The Truth About Comfort Eating

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Addictions come in all shapes and sizes.

Usually we think addictions can only apply to substances, like drugs or alcohol.  But you can also be addicted to behaviors (like gambling, shopping, sex, work, or eating).  Turns out that the chemical response in the brain is much the same.

What does addiction do to the brain?

Addiction of any sort targets the “pleasure center” of the brain (otherwise known as the limbic system).  Most addictions mimic, stimulate the release of, or block the breakdown of the “pleasure and reward” neurotransmitter (signal in the brain), called dopamine.

This study found that chocolate and sugar produces a chemical in the brain called enkephalins, which works much like opiates (including heroin, morphine, and oxycontin) – that is, they stimulate the release of dopamine.

Another study found that patients who have undergone gastric bypass surgeries are at increased risk for developing substance abuse disorders after the fact - suggesting that in some sense, the “root cause” (the addictive tendency) has not been addressed.  These patients still seek the same dopamine release, just via a different medium.

Why would our bodies respond to food in this way?  

One theory is that we’re programmed for survival.  Historically starvation was a real possibility, and so it makes sense that high-protein and high-fat foods would taste better  to us (i.e. lead to greater pleasure, therefore greater dopamine release) than those of lower caloric content.  But these foods didn’t used to be so readily available, as we well know.

So how do you deal with comfort eating?

My favorite technique is to go cold turkey for a month from the food you crave.  (I know, I know — calm down and hear me out.)  Your taste buds reset after about that length of time, and for that reason, cold turkey is ultimately a lot easier than trying to wean yourself off.  You may not still enjoy the same foods afterwards, but the cycle will be broken.  And for some people, this will be enough.

But what if the food addiction really indicates a deeper emotional issue?

In that case, you will need to address the root cause, of course.  Here’s a few recommendations to get you going:

  • Get some support.  Have a good friend or a counselor who can walk through the process with you.
  • Develop a practice of mindfulness (deep breathing, meditation, yoga, etc).  This will help you to slow down and get in touch with what’s really going on inside.
  • Keep a food and feeling journal.  This will help you to correlate the foods you crave with the emotions you feel at the time.
  • Once you see this connection clearly, begin to ask yourself the hard questions.  Where are those emotions coming from?  What would need to happen in order to address them, rather than just mask them?
  • Cultivate a practice of gratitude for your food.  Give thanks for it.  Stop and appreciate it before eating.  Chew it slowly.  Not only will this teach you to tune in and learn to recognize when you feel full, but gratitude (in general!) will also help to shift your focus from what you desire to what you already have.
  • Accept yourself right now, exactly as you are.  Self-condemnation is counterproductive.  In order to move forward, you need to give yourself positive rather than negative encouragement.

A highly recommended resource: “Create the Body that Your Soul Desires,” by Dr Karen Wolfe and Deborah Kern.

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