Comfort Eating and Trigger Foods

Reading Time: 10 minutes

I have spent a large proportion of my life navigating a poor relationship with food.

What does that mean?

Well, for me, it presented itself by my assigning morality to food – good foods and bad foods. This in turn led me to view myself in these same moral categories. If I ate the ‘good’ foods, I was being good. But, if I ate the ‘bad’ foods, I was being bad.

What was worse was when I went on a bit of a ‘bad’ food binge. This led me to feel like I was a bad person, deeply flawed and clearly unworthy of success.

What I failed to realise was that these binge sessions were already a product of my low self worth and a means to escape the negative feelings and emotions that were arising due to my own personal traumas.

By assigning myself the ‘bad person’ persona for eating the foods I considered bad, I just created a negative feed back loop, a vicious circle, perpetuating the shame-comfort eating-shame cycle.

I think I initially started comfort eating in my childhood, as a means to escape the pain I felt from suddenly losing my brother, and the trauma tearing through my whole family.

I guess the dopamine hit I got from food, predominantly highly processed, high sugar products, went some way to soothe the fear and loneliness I was experiencing.

Sinking into the sublime oblivion I felt from consuming a whole packet of biscuits, or multiple chocolate bars, helped me disconnect from the ever present anxiety that stained the majority of my life.

But, as often is the case with these types of coping strategies, the high is short lived and inevitably, is always followed by a crash.

The more I ate, the more I needed to eat to get the same effect. This eventually took it’s toll on my body in the form of fluctuating weight gain and poor health. This aspect made the post high crashes all the more destructive.

I have struggled with over-eating, comfort eating and binging for most of my life.

It still crops up even now. The main difference is in my understanding, compassion, and objectivity that I am able to bring to the situation. It’s these things that I’d like to talk about today.

But first a caveat. The distinction between a tricky relationship with food and a clinical eating disorder are probably both a fine and blurred line. I am not a medical practitioner and I am not offering any medical advice. Check out this link from The London Centre for Eating Disorders and Body Image for more information on the difference between disordered eating and eating disorders.

If you have any concerns about eating disorders I would strongly suggest speaking to a registered medical professional. In fact, seeking a professional help is never a bad idea, regardless of your current situation. Speaking to a qualified counsellor or therapist is the perfect way to get some self perspective.

What I am going to talk about are some simple methods to help when we are in a less than ideal mindset surrounding food. These are tools that have worked for me, but they are not universal, so as always, take what works for you and discard what doesn’t.

Comfort Eating

This may take the form of overeating, binging or eating certain food that sparks a particular response in you. But the clue is in the name – Comfort Eating.

For many people, this type of eating behaviour is used as a soothing device. Whether it’s as a distraction from something painful or uncomfortable, or used to get a physical ‘high’, we can quickly go from a one-off scenario to a well formed and deeply entrenched habit.

For myself, I think I used food to obtain the comfort that I found difficult to get elsewhere.

As a coping strategy, it works pretty well. It’s also something that everyone will employ at some point in their lives.

In and of itself, it is neither good nor bad. It’s a legitimate coping strategy, but only when it is used from time to time, not every time.

Yet again, we see that the only difference between a medicine and a poison is in the dose.

So, this brings me to my first tool – compassion.


How would you speak to your best friend if they came to you with the same issues you are experiencing? The likelihood is, you would speak to them with love, kindness and compassion.

So why do we have such an issue with our own self talk?

For so many people, comfort eating is a lifeline to cling to at a dark moment, a way of self soothing that serves a purpose in that moment. It is a coping strategy that becomes a habit.

Like any coping strategy, it kept you afloat when you needed it.

It doesn’t need berating, it deserves some compassionate appreciation. You need some compassionate appreciation.

Be the friend you need, not a shouty, blame and shame throwing tyrant.

When we have allowed ourselves to see the situation with some self compassion, we are able to create a little bit of a gap between the stimulus of over eating and the reaction of shame and self loathing for having done it.

This little gap is the perfect size for a little mindfulness.


I found the act of journaling really useful as a mindfulness tool.

By keeping track of my emotions and triggering events, as well as the times when I found myself comfort eating, I was able to correlate the two things.

This enabled me to become mindfully aware of this relationship, whereas before it was pure unconscious impulse. This alone gave me much more control over the whole situation.

If you are unaware that you are doing something, you cannot really hope to change it.

Just being aware of my triggers allowed me to be more present when it came to food, and being present allowed me to create even more of a gap between the stimulus and the reaction.

In short, I was able to become more ‘responsive’ to my emotions and my triggers, rather than being ‘reactive’.

This, in turn, created a little more mental bandwidth with which to explore the emotions and triggers themselves.

The Neutrality of Emotions and the Neutrality of Food

there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so.

William Shakespeare – Hamlet

Society teaches us to place morality on emotions. Sadness is bad. Happiness is good.

However, I have come to think of emotion of all kinds as simply important. We need them all. I see them as the dashboard warning lights of the mind.

shallow depth of field photo of steering wheel

When your oil light comes on in your car does it mean you are driving a ‘bad’ car?

No. It merely tells you that something needs attention. It doesn’t require an explosive reaction or judgement of any kind.

You simply open the bonnet, and with objective curiosity, you check the levels. If it is low, you top it up with what it needs.

When I feel anxious, it’s an indication that I need to look a little deeper into what is going on in my life, again, with objective curiosity.

This objective curiosity generates a little more distance from the emotion. Again, that gap between stimulus and response is wedged a little wider.

When I feel the emotion, I name it: anxiety, fear, shame, whatever. I then try to pinpoint where in my body I feel it, and the actual sensation it creates. Is it hot, is it bubbling?

This almost scientific enquiry further creates more distance and I am less likely to attribute any kind of moral stamp to it, and therefore, much more likely to allow the emotion to flow on through me, rather than bottle it up inside.

I talk more about noticing thoughts and Automatic Negative Thoughts here.

When we objectively review these emotions and thoughts, we can start to see what these warning lights are telling us, and in turn what we can do to switch them off, other than using food.

This is just as important after a comfort eating episode, when emotions run high.

Shame is a big one. I have come to realise that shame, for me, is the warning light to tell me I need a hug, either physically or virtually, by connecting with those I love.

And again, just to reiterate, all of this work is hard and taxing, so don’t try and do it alone. Seek some help.

The same goes for food. It’s neither bad nor good. It’s just food.

Yes, our bodies react more positively to some foods more than others, but again, the issues occur with the dosage.

Food is fuel and medicine, but it’s also joy and sociality. It’s as major a part of human culture as it is human biology.

There is no morality in food itself. The issues come when we use it in a maladaptive way.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Viktor E. Frankl

So, how can we wedge that space open even more?

Leaning into discomfort

Just as we did by reviewing the emotional triggers to comfort eating, we can also investigate what happens when we explore the urge to comfort eat.

Urge surfing is a technique used to manage one’s unwanted behaviour. It’s a form of mindfulness meditation really.

When the urge starts to swell, like an ocean wave, you focus on your breathing. Any thoughts and feelings that arise, you simply notice without judgement or withdrawal away from them. When you realise your mind has drifted away from your breath, just refocus on it.

If the urge, in this case to comfort eat, arises again, bring your attention to it as we did earlier with our emotions. Where in your body do you feel it? What sensation does it have?

Most urges diminish in about 30 minutes. But even if you can’t ride this wave out to the shore, the more you do it, the easier it gets.

If I don’t have the time for a 30 minute urge surfing session, I’ll use the 10 minute trick.

It’s simply, when the urge comes to comfort eat, I’ll wait 1O minutes. If after that I still want to eat whatever it is, I will. But I will be eating consciously, not as a momentary impulse.

Down Regulating

I am often over eating as a soothing strategy because something has upregulated my central nervous system. Stresses have sent me into a fight or flight response.

It’s very difficult to think critically and clearly when you are in this state. You can’t think your way out of a heightened situation like this.

Performing some kind of down regulation can help bring about some balance and make it easier to clearly see the path ahead.

Breathwork for me is my go-to tool, Box Breathing in particular.

Other forms of meditation will also work for this.

Like I said before, sometimes we just need a hug. But what if you are by yourself?

The Butterfly Hug is a way of self soothing that’s been utilised in some of the world’s worst disaster scenarios, with good results.

Trigger Foods

We all have them. Those foods that act like the gateway drugs to oblivion. The kryptonite that erodes your willpower faster than anything else.

For me it’s Mrs Crimble’s Gluten Free Chocolate Macaroons. I love them. Unfortunately for me, they come in a pack of 6.

I find it very difficult to stop at just one.

The obvious answer to any trigger food is to not have it in the house. This however, is not practical for many people who live with multiple occupants. It also totally denies us the pleasure of the thing we love and can further damage our relationship with foods.

So how can we play this? There are lots of options, but here are some excellent ones from the brilliant Emilia Thompson.

If you are focused on body composition changes or maintenance, or you are already counting your macros or nutritional goals, you can simply add it in to your food plan. This of course means a reduction in some of the other food you’ll be eating, which may cause some issues in feelings of satiation, but you can definitely meet your nutritional goals whilst still eating said trigger food.

This takes away a lot of the guilt issues and also removes the novelty factor that can lead to over eating.

If over eating this food is an issue, you can choose to eat it when you are not overly hungry, or by eating it in a situation where overeating is less likely, such as at work.

And if you do decide to eat these tricky foods, then do it mindfully. Take your time over it. Taste it. Feel the texture. Observe how it makes you feels, or what emotions arise.

But as mindful as you might be, years of food relationship issues aren’t going to be remedied overnight. You may well have some emotional, stress responses when you eat foods that you have long considered ‘bad’.

To counteract this, we can include some healthy, self-soothing activities in combination with the trigger foods.

All of these self care, comforting activities make great substitutes for comfort eating itself, but will work well when you do eat trigger foods to keep your central nervous system calm and down regulated. These include things like breathwork, journaling, cosying up in a blanket, reading, creative work, the use of heat in the form of hot water bottles or hot baths (think of the old Flake advert), and anything else that appeals to you.

This all helps to weaken the relationship between curtain foods and emotions like shame and anxiety, whilst also enabling you to build trust in yourself in these situations.

No Such Thing as Failure

If we are endeavouring to avoid over eating, the likelihood is that at some point, we are still going to do it.

Do not see this as failure.

It is, in these times, the times where we push hard against our own limitations, that we truly make progress.

If lifting a 60kg barbell is your limit, then lifting 70kg would likely lead to ‘failure’. But if we only play it safe and never lift anything heavier than 60, we are unlikely to get stronger.

But, by pushing into our limit, we build the adaptation to grow. There is no failure, only more opportunities for growth.

And when you do ‘fall off the wagon’, try to reframe what has happened. What can you learn from this incident? What can you do next time to avoid this happening again? It’s just another chance to work on yourself.

These are just some of the tools I have used. If they work for you, then have at them. But feel free to modify anything to make it work. And really do consider getting extra support.

Good luck. G x

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