As far back as breast or formula feeding, most of us learned that a sweet taste meant care and comfort. As we grew into more sophisticated foods, we generally learned to equate certain items with happiness. Our parents picked up on these preferences and would offer these things as treats and on special occasions. Ice cream, anyone?

Somewhere deep in our subconscious most of us learn to associate food—at least certain types of food—with nurturing, comfort and happiness. For this reason, caregivers who are overloaded with responsibilities and stressed to the max often turn to food as a source of security and reassurance. Caregivers certainly do deserve an outlet and some pampering. It's human and actually very good to want to comfort ourselves when we are stressed or even bored, but reaching for a chocolate croissant or a bag of chips is not the ideal method of doing so.

Our Feelings Can Make Us Reach for Food

When a person becomes a caregiver, their world and their social circle tend to shrink. This is especially true if a care receiver requires around-the-clock supervision, is homebound or has trouble communicating. While there is usually plenty to do around the house, things can get monotonous very quickly. Being cooped up with limited sources of entertainment can cause us to snack in an attempt to fill the down time. But, instead of being stimulated, we end up mindlessly taking in unnecessary calories without really enjoying what we’re eating.

Stress can also drive us to raid the fridge when we’re in desperate need of something to make us feel better. Most junk and comfort foods stimulate the brain’s reward system and trigger the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for the sensation of pleasure. If we’re facing a big decision or feeling upset, we can temporarily feel relief if we indulge in a chocolate bar or a bowl of mac and cheese. The only drawback is that once the chemical effects of a binge are over, the stress and underlying emotions remain. On top of that, we often wind up feeling guilty about our lack of self-control, resulting in an even more fragile mental state.

This cycle of “self-medicating” with food and then feeling ashamed can quickly spiral out of control and have serious mental and physical consequences. There have been studies pointing to the fact that middle-aged women are prone to eating disorders. I'd like to see statistics on how many of those women are caregivers. I often see questions on the AgingCare.com Caregiver Forum from women who have gained considerable weight during the months or years they've been caring for their loved ones. Many began seeking occasional comfort from food and ended up with a full-blown food addiction and physical ailments associated with their poor diet.

How to Stop Using Food as an Emotional Crutch

If any of the above scenarios sound familiar, it’s time to reevaluate your relationships with caregiving and with food. Getting to the root cause(s) of this behavior will help you better control it and devise healthier alternative outlets.

Seek Out Help with Caregiving

Regardless of whether you’re overindulging due to stress, boredom or burnout, this behavior indicates that you need to make some changes to your daily routine. Respite care is step number one toward a better caregiving experience, lower levels of stress, and a better relationship with food. Respite care comes in many different forms and will give you the free time needed to get out of the house and seek healthier outlets while your loved one continues to receive quality care in your absence.

Read: Where to Find Respite: Resources for Caregivers

If you feel guilty or skeptical about someone else caring for your loved one, don’t. Elders can also grow tired of the same routine day in and day out. Many thrive with the addition of other care providers, since it gives them the chance to interact with new people and participate in activities. Don't let guilt keep you from taking advantage of helpful resources.

Find a New Reward

Try to reinvent the way you reward yourself. If we deny ourselves the reward of unhealthy food, then we need to replace that void with something else. Otherwise, our good intentions won't last long. As with so many things, attitude is paramount. If we can shift the idea of a reward from sweet or salty treats to a few hours of respite care, a favorite movie, or some positive and reinforcing form of exercise, then we can more easily work towards healthier patterns of behavior. After all, can food really be considered a reward if it leaves us feeling crummy?

Change the Way You Think

Try to replace the mindset of “I deserve this snack” with “I deserve to be healthy and happy.” Don't think of it as a diet or as deprivation. Instead, think of it as a commitment to your health. Believe that you deserve to feel good, and understand that eating well is a huge part of this goal. We've all read diet tips like keeping healthy snacks handy. That’s good advice, but most of us chuckle and reach past the carrot sticks for the leftover slice of cheesecake anyway. It’s near impossible to successfully implement new habits without employing new ways of thinking. We need to be both realistic and kind to ourselves.

Hold Yourself Accountable

A food diary can be a useful tool for tracking and gaining insight on your eating habits. Make notes of what you eat and when, then ask yourself a few simple questions about your snack or meal. Did that extra ice cream make you feel good? If so, for how long? How were you feeling before you reached for the ice cream? Did you spend the rest of the evening feeling badly about yourself?

Don’t just write in your diary, either. Reread your entries to discover patterns of behavior. What events or situations usually cause you to emotionally eat? If the same trigger keeps appearing as a reason for eating, make a point of addressing it head on.

Your diary can also help discourage you from giving into cravings. The next time you decide you deserve a treat, read a few entries two or three times each. If you still want the treat, then eat it. But, don't dwell on it as a failure. Eat it, enjoy it and then consider if it really helped or if the good feeling was transient. Awareness can be a huge motivator.

Find Emotional Support

Enlist the help of family, friends, support groups and other resources to help you reach your goals. For some people, seeing a therapist can help them sort through difficult feelings and unhealthy coping mechanisms. For others, finding respite and joining a weight loss or exercise program can provide free time, a healthy outlet and a support system. Find what works for you and give it your all. Remember, your health and happiness are important, too.