Comfort Eating With Diabetes

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Do you ever eat for comfort? Does emotional eating affect your diabetes management? If your answer is yes, you are one of millions. How can we get some of that comfort without spiking blood sugar levels?

Emotional eating is not just a problem for people with diabetes. “Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than hunger,” says Jane Jakubczak, a registered dietitian at the University of Maryland, quoted on WebMD. “Instead of the physical symptom of hunger…an emotion triggers the eating.”

Unfortunately, the foods that bring comfort are usually not healthy, especially for people with diabetes. Sugars and refined carbohydrates often make us feel good by raising our levels of serotonin, making us feel less threatened and more in control. But that feeling comes with a price — higher glucose levels that might last for hours, causing inflammation. Comfort eating can also result in putting on abdominal fat.

It’s not just the sugar that brings comfort. Some food brings back pleasant memories of home or of good times. The smell of baking cookies can mean love and security. The texture of pizza might mean fun and pleasure. The taste and feel of ice cream might take us back to happy childhood days.

Most of us learned to eat for comfort when we were babies. Parents often cheer kids up or quiet them down with food, especially sweets. Children learn to comfort themselves with food instead of learning how to do deal with hard feelings.

Interestingly, different emotions seem to drive us toward different comfort foods. According to Brian Wansink, PhD, of University of Illinois, people in happy moods seem to prefer foods such as pizza or steak. Sad people reach for ice cream and cookies, and bored people tend to open a bag of potato chips.

Note that those different choices would have very different impact on blood sugars. And your choices might be different. Macaroni and cheese seems to be a classic comfort food for many people. We all have our own sources of comfort. So one thing to do would be to check how various comfort foods affect your blood sugar and stick with the ones that don’t raise it much.

If you are doing more comfort eating than your body or spirit would prefer, what can you do about it? Experts suggest having alternatives when feelings start to push you toward food. Possibilities include taking a walk, calling a friend, playing cards, doing housework or a puzzle, listening to music, touching or looking at pleasant things, drinking water or broth, or taking a nap.

When I wrote about craving carbs last year, many readers commented that cutting way down on carbohydrate had nearly eliminated their cravings. Cravings often seem to be triggered by emotions. Ralph Smith wrote “Diabetic 13 years. Have been on the ‘no sugar/no flour’ diet for four months; weight loss of 10%; no cravings for any type of food.”

Cathy A wrote “I eat a lot of fruit and as a result I don’t really care for things like bread or candy.” CalgaryDiabetic commented that “The urge goes away with time.” So keeping unhealthy comfort foods out of reach might reduce the amount that finds its way into your stomach.

If foods make you feel good, do you have to stop them because of diabetes? Perhaps not — it might just be a matter of eating less. Food psychologists say almost all the taste is in the first couple of bites. After that, our brains tune out the taste. So savor that first bite and you might not need more. Dr. Wansink says that if you eat just four bites, “you’ll recall it as just a good experience as if you polished off the whole thing.”

If you eat a few bites of comfort food and really take time to taste them, and still want more, you might actually be physically hungry. You might find that some healthier food comforts just as much. So carry some with you. Or you might find healthy comfort foods on Web sites like ours or books like Healthy and Hearty Diabetic Cooking, although you’ll need to check for yourself if those recipes work well for your situation.

Another good idea would be finding non-food ways to feel better. Address issues that stress you or make you sad. Get some help where you need it; spend more time in the sun and more time with people you like. Actually, I think I’ll take my own advice, stop writing now, and get out in the air. And maybe have some Bosc pear with almond butter — that always makes me feel better.

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