We all do it. It feels good. We have trouble stopping. If we do it too much, it can hurt us. I’m talking about comfort eating. In fact, you can observe this behavior in most mammalian species. Look at a dog chomping a bone. A hamster gnawing a stick. These are examples of non-nutritional chewing behaviors. There’s something about chewing that seems to be almost essential for our well-being.
The medical term for this is called “mastication satiety”. It refers to the need for chewing unto itself. The fact is that we have a genetic need to chew in order to feel “full”, in order to feel satisfied. In addition to the comfort that we get from chewing, there’s also significant comfort derived from the intake of simple carbohydrates. There is something about the act of chewing, followed by the surge of glucose and insulin that is very comforting to the brain. The problem is that this comfort is temporary and has a powerful though brief effect leaving us craving more of the same.
Some experts feel that the act of comfort eating is intrinsically unhealthy for us. Some feel the best approach is to eliminate comfort eating and use other methods of seeking comfort in order to avoid excessive food intake. But suppose we need to “chomp on a bone” or “gnaw on a stick” in our own way in order to feel complete and satisfied? Suppose these behaviors are innate to our nature and are a required part of our daily activities in order to keep us physically and psychologically balanced?
That has been my conclusion after many years of observing human behavior in regard to eating and counseling patients regarding weight reduction. This is a critical distinction. If the act of chewing for non-nutritional purposes is an essential human function then attempting to eliminate it fully is destined to fail. Rather than eradicate the behavior, we must recognize its essential nature and find ways to accommodate it.
The best way to approach comfort eating is by applying your premeditated disciplines skills to the task. Attempt to identify the times of day when you’re most inclined to comfort eat. It may be at work after a stressful encounter with a coworker, it may be in the evening in the solitude of time alone after dinner or in the aftermath of a frantic bedtime routine with children. Once you have identified the times were you most inclined to stress eat, prepare for them. Having pre-made foods in separate containers is always a good idea. It may even help to label it “for stress use only”, it is important to have the food packaged in a limited portion. As you know by now, the only cue for us to stop eating is when we run out of food. If you have a large container of food that is intended for stress eating over a span of time, say a week or more, you’re more likely to consume the entire amount much more quickly than if it is separated into small individual portions.
The next task is to separate stress or comfort eating from sustenance eating. Sustenance eating is the required consumption of macro and micro nutrients to keep us running at top efficiency. When you feel the impulse of a sensation commonly called “hunger” ask yourself a simple question – what are you hungry for? If, upon reflection, the answer is that you need food because you require caloric support, then partake of a high protein, low carbohydrate meal.
On the other hand, if you find out that your “hunger” represents feelings of sadness or loneliness, be prepared with a pre-planned list of things to do to alleviate these feelings other than eating. The same holds true if you conclude that your impulse is being triggered by stress or boredom.
If your non-food consumption intervention is not fully effective, then fall back to your prepackaged stress or comfort eating plan. One of my favorite stress eating foods are nuts-fresh nuts still in the shells. The act of cracking them open slows down the pace of your eating and allows for the use of your hands that many people find comforting. The crunchiness tends to be satisfying as well as inhibiting to a rapid rate of intake. Avoid carbohydrates. While they may give you an endorphin rush, you will come crashing down and your brain will start cycling in tighter circles looking for more. This is the type of habitual behavioral cycle that must be permanently eliminated if you are to have any hope at maintaining your healthiest weight.
Some other ideas for comfort eating include baby carrots. They are sweet and crunchy. Just avoid dipping them in anything that is unhealthy for you. Celery is great. Low glycemic index, high-fiber, difficult to digest. You can even feel pretty safe putting some organic, natural, peanut butter on your celery. Be certain it is organic, be sure to be reading the label to avoid added sugar.
Edamame is wonderful. Comfortably harnessed its own pod, it satisfies manual comfort as well as oral comfort as you must open each individually to gradually eat the contents slowly. It also has a relatively high protein content. Check the index at the back of the book for a list of some high-quality comfort foods.
One of the important aspects of this approach to comfort eating is to recognize the inevitability of the event, and then prepare for it so it doesn’t overwhelm you. In summary take control of the moment so that it doesn’t control you. Comfort eating doesn’t mean that you are mentally weak. It does not reflect poor discipline. It does not reflect poor character or make you a less worthy person.
Failing to prepare for your comfort eating however does reflect a lack of discipline in your preparedness for your nutritional and emotional needs. Failure to prepare for your comfort eating will make you a victim of unhealthy impulse eating. To live your healthiest, longest, most energized life, mastering non-nutritional eating moments is essential.
A good exercise after reading this post is to write down some activities and behaviors that you can use when a non-nutritional impulse strikes you and you have a desire to eat. Some thoughts to help you get started: phoning a friend, playing games on your cell phone, writing a short note to a friend or relative, performing five minutes of relaxing stretches, going for a walk around the block, or even around your house. Brewing a hot cup of green tea (no sugar added). Reading news headlines on the Internet. The list is really unlimited. Have some fun playing this game. Make it part of your premeditated discipline. Take care of yourself. Comfort yourself. Remain emotionally whole. Use food thoughtfully, don’t let it take control of you.
Maybe when you were a child you were offered food to comfort you in times of distress, physical pain, or hardship. What loving parent wouldn’t consider taking the child out for ice cream after they have bravely absorbed their immunizations at the doctor’s visit? That was then, when you were a child. Welcome to the grown-up world. Not only are you not a child anymore, but that wonderful metabolism possessed of your youthful growth spurt slammed into a wall years ago and is never coming back. That ice cream comfort food that you might have burned up quickly at age 10 now goes directly to your gut, your butt or some other undesirable place.
If you find yourself resisting the need for change in order to achieve your goal, try this exercise. Prior to your next comfort eating interlude, say out loud “I’m going to comfort eat in a manner that will make me fatter and less healthy and I just don’t care about it enough to stop” then go ahead and eat away! You will have earned points for honesty. Of course, my hope is that somewhere in the midst of that thoughtless and reckless eating activity, you will start to embrace the wisdom of premeditated discipline and plan for your needs like the grown-up that you are. Stop running in circles, having three good decisions in the course of the day wiped out by one bad one when it comes to eating choices. Try to plan for as many events in your day and your week is you can. Impulsive comfort eating temptations lurk around every corner! We have identified the enemy, and it is us. Become an Army of one in the battle against unhealthy eating. Armed with the knowledge you’ve acquired in this book, and your new found skill set, victory is inevitable.
Dr. Stephen Petteruti is board-certified in medical weight loss and family practice. He runs a Functional Medicine Center and has been practicing Medical Weight Loss for over 15 years. For more information about his center and weight loss program, please visit: https://www.im-120.com/
Intellectual Medicine 120 is in Warwick, RI.
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