independent

Friday 18 April 2014

Give comfort eating the chop

With figures showing that, on average, we are gaining a stone a decade, now is the time to resist the lure of fat and sugar

My name is Ciara Kelly and I'm a comfort eater. But I've been comforting myself without food now for almost five years. Cue round of applause.

Many people freely admit to comfort eating all the time. Me: "Mrs Figgis, you need to lose weight!" Mrs Figgis: "I know, doctor, but I'm always comfort eating. Anytime my husband shouts at me I hit the Jaffa Cakes."

Losing weight by sticking to a healthy diet for a period is not that hard. Keeping it off by not overeating again is. So why do we overeat? Why are over half of us overweight or obese? Why aren't we all living a Zen-like healthy lifestyle, especially when no one ever wants to be fat. In the same way that if you want to tackle issues like poverty or crime you must address the causes; we have to look closely at the causes of obesity, if we ever want to get to grips with treating it.

Some people don't really know what they should be eating. Theirs is an education deficit. That should be addressed through public policy. Some people, because of busy lives, prioritise convenience rather than a healthy lifestyle. Priorities can be changed. But what interests me most is that large group, who comfort eat or use food as a treat or reward.

Let's really think about comfort eating. It means that when we're feeling low/ sad/ disappointed/ upset/ frustrated/emotional/ vulnerable/rejected ... you get the picture, we eat food – often large quantities of high-fat, high-sugar food to self soothe. People often have an emotional attachment to food, so when they're feeling down they eat as a reward, or perhaps more accurately as a consolation prize. For many people food is their 'drug' of choice.

If you comfort eat, the first thing you need to do is recognise that you do it – that you're not eating because you're hungry – the right reason – but because you've an emotional need – the wrong reason.

The next thing you need to do is to find other less harmful, less self-destructive ways to fulfil that need. Very often self-soothing behaviour is self-destructive. Drink, drugs, gambling, shopping, porn are all used to comfort ourselves and block out negative emotions. We get a high from the dopamine rush at the time we indulge, but then are filled with guilt and self-loathing afterwards – and so we need to comfort ourselves again and the cycle perpetuates.

And let's face it, it is hard to resist the lure of fat and sugar. We're hard-wired to be drawn to high calorie foods – they taste nicer to us – because historically in times of scarcity, eating them kept you alive. It wasn't so much the survival of the fittest, it was actually the survival of the fattest. And we are battling the evolution of our taste buds in saying no to them now.

But to avoid piling on weight – and we are currently on average gaining a stone a decade – we need to find other ways to comfort ourselves. So try running a nice bath. Buy the newspaper or a magazine and take some time to yourself. Have a little nap. Watch a movie. Or better yet – go for a walk.

The only addictive 'comforting' behaviour that doesn't follow that self-destructive route is exercise.

You don't feel worse after it – you feel better. It's empowering and it clears your head.

So the next time you need to self soothe don't mindlessly pick up the biscuit tin. Put on your runners and hit the pavements. It's genuinely a great route to a healthy body and a healthy mind.

And there, there it will all be OK.

Dr Ciara Kelly is a GP in Greystones, Co Wicklow

Irish Independent

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