Why “bad” foods become soothing

June 19, 2017

Self-Paced Course: Non-Diet Academy


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A Certified Eating Disorders Registered Dietitian (CEDRD) with a master's degree in dietetics & nutrition. My passion is helping you find peace with food - and within yourself.

Meet Katy

Why is it that we find ourselves turning to food when stressed or upset?  

And why is it that we turn to the "bad" foods in these instances?

As infants we are soothed with food.  Baby cries -> caregiver thinks, Baby might be hungry -> caregiver offers milk.  And the act of being held and fed is quite soothing.  Thus, from birth we are conditioned with this response to find food soothing.

Our brains also find food to be pleasurable.  Especially energy (i.e. calorie) dense foods that would literally save our lives in a time of famine.  After all, if you were stranded in the wilderness, which would you rather have – carrots or carrot cake?  Probably the carrot cake because it would sustain you longer.  The carrots, which society would deem as the "healthier" choice, wouldn't keep you alive for very long.  Plus, there's a reason the cake tastes better – that's the positive reinforcement from your brain telling you to eat the higher calorie food.

This evolved as a survival mechanism for our ancestors in times of famine.  The hunters and gatherers learned which foods kept them alive longer.  The people who didn't figure it out died.  

Nowadays we are told to fear high calorie foods.  And thus, our brain is confused.  The primitive part of it WANTS the higher calorie foods because they taste good.  But the thinking/rationalizing part is saying DON'T DO IT.  There is a disconnect between what we want and what we tell ourselves we "should" eat. 

We want what we "shouldn't" have.  Tell yourself NOT to think about yellow dinosaurs.  Betcha you're thinking about them, aren't you?  That's what the brain does when we tell ourselves not to do something.  Tell yourself not to eat cookies, and what do you find yourself craving?  Cookies!  So you use willpower to resist because you told yourself you shouldn't eat them.  But there's a problem with that….

It's only a matter of time before willpower runs out.  Our ability to white-knuckle and resist foods is limited to the duration of our willpower, which is finite.  Our willpower is typically highest in the morning before the stressors of the day have caught up to us.  As the day goes on, it our willpower reserves are depleted as we cope with everyday frustrations, like getting stuck in traffic, having a headache, things not going as planned.   

That's when the "bad" food becomes the soother.  When we have had a difficult or stressful day, we want to be comforted.  It's a natural human response.  And because we learned long ago that food = comfort, and that "bad" foods taste good, it's easy to see how we end up turning to those foods at that time. 


The solution:

  • Start by noticing the circumstances in which you use food to soothe.
  • Be curious about what you were feeling and needing at the time outside of food.
  • Validate those needs for yourself.  Don't judge them as silly, stupid, frivolous, or any other negative.  
  • Find alternate (and more direct) ways to get those needs met.  For example, if you are eating in response to stress, then experiment with other coping mechanisms.  Google it…there are a gazillion suggestions out there. 
  • Check in with your body and it's appetite cues.  Ask yourself before eating, "Am I hungry?"  

This isn't easy, especially if you've been in the habit of using food to soothe for many years.  The great news is that habits can be changed – with practice and repetition.  

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