Binge eating: the dark side of comfort food

We all like to indulge in different kinds of food. Sometimes, however, a pleasure becomes a problem. Binge eating and other eating disorders affect people across cultures, but there is a way out of this cycle.

binge eating

Binge eating - the dark side of comfort food Source: Flashpop/GettyImages

  • Don’t punish yourself for eating too much. Go for a walk instead
  • Experts advice to find out why you are binge eating: psychological (stress, sadness, anxiety) or physical (not getting enough nutrients in your food, not sleeping enough)
  • Binge eating is an eating disorder and it affect people across cultures
  • If you are struggling with binge eating, get help from a nutritionist and a specialised therapist
is recognized by many of us as a food, which triggers happy memories of one’s childhood, homeland, family and friends. We also reach for comfort food when we are tired, stressed or even just bored.

Professor Clare Collins, Accredited Practising Dietitian and Spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says that even as infants we learn to comfort ourselves with food:

When a baby is crying, they’re fed. And so for some of us, as we get older, we still rely on that. If we are upset then if we eat we feel better.
But one thing is to have your favourite dish to comfort you, but the other is to regularly binge. Especially these days, when we are confined to our houses we are more likely to overindulge in food and then possibly regret it.

Amy Fox is a personal trainer, training lecturer, bodybuilding coach and Australia’s First IFBB Physique Pro Athlete. She says that it is important to find out the reason, why we have overeaten.

You may be a little bit more stressed than usual, you may be lacking sleep, or perhaps you have just forgotten to prepare your meals and you have just grabbed something that was nice and easy.
Knowing why we overeat takes the pressure off and we feel less guilt, Ms Fox says.

Nutritionist, sport scientist and personal trainer Alice Round says that usually binge eating happens for two reasons: either underlying psychological issues or a strict restriction.

When people are overly restricting calories, their bodies are just crying out for food. They are also often over exercising, under-sleeping and stressed out.

man eating a burger
Sometimes we use food for comfort Source: Paulus Rusyanto / EyeEm/Getty Images

Ms Round explains that that’s when instead of having one biscuit, we smash the whole packet.

But what now? Biscuits are eaten, we are feeling guilty with crumbs probably still laying around.

We may decide to have another packet (or two), or – as another extreme – we go for a long run to burn it off.

Amy Fox says that rather than feeling guilty and trying to sweat it out in a vigorous exercise, it is better to choose a moderate approach.

She recommends gentle stretched or a walk around the block to help with digestion.

If we do excessive exercise to punish ourselves, we may start the whole spiral again.

Experts agree that the language around food is very important. Alice Round doesn't like when people talk about 'good' or 'bad' food. She explained that it can create a feeling of guilt. 

I more like them to speak about food as nutrient dense and nutrient poor, rather than good or bad. Because then it associates every time they eat a bad food that might spiral someone or trigger a binge.
And when a person gets on a spiral, it can lead to a dangerous cycle of eating disorder. 

Eleni Psillakis, Director of BrazenGrowth, who is an educator and peer support worker for mental health and eating disorders says the first step is to see that there is an issue.

Comfort food is ok in moderation Source: Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images

Ms Psilliakis says that binge eating is a mental health issue.

In the case of eating disorders, a genetic vulnerability plays an important role, therefore there are no ethical or cultural boundaries for those illnesses, says Christine Morgan, CEO of Butterfly Foundation for Eating Disorders.

Certainly we know that there is a genetic vulnerability and that genetic vulnerability crosses across all genders, socio-economic groups and ethnic and cultural groups.
Eleni Psillakis says that to get out of the cycle of binge eating, apart from getting professional help, it is also important to fuel your body with nutritious food and stop the restrictive dieting. 

man eating a burger
Comfort food can be a part of a healthy diet. Moderation and portion control is the key Source: South_agency/GettyImages

Alice Round, now a nutritionist, coach and personal trainer has had a firsthand experience with eating disorder in her teens, when she was battling bulimia.

For her the way out of this cycle was education. Ms Round says that it inspired her to study nutrition. The more she understood the science behind it, the more she was able to get out of the spiral and make healthier choices. She now not only has a healthy lifestyle, but also helps others.

4 min read
Published 9 April 2020 at 10:12pm
By Magda Dejneka, Sarka Pechova