Comfort eating, self-esteem and loneliness (reaching out for the biscuit tin)

Reaching out for the biscuit tin... what’s in the fridge? What’s in the cupboard? Needing that piece of chocolate, those crisps, that slice of toast... are you eating because you are really, truly hungry? Or are you eating for emotional nourishment and comfort?

The link between emotions and food is well established, and can be associated with comfort. You may be craving comfort. That’s why it’s called ‘comfort-eating’. You may be craving a form of satisfaction. You may need that ‘fix’. Dare I say this is like an addiction? From the moment of birth, we are programmed to associate being fed with comfort and love - the basis of maternal attachment. This association with food and comfort quickly becomes emotionally imprinted and before long, for many people, food becomes an emotional surrogate for love.

Food as a friend, not as a foe.

I’m not a dieter, never have been a dieter and have no intention of becoming ‘a dieter’. I love food. At times health damaging behaviours tend to override my sense of health promoting behaviours, and irrelevant of the time of day, I WANT to eat. I don’t do ‘syns’ (enough of them in other areas of my life), I don’t do ‘points’ (all that counting – never was great with numbers). I don’t want someone else to be in control of what I can or can’t eat. I am NOT living on salad. I do believe in everything in moderation, and a balanced approach to eating, yet at times this goes horribly wrong. I want my relationship with food to be one of pleasure. Food should be seen as something positive, not something to be denied.

Yet for many people it goes beyond this, it becomes more than just a consideration of what you are going to eat on a day to day basis, and becomes an all encompassing monster. I’m reluctant to describe all comfort eating as an eating disorder, as this can be at very different levels for individuals, but our associations with food can often result in patterns of behaviour that can damage our physical and emotional well-being. Food can be used to mask emotional distress, to cope with stress and to manage emotional pain.

Even as you think of the summer ahead and your tightened waist-band, you still reach for that food and crave the ‘unhealthy’ option – physically with your hands, cognitively with your thoughts, seeking that feeling of satisfaction in a moment, that instant gratification. This can be quickly followed by a feeling of disgust and shame, that you have no will-power, no self-control or self-discipline. You place these judgments onto yourself and look at your silhouette in the mirror. 

This cycle of addictive behaviour may continue as you seek comfort, satisfaction, instant gratification - your next fix. So what can you do differently to break this cycle? How do you substitute that form of comfort with an alternative that is satisfying, authentic and real?

Loneliness and self-esteem

Food is seen as a central part of socialisation – in preparing, in giving and sharing, in celebrating – yet comfort eating often takes place in isolation, in secret, in shame. There is evidence to suggest that comfort eating is a way of managing loneliness and self-esteem. You may have difficulties in human connections, in building positive relationships with others, in opening up. This can result in a sense of loneliness. You can be lonely if you are isolated and on your own, but you can also be lonely in a relationship and even in a crowd, if that emotional connection is impaired, if there are relationship difficulties, or if you do not like yourself very much.

Chronic loneliness often results from a lack of self-worth, self-denigration, and low self-esteem. Low self-esteem can be linked to issues from the past, from childhood and parental neglect, from abuse and trauma, from childhood bullying. If you don’t like yourself, then you assume that no-one else will, hence you may shun social contact, compounding the isolation. Food can be used a means to reduce your inner loneliness or to avoid being by yourself (as being in your own company may feel unbearable). This often happens in the evenings, when all is calm and quiet and there are limited distractions.

Identifying when you tend to comfort eat is a starting point. For example:

  • When you are busy, when you are motivated, when you are engaged - you don’t comfort eat.
  • You comfort eat when you are low in mood.
  • You comfort eat when you are feeling lonely.
  • You comfort eat when you are tired.
  • You comfort eat when you are feeling cheesed off with the world.
  • You comfort eat when you are ON YOUR OWN.

Identifying what the triggers are behind this behaviour is essential and exploring why you comfort eat may take some time, before you can make a positive change. This is where psychotherapy and counselling can help.

Physical health and emotional health

You cannot look after your physical health without looking after your emotional health. You cannot look after your emotional health without looking after your physical health. The two go hand-in-hand. It’s all about balance. But this message, whilst simple, does not seem to be getting through.

I challenge you to find people with a truly authentic, healthy attitude towards food in a society obsessed with body image and appearance, ‘selfies’, size zero models and cosmetic surgery conflicted with fast food, convenience food, indulgence food, contrasted with media and medical frenzy around childhood and adult obesity. This week, The Lancet has published research into international rates of obesity and overweight adults. The UK has the third highest rates in Western Europe, with 67% of men and 57% of women overweight or obese. Without entering into a political debate, where does individual responsibility lie?

We are bombarded with information about what we should and shouldn’t eat, about how much physical exercise we should be doing, by marketing of diet-plans and exercise programmes. This is great! This gives us information and choice, and an attempt to control our lifestyle. Yet something may be missing - the emotional attachment to how we eat. As a result, we may be setting ourselves up to fail.

Whilst physical inactivity is a major influencing factor, choices in relation to lifestyle and dietary intake may stem from levels of emotional well-being, loneliness, and food becoming an emotional surrogate for love and security. Unpicking such emotional imprinting takes time, and may require psychotherapy and counselling, alongside professional nutritional advice and dietary support.

Comfort eating, psychotherapy and counselling

If parts of this article ring true for you, then psychotherapy and counselling can help you to:

  • unravel what is going on with your comfort eating
  • explore your thoughts, feelings and behaviours
  • resolve issues from your past
  • increase your self-awareness
  • build positive relationships
  • develop more effective coping mechanisms for stress
  • develop your confidence and self-esteem
  • change your relationship with food

for a more positive future.

Reaching out for the biscuit tin? Reach out for psychotherapy and counselling instead.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Bolton, Greater Manchester, BL1 4QR
Written by Anne-Marie Alger, (Psychotherapist, Counsellor, Supervisor, PNCPS(Acc) MBACP)
Bolton, Greater Manchester, BL1 4QR

Face-to-Face, online and telephone counselling. Relationship Issues, Individual and Couples Counselling, Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Loss. Working with Couples, Adults, Children & Young People.  One in four of us experience mental health problems at some time in our lives. If you are fee...

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