Emotional Eating: What Do Your Comfort Foods Do for YOU?


This post introduces our new behavior leader at Green Mountain: Shiri Macri, MA, Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor. We’re thrilled to have her join us and, with this post, you can see why.

Comfort Foods, Stress and Emotional Eating

stress induced overeating chartA bowl of mashed potatoes, homemade mac-n-cheese, warm apple pie…these images may elicit a smile and sense of calm for you.

Often these “comfort foods” are nostalgic and sentimental for people, but are they really comforting?

Not according to a study by Traci Mann, psychology professor at the University of Minnesota, which suggests it’s not the food that is actually comforting.

According to Mann, other factors contribute to the comforting effect, factors such as the idea of the food, its image, the memory it brings up, or perhaps the situation we’re eating it in.

What Are We Comforting Anyway?

Generally speaking, it’s stress in some form or another that needs alleviating.

Whether it was a difficult day at work, or an argument with a loved one, stress throws our systems off balance. Going a little deeper, our sympathetic nervous system is activated and we actually go into survival, or fight/flight, mode. Our bodies are flooded with the stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) that produce an increase in our breathing and heart rate.

Read This Related Article:
What is Emotional Eating? 3 Ways to Find Real Comfort

This process is handy when we’re in a true survival situation. When faced with a saber-toothed tiger, our Neanderthal ancestors ran or fought with all their might to escape death. Thinking shuts down and action takes over.

True mind-LESS-ness.

However, when we’re dealing with a hard day at the office, and are left with residual adrenaline, cortisol, and tightened muscles, we don’t feel good.

Reaction vs. Response

These residual symptoms are the reason we react.

Think about ‘bringing work home with you’ or ‘taking it out on a loved one’. That’s stress looking for a way out, looking for relief.

Similarly, when turning to comfort food, we’re looking for relief.  But the food/eating doesn’t actually alleviate the stress, it only ‘stuffs’ it, numbs it, avoids it, etc.

Sometimes we then add guilt, shame and/or self-loathing to our already difficult feelings.

The goal is to have a response to the stress as opposed to a reaction.

What’s the difference? Awareness, aka mindfulness.

Read This Related Article:
Change Your Brain with Mindfulness

We want to ‘push the pause button’ so instead of maybe snapping at a loved one or reaching for the candy bar, we try a healthy coping skill like a few deep breaths, calling a friend to vent, reaching for the lavender lotion, or listening to soothing music.

To do this we need to be aware of our emotions as they come up; to notice them in our bodies.

Think about the lump in your throat, when your chest feels heavy, or your stomach when it’s in knots. These are all examples of how our feelings affect our bodies. If you take a moment to think about a time you felt nervous, mad, scared or sad, you might be able to notice which part of your body has a sense of discomfort.

This is the beginning of being aware and mindful.

6 Steps to Avoid Stress-Induced Emotional Overeating

What to Do Instead of Fighting or Fleeing from Stress

Here’s a simple step-by-step to use during times of stress. DISCLAIMER – this takes practice.

1 Notice It

Where is it in your body?

2 Name It/Rate It

Ask yourself, “What is this? How bad does this feel?” Use a 1-10 scale.

3 Touch It

Place your hand over the part of your body that feels the discomfort. Research indicates that physical touch releases oxytocin which provides a sense of security, soothes distressing emotions, and calms cardiovascular stress.

4 Breathe

Take a few slow, deep breaths.

5 Think Positively

Say/think something positive. “I can handle this.”  “It’s ok.”

6 Find Peace And Enjoyment

stress quoteLastly, do something that helps you emotionally, bringing you peace and enjoyment. It’s ok if you can’t do this in the immediate moment, but it is helpful to do this at some point soon.

Perhaps try these ideas:

  • journaling
  • music (play or listen)
  • art
  • reading
  • spirituality/religion
  • humor (jokes, movies)

Or reach for a ‘quick-cope’ strategy like looking at a picture of a loved one, or calling a friend.

So the next time you find yourself saying, “I need some pie/mac-n-cheese/mashed potatoes,” pause, ask yourself what needs comforting, take care of that part of you, then go ahead and enjoy the pie/mac-n-cheese/mashed potatoes in a mindful way, if you still want it.

It’s not about giving up your previous way to comfort yourself but maybe just adding to it to make it truly effective.

Discover our center for help with emotional and binge eating problems.


One response to “Emotional Eating: What Do Your Comfort Foods Do for YOU?”

  1. Keren Provost says:

    Very informative and helpful information. Thank you!

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About the Author

Shiri Macri, MA, LCMHC

Since 2004, Shiri’s approach as a therapist for treating binge and emotional eating is holistic, focusing not only on the presented issue at hand but also considering overall health. Working in this way often includes mindfulness-based approaches. Now as a trained MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) teacher, Shiri’s love of mindfulness and meditation practices are at the forefront of her blog writings and recordings. Shiri is the Clinical Director at the Women's Center for Binge & Emotional Eating, affiliated with Green Mountain at Fox Run.

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