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Using Comfort Strategies To Replace Emotional Eating

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A client just asked: “I know I use for comfort and to soothe myself. What can I do instead?” That is such a common question—and one that can be so difficult to answer–especially in the moment. When we want comfort, food can seem like such a quick, easy, accessible fix.

I recommend that you spend some time generating a list of possible comfort strategies. They won’t all fit in every situation, but options are always helpful. When you start to put together your list of ideas, be sure that you avoid some of these common traps:

What comfort strategies are NOT:

A comfort strategy is not a “should.”
It’s not uncommon, when I ask someone to think about what they could do instead of eating for comfort, to hear, “Well, what I should do is . . “ Followed by some task that’s about as appealing as taking out the garbage. I’ve heard everything from, “I should really just clean out the garage,” to “do some ab work” and “pay bills.” Turning to a task on your to-do list in order to distract yourself from eating is indeed a strategy, but it’s not a COMFORT strategy. If what you are really needing is comfort, expecting yourself to do a hard or unpleasant thing instead is not going to fill the bill. You may end up with a feeling of accomplishment, but you won’t feel comforted.

A comfort strategy is usually not difficult or high-maintenance.
Be realistic. If you are seeking comfort, do you usually have a lot of energy or motivation to go out of your way to make something happen? If you do, then having a comfort strategy that requires a 20 mile drive or a lot of set up might work for you. Many people turn to food because it is easy and convenient and quick. Apply those same rules to comfort strategies. What can you have on your list that is easily within reach? One woman I know took this literally. She put her knitting project in the cupboard where she usually goes for snacks.

A comfort strategy has to fit YOU.
The same strategies won’t work for everyone. Reading a list of ideas might be helpful, but the most successful approach is likely to come when you take the time to sit down and think about yourself. What are you needing or wanting in those moments when you want to eat? Identify the kind of activities or alternatives that might fit for you.

Here’s a list of possible comfort strategies that was generated by a recent group discussion:

Go for a walk
Go to the bookstore and read
Put on music that I love
Call a friend
Visit a message board or forum or Facebook and spend time online
(When at work)—Change tasks, take a walk around the office, make a cup of tea
Taking a nap or going to bed early

Take some time to develop your own list of possible strategies. Then be sure to put it somewhere where it's easy to find and refer to at the appropriate time.

Feel free to reprint on your own website, newsletter, blog or message board as long as you include the following: Melissa McCreery, PhD, ACC is a psychologist, certified life coach, and the founder of Enduring Change Coaching, a company that specializes in providing programs and resources to help women worldwide create the lives they’ve been craving and weight loss that lasts. Her newest program, The Weight Loss Winner's Circle helps women stay on track, stay out of self-sabotage, and have positive support as they meet their weight loss goals.

Add a Comment2 Comments


That's a great point. I believe that the more we know about ourselves and our habits, the better we can care for ourselves WELL. Sometimes, even the simple acknowledgment that we are in need of some TLC can be comforting. The idea of creating self-care/comfort strategies that will work away from home is a powerful one. Thanks so much for commenting!

April 10, 2009 - 3:24pm

I'm very intrigued by this. And inspired.

The places that we use emotional eating are so often not at home. Most of our favorite solutions (a bath, reading, a nap) aren't available to us there. It's why vending machines at work are so tempting -- eating a snack at our desks is not only comforting, it's sanctioned. Everyone does it.

So maybe it's important, also, to figure out where and when we do most of our emotional eating and be truly conscious of those moments when we're figuring out our substitutes?

April 10, 2009 - 9:45am
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