing less insulin to be released, so blood sugar remains stable. Combine them with protein such as chicken or eggs and you will feel full for longer and be less likely to reach for a sugary snack.
Some health professionals also believe that cravings for salt indicate adrenal exhaustion. If this sounds like you, then you should make sure you do some form of exercise to burn off those adrenal hormones that are driving your cravings.
Though your emotional state can influence your desire to eat certain foods, your physical state can create equally powerful cravings. Women and men crave different foods, according a University of Illinois survey of comfort food involving more than 1000 people. While both genders rated icecream as their favourite comfort food, their choices then differed greatly. Women named chocolate and biscuits as their numbers two and three, while men rated soup, pizza and pasta as their favourites. The difference may be due to our male and female hormones.
Women are particularly prone to hormonal hunger. Pregnant women have been known to crave everything from dirt to icecream, which is thought to be connected to their increased need for minerals such as calcium during pregnancy. Similarly, throughout the menstrual cycle, a woman’s appetite may be subtly influenced by hormonal shifts. During menstruation, rising oestrogen acts as a slight appetite suppressant, while the drop in progesterone can help stabilise blood sugar levels. This usually means women eat about 12 per cent less in the first week of their menstrual cycle than they do during weeks three and four, according to research from Tufts University in the US.
The down side is this may cause you to skip meals then suffer sudden energy crashes and cravings that make you reach for sugar to provide a quick energy hit. In the two weeks following ovulation, the body’s metabolic rate increases and women produce more progesterone, which increases appetite. About 50 per cent of women experience greater hunger at this point in their cycle; it’s the body’s way of trying to make sure you have enough bodyweight to sustain a pregnancy if conception occurs.
Should you listen to your body because it knows what you need? In moderation, yes. But reach for fruit rather than a chocolate snack so you boost your brain chemistry and energy levels in a healthy way. Or try to divide your meals into sub-snacks; for example, eating half of your chicken wrap at morning tea and the other half at lunch. On those days, you can’t seem to control your hunger, aim to do more exercise, even if you only get off the bus four stops earlier and walk the rest of the way home. Not only will the physical activity help curb your appetite, it will also burn up the excess kilojoules you consume at certain times of the month.
The food sensitivity connection
Sensitivities to certain foods can paradoxically create an urge to eat precisely the food you should be avoiding. This is very common in people who suffer from wheat allergies — the longer they go without the food, the more their brain starts to withdraw from the chemicals in that food. This withdrawal may happen within hours, at which time the brain will send out a craving signal to try to get the bread hit it’s wanting in order to stop the withdrawal.
“If there’s one food you feel you would really struggle to live without, then that food may be the very one you’re sensitive to and the food that should be removed from your diet,” says Natalie Thatcher, a naturopath in Balmain, Sydney. By avoiding the food completely for two to three months, then reintroducing it, you can determine whether bread or milk or eggs are any other food is contributing to health problems such as skin rashes, blood sugar imbalances, a foggy head, digestive issues and difficulties with weight loss.
The elimination is best conducted under the guidance of an experienced nutritional practitioner. This will ensure you don’t get a masked food response by, for example, reintroducing wheat and mistakenly concluding that you have had a reaction when, in fact, your response has been caused by the yeast, bleached flour, preservatives or soy ingredients in the bread.
When you hit an afternoon slump, do you ever get an overwhelming desire for a broccoli floret or raw radish? Probably not. The kinds of comfort foods we crave are rarely those that are the most health-giving. It’s not just the strong flavour (from all the sugar, fat, salt and artificial flavourings) that makes snack and fast food so appealing, but also the fact that these foods are forbidden in the sense that we know we should be trying to avoid them. It’s a clear-cut case of reverse psychology: when you restrict something, it can make you want it more.
But an interesting thing happens when you stop obsessing about cutting out comfort food. If, instead, you give yourself full permission to eat that food in moderation, by enjoying small servings a couple of times a week, suddenly you relax, stop feeling deprived and find your focus shifts from comfort food to other things. It’s a huge relief because you can let go of agonising about when you’re going to get your next donut/deep-fried tempura/slice of apple pie.
A food diary can help you identify triggers that may be driving your particular food cravings. In one column, make note of the time and the food you have eaten; in another, note the time and nature of any cravings. In a third column, record any specific issues you know may be affecting your energy and mood, such as a bad night’s sleep, an argument with your boss or tantrum from your two-year-old. Once you identify the triggers that are leading to emotional eating, address them through self-help strategies.
Learn tools such as meditation, relaxation, tapping (a form of psychological “acupressure” with outstanding results for breaking habits) and cognitive therapies (a way of changing your thought patterns to change the way you feel). Experiment until you find what works best for you. These strategies will help you identify and reduce food cravings; it’s just a matter of committing to implementing them in your life then sitting back to enjoy the results.
In addition, you should address lifestyle changes that will reduce the likelihood of craving comfort foods, such as getting daily exercise, sleeping eight hours a night and minimising your intake of alcohol (lessening inhibitions can often lead to increased snacking).
Environment can also be a trigger for comfort eating or over-eating — it’s the reason you crave a choctop icecream before you even get to the cinema, or find yourself wanting fish and chips when you head for the beach. As long as you’re not lingering in such trigger environments every day, a little indulgence here and there is not a problem. However, if you really want to break the connection, fill up on a healthy snack and water before you arrive or consider taking your own snacks (such as homecooked popcorn in a small serve).
Sometimes you may think you are hungry when, in fact, you have another need that’s not being met. First, make sure you’re not thirsty. Your body can easily mistake lack of hydration as a hunger signal when what you really need is a tall glass of cool water. What about your energy levels? Have you been working really hard and getting too little respite? Do you need some time out? What about your creative life? Are you feeling stifled? It could be that you feel trapped in a job you don’t like or feel bored by the lack of variation in your life from day to day. All these issues can lead to comfort eating, so recognise their presence and impact and try to change the things you can.
Meanwhile, write a list of activities you can do instead of eating when you get a craving. The aim is to delay eating for 10 minutes and then another 10 minutes until, hopefully, the craving subsides. If you’re at home, you could try playing the guitar, calling a friend, doing a sodoku puzzle or walking around the block. If at work, you could offer to do a coffee run, fill your bottle at the water cooler, make a work call or pop in to see a colleague.
Still hungry? Try eating something healthy, such as carrot sticks with homous or an apple. Food urge still getting stronger? Then have a little of the food you’re craving. Throw the remainder in the bin or put it somewhere not easily accessible such as a very high cupboard or the back of the top shelf in the fridge. At the same time, when you imagine the food, think in sepia tones, not colour. Research at Flinders University has found that if you reduce the vividness of the mental image of the food you crave, the desire immediately becomes less powerful.
The need for comfort food is normal and experienced by everyone. Being too fearful of cravings and your ability to control them can give them far too much power over your food habits and your thinking, leading to more cravings. A more helpful approach is to understand why and when your particular cravings occur and have a list of strategies up your sleeve so you can deal with them.
Are you really hungry?
Unlike our ancestors, we have food on tap, so we have less obvious appetite fluctuations. To help you get back in touch with your natural hunger cycles and signals:
- Pay attention to physical signals that it’s time for food, which may include stomach growls, pangs or a hollow feeling to indicate hunger. Signals from your brain may include fogginess, lack of concentration, headache or fatigue.
- Ask yourself: “Am I really hungry or am I thirsty/tired/stressed/upset?”
- Keep track of how often you eat. Write it down so you can see if there are any obvious patterns or triggers that cause your food cravings.
- Calculate how long it has been since you last ate. If four hours have passed, you most likely need food. If it has only been an hour since your last meal, have a drink to fill your stomach and try to hold off eating a little longer.
What is your craving telling you?
Natural health therapists believe the food you crave may indicate the following areas of imbalance in your biochemistry and body systems in the following patterns:
- Sugar: Yeast overgrowth in the gut or a need for more serotonin, a brain chemical that elevates mood.
- Carbohydrates: Lack of tryptophan, which helps taxi serotonin into the brain.
- Salt: Adrenal exhaustion, thyroid insufficiency and the need for certain trace minerals such as potassium and iodine.
- Bread, cheese, oranges: Allergies to these foods and foods in the same chemical group or food family.
- Protein: A lack of GABA (gamma-amino butyric acid), an amino acid involved in promoting calm and relaxation.
- Fatty foods: Elevated cortisol levels due to stress and depletion of essential fatty acids.
- Salad greens: Insufficient hydration.
- Chocolate and caffeine: Deficiency in dopamine, a feel-good brain chemical.
Jacqui Manning is a psychologist who specialises in self-image and stress management.
Edit: This article was corrected. The statement "To minimise sugar cravings and withdrawal symptoms it helps to eat foods with a low GI (glycaemic index)" is the correct statement, not "eat foods with a high GI" as previously written.