Comfort Foods: The Uncomfortable Truth

By Dr. Emily O'Leary

Comfort Foods: The Uncomfortable Truth
Many of us have a go-to food vice to turn to at times of stress, boredom or even celebration. It could be a harmless habit, but it could also have deeper psychological implications that we need to note.

I have been hiding a secret for a while. I love cookie dough. Not in the usual lick-the-bowl way, but more of the planned-trip-to-the-supermarket behaviour. Last week, when the supermarket cashier asked whether I was doing some baking, I offered my best Martha Stewart grin and replied “yes”. In truth, I planned to enjoy it while watching the latest season of Big Little Lies. Now, there is nothing wrong with cookie dough, but there is something wrong with my relationship with it. For me, cookie dough is my ‘treat’ after a hard week. I feel as though I deserve it. And while the psychologist in me suggests a relaxing bubble bath, the tired working mum in me says ‘dip the cookie dough in chocolate’.

Why is food a happy place for some and a battlefield for others? Why do so many intelligent human beings turn to food vices when we know the healthy options? It is more than emotional eating – it’s the psychology of food. This is not a scaremongering column and it’s not another pep talk. The purpose of this article is to encourage you to reflect on your own relationship with food, and I have connected with some leading eating disorder clinicians to help explain the growing epidemic of obesity and emotional eating.

State of Play

Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. A global study into obesity rates was published in the medical journal, The Lancet. In the study, obesity rates in Australia show that almost a quarter of the country’s children and 63 per cent of the adult population is overweight. One third of women are obese, a 75 per cent increase since 1980. It means that Australia’s obesity levels are now on par with the United States.

Three decades ago, obesity levels in Australia were a half to a third of what they are now. Leading experts say that Australia is one of the fattest nations, jumping almost 40 places to 25th in obesity ranking. At the current rate, it is predicted that 65 per cent of young Australians will be overweight or obese by 2020.

Some may say it’s as simple as ‘energy in, energy out’. However, as I learnt when preparing for this article, there are strong psychological, physiological and societal underpinnings to our obesity epidemic.

Feel-Good Factor

We are individuals with varying psychological reasons for overeating. Clinical psychologist Dr Angela Morgan points out there are also evolutionary and physiological reasons for overindulging in food. Eating is a pleasant physiological experience. It is a firm physical reward and it makes us feel good. We all came into the world as emotional eaters. When we cry, we get fed. Eating difficulties start to develop when people are unable to foster other strategies.

Morgan explains we are often set up from an early age to pair food with reward. This resonates with me. I remember from my own childhood, my nanna would always have her baking cupboard stocked and I was rewarded if I was a ‘good girl’. She was showing me love and support by feeding me marshmallow squares. Morgan believes groundwork leading to emotional relationships with food, such as my nanna’s, is often done unwittingly. It was at about this time in the interview I started feeling a little guilty about the trips to a chocolate shop my daughter and I take after visiting the library.

However, as Morgan explains, it is about having a moderate relationship with food. Food is not good or bad, it’s just food, and anything extreme is not helpful. Limiting certain foods can mean a restriction to children’s autonomy. As soon as they are away from their parents – at a party, for example – they can find it difficult to stop themselves eating. Morgan says we are primed to overeat since our brains are set up to ensure we are not under-eating. Due to our abundant culture, we have easy, fast access to cheap, high-sugar, high-fat convenience foods and, as Morgan points out, there need be no delay between thinking ‘I feel like chips’ and ordering take out.

Balancing Act

So, is moderation key? Experts are calling for governments to step in and regulate food industries. However, food companies suggest parents need to teach children about moderation. Associate Professor Teresa Davis from The University of Sydney Business School specialises in children as consumers and food marketing.

“Advertising to kids is a multibillion-dollar industry with sophisticated, constantly evolving psychological techniques,” says Davis. We expect individual parents to be smarter than clever market researchers and branding experts.”

Research has also shown advertising plays an important role in promoting unhealthy eating habits. Think about advertisements for some ice-cream brands. They often portray these products as decadent and even a little naughty, and may feature a semi-naked man or woman. The inherent message is ‘it’s naughty but very pleasurable’.

However, it is not that these ice-cream ads make us fat, but we cannot underestimate their impact when you feel like a pick-me-up. To combat the advertising around food, and all the emotionality associated with it, Morgan says it can be useful to engage in what she calls ‘mindful eating’. Be very conscious of when you are eating and for what reason. Note the thought, ‘I’d like chocolate’, then pause and ask yourself if you really want to eat it. Is it a nutrition need? Acknowledge the emotion and let it pass. Develop a mindful relationship to hunger.

Fat-shaming Society

Professor Rob Moodie, former chair of the National Preventative Health Taskforce, says changes in society have contributed to obesity. We have become more sedentary and food is more accessible. Australian children watch, on average, around two-and-a-half hours of TV a day, as well as spending time using computers and electronic games. Even the type of food we consume has changed.

However, another key issue in this debate is fat0shaming. Some people believe making overweight people feel ashamed will motivate them to change their behaviour; to eat less and exercise more. Dr Kiera Buchanan, director of the Centre for Integrative Health, says the fight against obesity equates to a lot of fat-shaming, which causes self-loathing. Buchanan explains it’s hard to take care of something you loathe and people are more inclined to punish themselves and develop a negative relationship with food.

What can you do?

When self-worth is based on measurements of weight and shape, there is a problem. Senior psychologist Erin Anderson, from the Eating Disorders Outreach Service, says it is necessary for over-eaters to apply self-compassion. In other words, be kind to yourself. Consider the gentleness you would offer a friend who came to you with this problem. A healthy self-care repertoire should have an array of strategies for balancing the inevitable highs and lows of life. For example, if you’re feeling bored or lonely or anxious, read a magazine, go for a walk, journal your thoughts or phone a friend. There is power in realising you have choices. Try increasing the skill of tuning in to your emotions.

People need to make small lifestyle changes over time and be aware of food portions. You may need to work with a psychologist about your relationship with food. Most experts agree obesity is not an individual issue, but a societal one. Cookie dough will always be my Achilles heel, but I hope next time I get the urge I may be able to go for a walk instead.


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