How to Stop Using Food as Comfort 

How to Stop Using Food as Comfort 

By: Tanya Burk

It seems to me that either people are nervous eaters or they aren’t. I’ve had many people tell me that when they feel stress they can’t eat; however, I’ve had MORE people tell me that when they feel stress all they want to do is eat! I want to concentrate on those people today, those of us who use food as comfort when we stress. Yes, I said us! I am one of them. It’s been a long journey, but over the years I have learned some valuable lessons about this harmful coping mechanism that I want to share.

First of all, why do we use food as comfort when we feel agitated? It’s because we are trained to do so! Think about babies and what they are inadvertently taught. When they cry their parents don’t know for sure what is wrong, so one of the options they use to comfort the baby is food! A lot of times food works, even if the baby isn’t really hungry. Food will do that! Food can satisfy the body and even mask other needs that are not being met, so as babies we learn that food is a form of comfort. Then, as we get a little older food is used to reward us for good behavior. Do well at school and daddy will take you out for ice cream. Win the soccer tournament and the team will get a pizza party. You’ve heard statements like these. We become programmed to use food at a young age as a comfort and as a reward. We grow up learning that we need food for wrong reasons, or that we have earned it and are entitled to it.

Food is fuel for our bodies. It is not a reward or a positive coping mechanism. Food does taste good though, so it should be enjoyed. We have to learn to enjoy it in the right way. Our flesh wants anything that makes it feel good. Food is no exception. When emotions are not positive, our flesh screams for food to overcompensate. When stress makes us feel out of control, our flesh screams for food as well. The taste of good food has a calming effect that our flesh uses as a coping mechanism to trick our emotions to calm down and have a false sense of control.

How do we change such a strong learned behavior of using food as a coping mechanism? Awareness is the first step. You have to become aware that you are using food in a way that is not benefiting you. Then, it is imperative that you figure out your triggers. Journaling, or making notes (try using your phone), when you feel tempted to use food in a wrong way is a great exercise in order to reflect and comprehend what triggers you to mask feelings with food, or gain a false sense of control with food. Once you figure out what is triggering you, you are better equipped to recognize and overcome the temptation to overeat when another situation manifest. Finally, you can rethink what is happening and combat your learned response with a new behavior.

Over the years I have learned many things in this area. When I would find myself in a situation that was not pleasing, and out of my control, I would want to eat my favorite

meal at my favorite restaurant or have second or third bowls of a favorite cereal – sound familiar? I have learned to recognize my cravings as a type of mask surfacing from my flesh. It is trying to cover up my real need, which in this example is to gain a sense of control over a situation. My flesh wants to help me feel better, but the primal way it is trying to protect me is actually hurting me – because it’s tempting me to eat more than is necessary, which in the long run will hurt my health – not help me. I now recognize this process and reach for another coping mechanism that is a healthier choice, like going for a walk, drinking a bottle of water, praying/meditating, or doing an activity I really enjoy. At first, this process was hard because it is not what I have been programmed to do over many years; but, just as a computer can be reprogrammed, so can your mind and your behavior patterns.

Some other examples I have experienced that you might relate to are as follows. My flesh tempts me to reach for food when I’m actually tired. When I feel sad I want the comfort of a high carb meal. When I feel insecure I want too much caffeine. These are triggers I have discovered by journaling. Now, I recognize them and have new behaviors prepared to replace past negative behaviors. Implementing the new behaviors is not always easy, especially at first, but with perseverance and understanding, success happens.

My daughters recently told me about a concept they learned at Point Guard College basketball camp this summer: “Players under pressure revert to their most deeply held habits”. The same can be said in everyday life. When pressure in life comes to us in the form of negative stress, we usually revert back to our most deeply held habits. It’s time to change those habits! Pressure is going to come – it’s part of life. Let’s be prepared! It’s not that you will never enjoy food again. You can learn to enjoy it in a healthy way. You can reteach yourself how to cope in healthy ways! For more information email Twinfitness at We can help you grow a relationship with food that will benefit your health and help you enjoy food in a healthy way!