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Do you Self-soothe with food?

Nutrition is often presented to us as a set of facts, scientific principles which determine how much, how often and even if we should consume a certain food; and if this knowledge was all we needed to eat well and support our health it would perhaps be straight forward. Unfortunately, there is also a soothing effect from eating food which, despite not making a good nutritional contribution, offers us comfort. Very often the issue barring someone’s healthy balanced intake of food is not a lack of understanding what to eat, it is the psychological impact of eating food which is ‘moorish’ or fills an emotional void.

Filling an emotional void, blocking out pain and literally masking the awfulness of something that has already happened or things that are happening or fearing things which are going to happen is common amongst those of us that binge. It is not only food, of course, but also meth, cigarettes and booze which do some of this blocking out of the thoughts, hiding images, masking self-doubt, or suppressing self-loathing. and it can be exhausting.

I’ve written before about the idea that such comfort is short lived and often followed by guilt and shame and more self-loathing. Part of the key to treating this disordered eating appears to be the speed at which we indulge in the self-soothing behaviour. If only there were a gap between the urge to eat and the actual behaviour itself… a gap where our logical self could get involved. This is what Daniel Kahneman, and colleagues referred to as system 1 and system 2 thinking, and the difference between the ‘chimp’ and the ‘human’ in Steve Peter’s model. Making decisions quickly and based on emotions/feelings is the business of the chimp/system 1, whereas saying to ourselves: ‘how did I feel after the last time I binged?’ is a question for system 2, or the ‘human’ inside us. And although chimps are led by emotions and feelings, they also do not like the idea of looking bad or seeming weak both of which may be caused by a binge. This is the reason why asking: ‘how did I feel last time?’ might help, as the answers (being ashamed, guilty, stupid, weak etc.) are not ways the chimp wants to feel again, so we have chance to recruit the parts of the brain, which ordinarily encourage us to binge/self-soothe with food, to convince us not to.

Top tips:

If you have an urge to binge, but also an accompanying negative feeling, ask yourself the question: ‘how do I normally feel after I’ve had a binge?’ and then take the time to answer this carefully. What are the accompanying feelings? How do you feel about yourself in the aftermath? What seem to be the long-term effects of bingeing regularly? One thing which scientific evidence and personal experience seem to agree on is that negative moods are precursors to bingeing. Naturally we cannot always put a stopper on a negative mood, but we can, at least, impact how we react to the negative mood. Another idea I’ve referred to previously is defusion (defusion for self-soothing) a great way to identify a thought you are having and spot it for what it is, a thought, not a fact or an instruction to obey but just a thought. Participants in my research programmes and people I’ve seen clinically for psychotherapy have reported using this tactic and identifying alterative behaviours when the urge to binge arrives as successful techniques for lowering their incidence of binge eating. The urge will of course, given time, pass and sometimes reminding yourself it will pass also helps.


Kahneman, D. (2017). Thinking, fast and slow.

Peters, S. (2012). The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme to Help You Achieve Success. Confidence and Happiness (London: Ebury, 2012).

Stein, R. I., Kenardy, J., Wiseman, C. V., Dounchis, J. Z., Arnow, B. A., & Wilfley, D. E. (2007). What's driving the binge in binge eating disorder?: A prospective examination of precursors and consequences. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40(3), 195-203.of

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