Chocolate: everyone’s comfort eating choice. But can you really eat your way out of depression?

Comfort eating: Can I eat my way out of depression?

Pass the chocolate! It’s tempting to indulge in comfort eating during the winter months as the days shorten and as Christmas becomes a distant memory. Simplistically, raw hunger is said to be an impulse telling the human organism to get sustenance from the environment. So while excessive chocolate consumption might not be the answer to winter blues, might it be that a peculiar hunger, felt in winter, might be a request from the body to eat differently? Might comfort eating be useful information?

Chocolate temptations: hunger or craving?

When we feel the urge to eat it’s sometimes hard not to respond. One useful guide helps explain the nutritional basis for the cravings associated with comfort eating, suggesting for example that a desire for chocolate might point to a lack of magnesium in the body. Increasingly, there’s awareness that emotional hunger is prevalent in our society and perhaps tuning into your hunger and attending to the emotional undercurrent could help to resolve the “craving”, allowing more space for healthier choices. The practice of mindful eating is becoming more widespread (try this meditation) and can help participants to learn to decipher hunger and cravings.

Recent evidence of links between diet and depression

A growing amount of research is pointing to diet being pivotal in helping to regulate mood and especially to avoid depression. A 2015 Spanish study found that those who adhere to one of three diets, a Mediterranean diet (fruit and veg, legume and fish focus with limited red meat and dairy), a pro-vegetarian diet (a moderate vegetarian diet, with only limited meat) and an alternative healthy eating diet, were less likely to experience depression. Studies have also linked trans fats with depression and the consumption of fish oil supplements with reduced rates of psychotic illness. And many psychotherapists, especially those with an interest in or training in nutrition, are beginning to look at the links between food and mood, and helping to raise awareness with their clients about the links between what you eat and how you feel.

So what should I eat to avoid depression?

The association of UK dieticians recommends (PDF) that, in order to protect your mental health, you eat protein with most meals, avoid trans fats in favour of good fats such as olive and nut oil, eat oily fish regularly as well as whole grains fruit and vegetables. They also suggest you do not skip meals and ensure you are well hydrated.

Of course, diet alone is not a panacea. If you’ve a psychiatric issue or long-standing depressive illness or indeed, any doubts at all, it’s best to talk to your doctor or mental health professional to make sure you’re making the right decision.

Comfort eating or intuitive eating?

Often I see clients who are confused. They’ve heard talk of studies or read certain headlines, which may tell them to radically alter their lifestyle – or they read headlines which contradict something they’ve previously been told or worse still, contradicts something they really find works for their well-being.

To those clients I might say – listen to that confusion – and beneath that emotion – what’s your intuition tell you? I often find that we do know what our bodies need to be well. It’s often seems that we’ve spent so long looking outside for answers, that we’ve forgotten to go within. In this way, it can be said that therapy becomes an opportunity to find our true hunger, to find what our bodies really need, indeed, to find our Self.

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