Comfort Eating and Regular People

Comfort food

The psychological food dependence-addiction lens is a new and still somewhat unpopular paradigm, because it has to do with addiction to food as the cause of much obesity. Looking through that lens, we see that while legislative measures are useful, what really needs to be addressed is the tendency of people to become addicted, at a very young age, to harmful foodlike substances.

According to this paradigm, comfort eating is an addictive behavior just like any other. In Overweight: What Kids Say, Dr. Pretlow describes the recovery process:

Even before symptoms of withdrawal fully ease, the real work begins. The kids learn to cope with life… by substituting other things for the numbing pleasure and comfort of food. Many overweight and obese kids have never learned to cope with life’s pains, without seeking comfort and stress relief from food, or they have long ago lost those coping skills.

We recently talked about a couple of celebrity comfort eaters and food addicts, Carrie Fisher and Kelly Osbourne. But what about regular people who are not movie stars? Specifically, what about regular kids? There just happens to be a tremendous resource for getting into the heads of children and teenagers, and learning what they really think and feel about obesity. has a whole section dedicated to comfort eating, and it includes three articles about comfort eating and four video clips, but, most of all, it features hundreds of comments written by young people under conditions of anonymity. They are sad, depressed, lonesome, stressed, nervous, frustrated, angry, and sometimes even happy. Their response to all these emotional states is highly pleasurable food disordered eating. A large number of these kids admit to being food addicts, and describe symptoms that fit the hard-drug addiction criteria. For instance, a 13-year-old girl says,

I’m so fat, and I have so many food addictions, I’ve lost count.

Spend some time there in the world of comfort eating, and one of two things can happen. For a person who engages in comfort eating, it can be as intense and cathartic as group therapy. For a person who doesn’t have this particular problem, it can be a real eye-opener. Either way, it’s fascinating. To a girl who wants to curb her binge eating and begs for advice, a 12-year-old sends this suggestion:

Do you have any younger siblings? Try wrestling with them, you’ll always win and the calories will just slide off.

Okay, maybe it’s not the best advice. But the point is, these kids are responding to each other, and trying to help in a mutually supportive way. Some heartfelt cries are posted, like that of a 13-year-old girl who writes,

I hate when I comfort eat. […] I DON’T KNOW HOW TO STOP. IT’S KILLING ME.

One of the rough realities here is: Stopping can also feel like it’s killing you. In general, it seems that with different kinds of aberrant eating, getting straight can be relatively easy, or very difficult. It has been suggested that comfort eating is more addictive than plain old stress eating, meaning it’s harder to quit, and has worse consequences during the withdrawal period.

Even someone who is mentally and emotionally healthy can get stressed out. Some overeating is displacement activity, for the purpose of distracting the mind or discharging nervous energy. If you favor the really crunchy kind of junk food that you can aggressively chew, maybe your reason for recreational eating is stress-related. The more mundane kinds of stress are easier to replace with another type of recreation.

Of course, suffering from an emotional disorder is also stressful, it’s like ordinary stress with an extra dimension. Emotional eating for psychological comfort has been compared to a person trying to stuff emotions back into his or her body so they can’t come out, because they are very dangerous emotions. It has been compared to an attempt to numb the emotions. The food is meant to act as an anaesthetic. People who are into extreme comfort eating are self-medicating to take the pain away.

A website called Female Forum says,

Professionals estimate that 75% of overeating that is done is caused by emotions. It is a way to soothe and self-medicate. After all, food brings short-term comfort.

Here is an interesting comment by someone called Cecil “Cec” Murphey from the website Shattering the Silence, where men gather who have experienced sexual abuse as children:

Their medication can be stuffing themselves with food. Why wouldn’t they? While they were still infants, parents stopped them from crying by thrusting a bottle into their mouths. Food soothed any ills. So for some, food addiction is a natural reaction to abuse.

Way back in 2003, Deborah Kesten wrote,

[… S]ome of us learn to use food to self-medicate — to compulsively overeat to relieve stress and emotional pain.

Kesten was interested in the possibility of managing food addiction with relaxation practices derived from Eastern philosophy. Her advice is, don’t medicate, meditate. In fact, she names four cornerstones of food-related sanity: consciousness, brain chemistry, meals, and meditation.

Different things work for different people. If meditation works, great. If boot camp works, great. Just remember, a short-term success is not the same as a sustainable change. When considering what approach to take to food addiction, it’s helpful to remember something that has worked for a lot of people: treating it like an addiction. The Alcoholics Anonymous type of 12-step programs have shown respectable success rates and very encouraging long-term results.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Comfort Eating,”
Source: “Emotional Eating: The Triggers & How to Stop,”, 01/11
Source: “My Name is Louis,” Men Shattering the Silence
Source: “Meditation for Managing Food Addictions?,” Spirituality & Health, 12/03
Image by Ted Kerwin, used under its Creative Commons license.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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