Why we find comfort in food and how to curb emotional eating: Jennifer Moss

As we find ourselves in the middle of a pandemic, watching the election south of the border and starting to think about what the holidays could look like this year, you’d be forgiven if you’re turning to food for comfort.

Nostalgia and food often go hand-in-hand. We can smell and taste the memories from our childhood — it’s why we crave specific meals that take us back to that time and place. 

During times of stress, studies show that our need to feel comforted can be triggered by food. It makes sense that during the pandemic, studies show we’re eating emotionally now more than ever. 

We also tend to find ourselves eating foods higher in sugar, fat, or salt because it stimulates the brain’s reward system and improves our mood. In fact, according to Psychology Today, the same reward and pleasure centres associated with drug addiction are active when comfort foods are consumed.

We tend to associate certain foods with members of our family, social gatherings and people taking care of us. When we feel lonely, we crave these foods to give us comfort and security.

Plus, our olfactory (smell) memories evoke vivid and detailed emotional memories of our past and tend to be positive. Both the smell and taste of food can reduce feelings of loneliness. Combine that with another stretch of social distancing through the holidays and I can pretty much guarantee my mom’s meatloaf will be on our menu more often than last year. 

Science of stress eating 

Connecting our food to positive memories and emotions is healthy. However, stress eating happens when we’re using food to cope or avoid our feelings. Biologically, stress is associated with changes in cortisol, which plays a critical role in energy regulation.

Happiness columnist Jennifer Moss says for her, comfort can be found in her mother’s meatloaf recipe (this is a file photo and results of that recipe are not seen here). Moss says for her, the meatloaf is ‘a hug wrapped in ketchup-laden ground beef.’ (Twyla Campbell)

The reason why we tend to crave food higher in fat and sugar when stressed is in part because our body requires more energy to function when stressed, and simple carbohydrates are the fastest way to get a quick hit. 

Additionally, the pandemic created fear around the availability, accessibility and cost of future food, which has affected some people’s experience of eating. This can have dangerous consequences, and so returning to a healthy relationship with food that doesn’t bare the weight of scarcity is important for all of us to get back to. 

2020 has changed how we consume food

The way Canadians are consuming food has completely changed in 2020. The biggest factor would be how much time we’re spending at home.

One Dalhousie University report believes the increase in online grocery orders is expected to double from about 1.7 to four per cent of Canadians’ food spending. That means a difference of up to $4-billion worth of food to $8-billion by the time we’re done with 2020. 

That is a huge shift. 

Less people eating out. More people eating in. Less grocery stores.

Even boredom is a factor in why we’re baking more and subsequently consuming more. It’s tough to just make a delicious loaf of bread to look at it sit on the counter smelling all delicious. The pandemic has increased our need to fill time — with baking and cooking a big part of that solution. 

And yet, it’s important to remember that emotional over-eating can lead to regret, physical discomfort and weight gain. It’s always about balance. Also, if we’re stress eating, food doesn’t make those original stressors go away. They remain independent of our eating behaviour and need to be addressed in other ways outside of food. 

We can’t ignore that the virus is still very much ever-present in our lives. So, consequently, until we honestly confront the stress that is driving our eating, we will continue to use food as an escape, which can lead to longer-term harm to our physical and emotional health.

Signs and solutions 

To assess whether we’re eating to rekindle happy memories or if our stress eating is moving toward something more serious, here are some signs to look out for:

  • You find that obsessive thoughts of food prevent you from doing other things.
  • You’re eating when you’re not hungry.
  • You are eating large amounts of food with a loss of control over the eating — and then purge, trying to get rid of the extra calories in an unhealthy way.

To ensure we have our emotional eating in check, there are some ways we can maintain a positive relationship with food.

Practice acceptance. If food is what gets you through this time, don’t beat yourself up about it. When we feel guilty about the way we’re eating and attempt to diet or restrict to make up for it, we’ll continue to fuel that binge-restrict cycle. We need to create space for eating foods we enjoy. 

Schedules are good. During the pandemic there has been so much unknown. Create certainty with scheduling and set times to eat so you break up the day and reduce unplanned eating. All of this will also help stabilize blood sugar and regulate moods.

Expand coping strategies. If eating has been the only coping strategy, it’s good to add new tools to the toolbox. Consider other activities that can soothe, distract, or discharge some nervous energy like journaling, painting, going for a walk, taking a bath and staying connected.

It’s more important than ever to maintain our connections during this time of social distancing. Instead of recreating a memory with food, next time connect with someone that was part of that memory who would love to reminisce. Or, if that doesn’t exist, call a family member or friend who would be delighted to hear you retell it. 

And yeah, we’re in pretty strange times. If I want to eat my mom’s meatloaf because it brings me comfort once in a while — I will. For me, it’s a hug wrapped in ketchup-laden ground beef.

The key to maintain well-being is to make sure we’re still figuring out healthy options for self-care, finding time to experience joy outside of times when we’re not eating and ensuring balance remains a priority.

Keep your fork up. We’ll be fine.