Comfort Eating. Why do we do it?
St_Albans_Personal_Training_Comfort_Eating-min

by | Dec 4, 2014

I'm not in any way a psychologist, nor do I have any skills in re-wiring peoples behavioural patterns, but I do read a lot about food and marketing. The scary fact is that brands create food to make us addicted to more cheap and low quality food. Brands will literally go as far as put specific chemicals in their products which they know will cause you to become addicted to it, and your body will enhance that addiction through a build up of tolerance to that chemical, so your brain will tell you to find more of that chemical and interpret it as a reward.

For example, have you ever heard of the chemical Monosodium Glutamate? Better known by its more common name, MSG (look for the E number E621). As well as being a major additive in many foods, it is also used in laboratories to fatten up rats for experimentation. MSG causes high levels excitation and is often referred to as an excitotoxin. It is found in so many foods, and is purposefully added to foods such as soups, seasonings, snacks, fast foods, ready meals, and many more, in order to trigger your sense of craving for other foods which provide excessive stimulation (such as those high in sugar, or caffeine, or salt)
This is scary stuff! I highly recommend you read the book ‘Brandwashed’ which also covers this point.

So how can we fight back against brand and supermarket marketers (who are equally as bad with their own in store own brand products)? We know what we are craving, and why we are craving it (to literally get our fix of such substances), but what else is influencing us to buy these foods in the first place (other than knowing they taste good).

Many of the foods we crave are often described as rewards, treats, celebrations (literally!), or as something we deserve. You will frequently see marketing that describes certain food in such ways as “go on, treat yourself” or “you deserve a reward”. Coincidently, when we reward ourselves, our brains release a powerful neurotransmitter called Dopamine. In our brains, dopamine is translated as pleasure, creating a powerful feeling of satisfaction which we crave and become addicted to. During periods of the day when we have not received a reward for some time, we begin to crave a dopamine hit and start searching for ways to obtain this satisfaction associated with rewards. The more frequently we reward ourselves, the greater the need for a greater reward.
In food terms, something as innocent as yoghurt can (and many do) contain chemicals and sugars, and literally feed your reward system, giving you that release of dopamine you’ve been waiting for. If you have a relatively healthy diet and then start to reward yourself with something as innocent (hint) as yoghurt, you’re going to release dopamine into your system as a result. This in turn is going to influence you to seek out and crave sweeter foods. Perhaps you have the same problem with salt and you seek out crisps as a reward too. The fun, rewarding, celebratory slogan “once you pop you just can’t stop” soon becomes a real problem. If you look back to where your addictions started, for many during times of stress or lack of stimulation, you may be able to identify what foods initially caused the problem, and what foods you began to go after from there on.

For me I recognised this problem in bread and other baked products. I also loved bread based meals such as pizza, burgers, sandwiches (hungry yet?), and sweet baked goods. Unfortunately, these very products were feeding my cravings, and helping me towards a diet which was entirely reactive to the cravings I had to fulfil. Even when I was not hungry I would impulsively buy Burger Kings (I used to live a few yards away from a Burger King at University), cakes, doughnuts, you get the idea. Crisps and chocolate then became the norm (notice how ‘meal deals’ are always a sandwich, packet of crisps, some sort of chocolate, and bottle of fruit juice from concentrate or a fruit smoothie…supermarkets know how to get you hooked!) But it wasn’t the bread itself I was addicted to…it was their unlabelled ingredients. Bakers of ‘fresh’ bread and baked goods in the UK do not have to fully label their products with the ingredients used. The Real Bread Campaign gives us an overview of what bakers and retailers are not required to do for us consumers (www.sustainweb.org/realbread/bread_labelling):

  • Bakers and retailers are not required to provide customers with full lists of ingredients and any additives they use in making unwrapped loaves – e.g. those from supermarket in-store bakeries.
  • The use of so-called processing aids can go completely undeclared, even on the ingredient and additive lists of wrapped loaves.
  • There are no legal definitions for terms commonly used in loaf marketing, including ‘fresh’ (or ‘freshly baked’), ‘sourdough’, ‘wholegrain’, ‘artisan’ and ‘craft.’

 

Shocked? We literally live in a world where avoiding additives or addictive substances is near impossible! It’s no wonder we crave such bad foods or comfort eat, or even let these foods become a part of our everyday diet! Once these foods are in your everyday diet the supermarkets know you will literally be buying the sweeter, saltier, more appealing foods which are ridiculously high in these addictive substances.The messages throughout online food stores and in the supermarkets themselves are telling us it’s ok to buy and enjoy more, and more, and more.

How do we stop? If you really concerned then your first point of call should be a GP (I always recommend this) as they can help guide you towards resources and even dieticians. Never attempt to dramatically or suddenly change your diet without GP guidance. For me, I took steps to keep bad foods out of sight and out of mind. I avoided the baked goods aisle and I wouldn’t allow any bad foods into my kitchen. I made rules for myself such as eating those foods only at weekends, which I soon reduced to a new rule which is now ‘eating those foods only at birthdays and celebrations, and I’m on my way to reducing this even further’. By reducing my intake of bad foods I naturally reduce the cravings and my addictions slowly break down. They become less frequent and I haven’t caused myself any additional stress from drastically changing my diet. My approach to food is much less reactive.

I also started to explore fresh vegetables, fruits and healthy fats. I realised that my taste buds could only recognise severely strong flavours, and I would find vegetables to be bland, which they shouldn’t be! They have so much flavour but we can barely recognise it as it’s not what we’re used to.
Also, I looked for different ways to reward myself other than food, which is how I got into exercise and why I continued playing sports. I loved playing (and still do) rugby! I found Calisthenics to be challenging and rewarding, especially when I could perform the more complex movements due to my hard work paying off. Re-wiring your dopamine reward system to respond to a healthy stimulus is a key way to avoid comfort eating or treating yourself regularly with bad foods. It’s strange to say it but I now crave fresh raw foods like vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, nut and seeds because my body has got used to wanting the nutrients. I become more irritated when I am a bit dehydrated, as opposed to needing a cup of coffee. It may sound a bit mad or even ridiculous, but I want to encourage you to remove addictive foods and seek out a healthier diet. Find other foods, healthier foods to reward yourself with. Work out which healthy foods are your favourite and work from there (find recipes that use them for example). Reward yourself in a different way and fulfil your bodies cravings for a dopamine hit with a healthy reward, something you enjoy.

It’s not going to be easy but nothing worth having ever is! If you’re looking for a way to reward yourself with exercise then I urge you to try out Calisthenics, which can be done without any equipment and can be performed anywhere, anytime, by yourself or in groups. Yes, I’ll even plug my own classes but they are good fun and they could help you get started on your journey towards a stronger version of you.

If you have any questions then leave comment or email me at dan.johnston@stapt.co.uk

For next weeks blog article I’ll be writing about one of my biggest problems which is sleep and a feeling of constant tiredness. I really do struggle to get out of bed in the morning, and although I’m not as bad as I used to be, I still often feel constantly tired.

SHARING IS CARING