If the second wave of the pandemic has you reaching for comfort food even faster than during the first series of lockdowns, you’re not alone. “For many, food is used as a vice to fill an emotional void and create a false feeling of ‘fullness’ or temporary wholeness,” explains accredited practising dietitian and co-founder of HealthBank Robbie Clark.

Don’t fret: it isn’t a bad thing if you’re digging into a bowl of your favourite ice-cream – or whatever your treat of choice might be – on occasion. “However, if eating is your primary emotional coping mechanism whenever you’re stressed, upset, angry, lonely, exhausted, or bored, then you get stuck in an unhealthy cycle where the actual problem is never addressed.” Here, Clark shares how you can break the habit.

1. Change your reward system

“Stop associating food as your reward system and start rewarding yourself with other fulfilling activities. For example, go for a walk, buy something that you’ve been wanting for a while or treat yourself to a bath. If lockdown isn’t an issue in your area, you could also go to a hair or nail salon or book a weekend away.”

2. Don’t keep junk food in the house

“Life is easier with fewer temptations around. Willpower is considered a finite resource that depletes over the course of the day. Having treats or indulgent food in your pantry, refrigerator or freezer wastes valuable willpower that could be used instead to work on other life and health goals.

Also, keeping the foods you crave out of reach may help break the cycle by giving you time to think and process before eating. Rather than deprive yourself of snacks altogether, stock your fridge and pantry with healthy options.”

3. Exercise

“Exercise stimulates the feel-good chemicals in your brain such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin. These neurotransmitters have been clinically proven to help regulate mood. Furthermore, increasing your levels of serotonin boosts not only your mood but can also help improve your appetite and sleep cycles, which are often negatively affected by anxiety, emotional burden, stress and/or depression. Physical activity also helps balance your stress hormones, including adrenaline. By doing so, it provides a satiety effect and will suppress appetite.”

Need some workout inspiration? Try these equipment-free exercises you can do anywhere

4.Start a food-and-mood diary

“Keeping a log of what you eat, when you eat it and how you felt when eating may help you identify triggers that lead to emotional eating. You can download a template from the internet, write notes in a notebook or even use an app like MyFitnessPal.

It’s important to include everything you eat – no matter how big or small. This can be a confronting exercise for people who may have a poor relationship with food so be the judge if this is right for you.”

5. Practise breathing exercises

“Simple deep breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing or meditation, have been used for centuries as a way to relax the body. The benefits may include lowering your heart rate and blood pressure, minimising the harmful effects of stress hormone cortisol, and improving heart rate variability. It may also help you to clear your mind of the negative emotions that drive you to overeat. Many studies support mindfulness meditation as a treatment for binge eating disorder and emotional eating.

A great thing about these exercises are that you can do them almost anywhere. Sit in a quiet space and focus on your breath – slowly flowing in and out of your nostrils. There are many apps and YouTube videos with guided meditation exercises that you can turn to without spending a lot of money.”

6. And don’t forget to ask for help

“Finally, if you feel you need to further address your emotional eating behaviours, seek help from your friends, psychologist, medical practitioner or dietitian. There’s no shame in asking for help, especially if it’s affecting your mental and physical health.”

Visit Beyond Blue or Lifeline for more resources. 

© Prevention Australia