Susannah Taylor: Is food your comfort blanket?

A few years ago I visited the author and brilliant nutritional therapist Amelia Freer for a consultation. I remember her asking me whether my emotions played a role in my eating habits. Did I reward myself with food if I was happy? Or did I use food as a comfort blanket if I felt sad or overwhelmed? ‘I don’t think I do either,’ I replied, to which she said, ‘You’re very lucky, that’s rare.’

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‘Many of our emotional eating habits may stem back to our childhood,’ Amelia told me more recently. ‘And the messages around food that we were taught then, such as finishing everything on our plates or being “rewarded” with sweets and chocolate, can create subconscious patterns of emotion around food.’

Emotional eating is complex because everyone has a different ‘trigger’ that causes them to reach for the fridge door. Amelia explains that these could be major life events, but they can also be smaller daily stresses that invoke negative feelings such as fear and loneliness. These can leave us feeling that we have to fill a ‘void’. On the other hand, she says, ‘Some of us equate happiness and success with food treats, such as eating a lavish meal to celebrate a promotion, which may lead to confusing feelings of guilt afterwards.’ Of course, not all emotion around food is detrimental – food is, after all, an important part of social and emotional health – but the key, Amelia says, is working out which parts serve us and which don’t.

Having witnessed many of my friends struggling with emotional eating over the years, which has led them to yo-yo dieting (and often yo-yoing in weight), it is clear to me that diets don’t fix anything unless the underlying feelings about food have been worked out first. Our attitude towards it is the most important part of healthy eating – before we even think about putting anything in our mouths. Amelia, who works with a psychologist in her clinic, agrees: ‘It is common for people to lose weight on a “diet” only to find they are soon back at square one and emotionally eating again.’

So what can we do to help ourselves? If you feel you are an emotional eater, then Amelia recommends seeking help from a qualified health professional. She also has some advice for when your mood is making you reach for the Ben & Jerry’s…

Ask yourself, are you truly hungry?

It’s all too easy to grab a biscuit if you feel slightly uncomfortable in yourself, so Amelia suggests working out first if you are actually hungry using a ‘hunger scale’. The idea is that you ‘score yourself on a scale from one (not hungry at all) to ten (ravenous), and only eat when you’re a six/seven or above’.

Are you ‘stomach hungry’ or ‘head hungry’?

Amelia suggests asking yourself if you fancy the taste of something or are seeking a distraction or reward. ‘Eating for distraction can be particularly pronounced when we are feeling negative emotions such as stress or boredom,’ she says.

Create a food-free treat jar.

Instead of eating, take time to acknowledge how you are feeling, then take positive action to improve your mood. Amelia suggests an alternative to the cookie jar in the form of ‘non-food’ treats to nourish your soul in place of eating, such as listening to music, reading a magazine, being creative or hugging your dog.

Glow from the gut…

Carla Oates, an Australian former beauty editor, started The Beauty Chef – a range of probiotic, bio-fermented and wholefood powders and elixirs – after realising that gut health was the key to fixing her and her family’s eczema. She believes that skin and hair health can be vastly improved by nurturing our gut microbiome. And after seeing her glowing complexion and lustrous hair, I’m in. Glow Inner Beauty Essential, £40,

…and nurture the real you

2020 taught us that we need to get back to what makes us tick, and new book High Grade Living by meditation teacher Jacqui Lewis and husband Arran Russell does just that. It takes us through a beautifully illustrated guide to meditation, refining your home, increasing creativity and deepening relationships, all interspersed with peace-inducing nature and interior photography. £24.95*, Thames & Hudson.