Replacing Comfort Food with Real Comfort

Redefining Emotional Eating

Most of my clients come to me for help with weight loss. Often, they’re stuck, and need an extra set of eyes to help them ferret out which aspects of their lifestyle compromise the mud in which they are spinning their wheels.

While exercise plays a tremendous role in health and weight management, most of us know by now that it’s far from the full picture, and that nutrition strategies are often the keys that unlock progress.

In this spirit, many of my clients want to know what to eat. The most common questions I get during consultations are:

  • “Is dairy OK to eat?” 
  • “Can I eat meat?” 
  • “Should I be juicing?” 
  • Or some variant of: “Tell me what to eat.” 

However, as I often tell clients, the most important question isn’t “What,” but instead, “How should I be eating?”

In the end, food behaviors are far more powerful than food ingredients. Regardless of what new superfood hits the shelves tomorrow (or, on the other hand, what passable food of today becomes the demonized food of tomorrow), the individual will ultimately influence his or her health through how they interact with food and exercise over a long period of time… not through which foods they eat or which workouts they perform at any given time.

In other words:

Dogmas change, but habits are forever. 

So when I’m interacting with a new client, I’m not listening for buzzwords like gluten or dairy or McDonald’s. I’m listening for patterns.

And one of the most important ones that I see that keeps people stuck is emotional eating.

The problem is that when most people think of “emotional” eating, they picture a woman weeping into a pint of ice cream, standing at the freezer with a spoon. However, this is cliche, and unhelpful, as overeating is a common eating pattern that can range from mindless overconsumption (often prompted by food cues) to legitimate binge eating episodes, and it can affect both women and men.

It’s helpful and de-stigmatizing to remember that emotional eating is simply food intake that is motivated by a feeling, instead of actual hunger.

I’ve written about the difference between overeating and binge eating in the past, and likewise, it’s smart to remember that sadness and despair are not the only emotions. 

Food can show up as a reliable friend when we’re in any of the following mental spaces:

  • Lonely
  • Bored
  • Sad
  • Celebratory
  • Distracted
  • Under-Stimulated
  • Over-Stimulated
  • Procrastinating
  • Stressed
  • Emotional
  • …. and more!

In other words, food can become a comforting friend when we need to relax, recoup, occupy ourselves, entertain ourselves, soothe ourselves, or de-stress. 

Trust me – I love food. But I know from my own experience of weight loss, as well as that of my clients’, that in order to truly heal your relationship with your body and food, you have to stop habitually leaning on food for comfort and entertainment and distraction. 

When I first lost weight (50 pounds and seven years ago), one of my struggles was that I had lost the weight, but I had not made significant in-roads in healing my complicated relationship with food. This is, by the way, common for people who lose weight. We often know all the “right” things to eat – and most of the time we can – but we have a few Achilles heels that have the potential to cripple us if we don’t take steps to improve our relationships with ourselves, stress, and eating.

For example, loneliness was a tremendous trigger for me. After years of work on my food habits and thoughts, I now can feel the “red flags” pop up – the tell-tale signs that I am seeking food because I am seeking comfort and company, not nourishment.

Why is food so comforting? Because – let’s be honest – food really does reduce stress and provide some kind of comfort and happiness and fun. It’s immediate, it tastes good, and it’s low-effort. It’s an easy road to feeling good immediately, thanks to the little kick of dopamine your brain releases when you experience the pleasure of salt, fat, and starch combinations. 

However, it’s typically a little more work (and delayed gratification) to find what I would call “real comfort,” and food provides a convenient and satisfying shortcut to feeling good fast. 

However, if you can take dedicated action to address the root of the desire – the need for comfort, entertainment, distraction, or interest in any given situation – the shortcut becomes superfluous, and you automatically reduce the instances of overeating in your lifestyle.

This is where I see my clients make the most progress and take the reins in their individual relationships with food, claiming their power over their choices. It is often not a food issue, but a self-management issue, and I have seen women miraculously transform when they fully step into their ownership of their lives, and develop a wide repertoire of ways to meet their needs.

Once food is not the only tool in your toolbox, you are empowered – not only to address your weight and health, but also bigger questions of boundaries, self-actualization, and self-care. 

This is important because, in the long run, the habitual reliance on food to satisfy non-hunger needs creates real health consequences. However, to keep it in perspective, the reason that it is an insidious and difficult habit to kick is that the consequences are also delayed. Learning to address your needs accurately is an investment in your future health, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.

Note: this is not to say that we should never eat when we’re not hungry, never share a celebratory meal with a friend, or never have the extra bite of something really tasty. I’m not drawing lines of “should’s” in the sand. But keep in mind that “never” and “always” are very far away from each other on the spectrum, and if you recognize that you fall closer on the line to “always” and “never,” I am speaking directly to you. 

I frame it this way:

You are honoring your body, and being kind to it, when you gently and consistently exercise the self-discipline to give your body what it really wants and needs, when it doesn’t need food. 

Practical Strategies

Because of this, I recommend for many of my clients – especially those who habitually turn to food for  comfort and relaxation – building up a reliable repertoire of activities that they can fall back on when they experience the red flags of cravings.

Here are the three strategies that I suggest for replacing these mindless eating behaviors in response to cravings, which will automatically improve your relationship with food:

Human Contact

The effect of human contact is almost magical. The very act of texting someone, calling someone, stopping by a co-worker’s office, or meeting up with a friend can almost instantaneously crowd out the urge to eat, at any time or place.

Whether you choose to attend Meetups to fill your evenings and weekends, or simply make a habit of getting in touch with someone via phone when you feel cravings, you may be amazed at how much your relationship with food shifts, once it’s put in perspective by human relationships.

Solo Hobbies

Food is often a replacement for more meaningful activities, even alone. In my example about being home alone at night, it was critically important for me to develop hobbies that were immersive and time-passing when I couldn’t (or didn’t feel like) making plans with someone else. Painting, for example, became an important outlet for me in passing the time.

When you think about your life, can you think of any hobbies that you do consistently that are satisfying, get you into a “flow” state, and enrich your life? I have had clients variously train for triathlons, take up knitting, or spend time building their family trees. Think of a creative, satisfying activity that fits your personality, which gives you something easy to do when you’re feeling an non-hunger urge to eat.


Eating is a physical and mental activity. If you can engage both in something else, it is likely that cravings will pass, once you’ve been distracted for 30 minutes or so.

I simply call this “busy-ness.” If you’re at work, get work done. If you’re at home, clean your bathroom. Productivity is a surprising antidote to comfort eating. Even something as simple as painting your nails can sufficiently engage your body and attention, to allow your focus to transition past cravings.

Creating Your Action Plan

You may say, “I have friends! I’m not lonely. This doesn’t stop me from eating comfort food.”

But I would take it a step further, and recommend that you be intentional and strategic in your use of these activities as a conscious short-circuiter.

Make an action plan. Right now, decide which two or three (or 10) activities you want to use as your road to “real comfort,” and commit to yourself that next time you feel cravings, you’re going to enact your action plan.

The next time you’re home alone and rooting around in your refrigerator for a “snack” (a.k.a. “connection”), make yourself call a friend and go for a walk. 

The next time you’re at work and cruising the break room for a “donut” (a.k.a. “distraction”), make yourself a to-do list and accomplish at least five things before re-considering eating. 

What are your triggers, and what is your action plan?

Beyond Portion Control and Calories

Final note: I have written about portion-control techniques almost ad nauseam. Does it help to clean out your kitchen so that your eating environment is optimized? Yes. Does it help to have your food pre-bagged into portions so that your caloric intake is reasonable? Yes. Does it help to track your food so that you are aware of what you’re putting in your body? Yes. Does it help to meal prep? Yes.

All of these mechanics of food management are incredibly helpful, and even life-changing.

However, if you don’t do the deeper work of transforming your relationship with food in tandem with these tools, these techniques are just band-aids. It’s like using “communication tips” in an abusive relationship, or putting siding on a house that lacks a foundation – it’s only a veneer covering a structural problem. 

Food is not your friend. It doesn’t provide real companionship, real comfort, or real satisfaction when something else is missing.

Try out some of these ideas this week, and I will be following up with some reflection questions next week!

Follow-Up Questions from Last Week

If you want to jump into this free healthy living project (with weekly strategies to try out), sign up on this page to get these questions delivered directly to your inbox each week!

Last week in “Positive Eating Goals,” we explored the strategies of making healthier eating more fun.

Answer the following questions about your experiences with last week’s post:

  • Question 1: Have you ever “gamified” your nutrition goals? How did it work for you? If you haven’t, how would you do it?
  • Question 2: How does the “blackjack scoring” instead of “golf scoring” analogy work in your personal nutrition goals?
  • Question 3: Are there “restaurant favorites” that you could learn to cook at home, which would be enjoyable for you?

E-mail these answers to me! 

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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