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and not today's pain or pleasure alone, but the whole being and outlook of a man."
~James H. West

Lisa's Blog

Oh Comfort eating, How do I love thee let me count the ways...

Lisa Cutforth - Tuesday, June 09, 2009
Aaah... comfort eating. The sheer enwrapment and mm-mmm-mmm of snuggling up under the doona on a cold winter's evening in front a fabulous chick flick with a cup of milo and a timtam. Dunking a Tim Tam You nip off the ends and dunk the tim tam into the mug of hot milky liquid and suck deeply, oooh, the decadent ooze of warm soft slightly granular chocolately middle floods into your mouth. Heavenly, quickly before it drops into your mug you shove the rest into your mouth and the chocolate explosion is so gorgeous, you close your eyes near purring. You stare ahead at the screen and savour the last of the experience licking the chocolate off each one of your fingers... mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm Delicious, blissful... addictive even... You reach for another, then another... ooh, it is so rich, you are nearly feeling ill, just one last one. But your need is insatiable. Physically you couldn't possibly have another, but psychological, oh yes you could! Certainly you have at least one comfort food you reach for when you are feeling anxious, stressed, down, tired, frustrated, bored or just wanting a little "pick me up and make me feel better"... Here are some of other peoples choices...
  • Cheese toastie
  • Apple pie
  • Macaroni cheese
  • Baked beans on toast
  • Chocolate
  • Ice-cream
  • Milk and cookies
  • Tea and biscuits
  • Tea and toast
  • Chicken Soup
  • Pizza
  • Mashed potato
  • Potato Chips
  • Peanut butter and honey or jam sandwich
  • Junket
  • Bread dipped in balsamic and olive oil
  • Pavlova
  • Roast dinner
It is interesting to note they typically have one very telling thing in common: they are high in refined carbohydrates. So what is it that makes us choose to eat certain foods over others, and why is it these foods can make you feel better when you are feeling down, you might be wondering... It may come as a surprise to learn that your comfort food of choice has a lot to do with your upbringing.  Generally background culture tends to affect comfort food trends: for example one the most popular comfort food in the UK is boiled egg and soldiers (toast cut into strips for dipping into the soft yolk) where in Ireland Irish stews are popular.  So comfort foods are not necessarily unhealthy and are often far from gourmet.  Being male or female also seems to affect your comfort food of choice. Men are more likely to choose meals and the ladies are more likely to choose snacky foods. What did your parents give you to cheer you up when you were growing up? Did you have a favourite meal request? Were certain foods associated with special occasions? You may find your kids will request certain favourite foods (similar to how you used to request your certain favourite dishes from your mother, grandmother or even your father) ... lentil soup or macaroni cheese, that will for the rest of their lives be imprinted in their brain as mom's recipe (in my case, my dad makes the most glorious soup).  Fresh pawpaw always reminds me of my mom and being a little girl, we had these gorgeous honeygold pawpaws and she would get home from work, pick one, cut it in half, scoop out the seeds and hand me a spoon, then we would sit on the back step and dig in.  I still love to sit outside in the sun and eat fresh pawpaw.  The attachment to the food is much less about the food than about the feelings of nurturing, giving, and unconditional love and safety that come with feeding. The sense of home, love and belonging. Not to mention the feel good reward, as mom is able to provide for her little darlings something that they like to eat and nourishes them, and the little darlings get the positive warm feedback overflow from this. Why do we comfort eat? Any sort of emotional eating is usually an attempt to offset negative emotions.  Triggers include stress, anxiety, boredom, anger, loneliness, frustration and sadness.   There seems to be a couple of explanations for comfort eating, the reason is pretty simple, it makes us feel better, temporarily at least.  One possible explanation from a study in October 2007 Nature revealed that the brain releases a key signaling hormone associated with pleasure when our stomach becomes full.  So chemically, comfort eating makes us feel better. Another explanation is psychologically, comfort eating makes us feel better. Comfort foods tend to be described as foods that soothe the psyche, they typically relate back to pleasant memories and associations from your childhood, giving you a sense of nostalgia, safety and security when eaten.  But has this changed?  Nowadays comfort foods tend to come in boxes or in packages, they are not the homemade comforts of old necessarily... and actually some children have never even tasted their parents home cooking! However the association and happy memory can still be there.  For example one client reported being taken to McDonalds everytime after a doctors appointment, therefore she connected eating McDonalds with feeling better. Interestingly though, there is some physiological sense attached to some of the more unhealthy high sugar, high fat comfort foods that are reached for in times of stress particularly later in life, when mom isn't around to make the comfort food, you might reach for another... There are a few possible explanations for this... one is that some of these carbohydrate foods contain an amino acid: tryptophan, which is used to make serotonin, commonly recognised as the happy hormone. Tryptophan utilisation is aided by the presence of glucose... so these sugary foods, chocolate is a good example, it contains both tryptophan and sugar, which means that you get a bit of a tryptophan kick, making more serotonin available. Chocolate also contains other chemicals that make you feel good... which is why it's such a popular choice.  And it's also why if you are low in serotonin or feeling a little down, chocolate actually can make you feel a bit better. In addition, the sugar rush to your brain, can feel good, its a little druglike! Another chemical dopamine is also involved in this pleasurable endevour.  Dopamine is your pleasure seeking or pleasure controlling neurotransmitter.  (And therefore is largely connected to motivation.)  The cells in the dopamine system in the brain are active when we are taking or anticipating pleasure in some activity.  Tests in monkeys have found cells fire up in response to taste of pleasant food.  It seems that the dopamine levels contribute to this wanting, acting as a primary motivator to seek out things we believe we want or will get pleasure from.   Interestingly studies conducted on rats found that when dopamine blocking drugs were used to shut the system down, rats would starve even when surrounded by mountains of tasty food.      The dopamine system also interacts with a class of brain chemicals called opiods (because of their similarity to opium).  Opiods seem to be directly involved in pleasure.  What is especially interesting about this is that in some people casein (a protein) found in milk can actually act like an opiate in the brain, due to a metabolism problem.  These people will generally feel a very strong attachment or enjoyment to milk as a comfort food.  The injection of opiates (chemical form) into wide areas of a rat brain resulted in both more eating and more positive behaviours towards foods.  So these compounds can actually trigger you to eat more, which consequently can contribute to regular overindulgence and weight gain. The reverse is also true, taking an opioid-blocking drug makes things that are usually delicious seem less so!   Is there a cure for comfort eating?  No and there needn't be!   What can you enjoy that isn't going to become problematic to your waist line and still give you comfort? Or how can you let comfort eating serve you and not sabotage you? Firstly, try to connect with what is stirring you emotionally?  Are you upset, bored, anxious, nervous... Then you can try some tactics: like distraction... delay the gratification, don't give in immediately, wait 15 minutes, nurture yourself another way or find an alternative way to give yourself pleasure or comfort.  Break the habit of comfort eating...  Try calling a friend, go for a walk, run a bath, go shopping... if that doesn't work, seek out the best quality version of your comfort food (definitely don't keep them at home, or keep a stock of healthy comfort foods) and sit and give it all of your attention, don't do anything else other than eat and enjoy in your comfort food.  Eat it slowly, one mouth full at a time and savour each bite.  This way you are less likely to overdo it, soon you realise it isn't really about the food its about the "vibe" and association, whatever you do enjoy the treat and DEFINITELY don't feel guilty.  And remember really any food can become a comfort food, with enough positive association around it:  a Chai Soy Latte has become one for me, raisin toast with cinnamon and a thin spread of my butter and olive oil mix, a couple of pieces of dark chocolate with almonds or hazelnuts, a big bowl of minestrone or pumpkin soup, and polenta and tomato relish because it reminds me of South Africa.  It is also useful to consider and take advantage of other ways to nurture candlelit-bathyourself when you are needing comfort. A good long soaking candlelit bath with essential oils like rose geranium and ylang ylang also brings me great comfort, I feel like I am getting a great big warm hug by the water and the glow of the candles. Getting a foot rub or a reflexology treatment or a relaxing massage can be tremendously therapeutic.   Because the mechanisms that control the wanting for things are not the same as those that control the mechanism for liking them, you can crave something very much and take little or no pleasure in it once you have it... so be sure you do take all the pleasure you can from the experience, and if you aren't enjoying it, stop.  Find something else that will give you some level of pleasure. So, relish in your comforts, treat yourself often, be kind to yourself absolutely, but do so with awareness, keeping an eye out for destructive and hard to get rid of habits.

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