Monthly: May 2013

Emotional Eating & Problematic Behaviours Around Food

For many of us, controlling how much we eat presents numerous challenges which are difficult to overcome. So why is it a challenge for many of us to lose weight, and what caused us to become overweight in the first place?

The answer often lies with emotional eating – using food comfort. Eating for comfort is common and many of us are not even aware of it happening, let alone why we are doing it.
The foundations for problems around food start very subtly during early childhood. Have you ever noticed how children are often rewarded with food for doing something good, or even just for behaving? It’s not uncommon for some parents to use food as a form of bribery.

Or how about the fast food chains children’s meals?  Junk food put in a funky looking box with a toy from the latest blockbuster kids movie. Is it any wonder kids are hooked on fast food from an early age? I must hand it to their marketing department – it’s genius marketing!

Many people over eat because they are feeling down, depressed and generally dissatisfied, and they address these negative feelings by eating food.

Of course we know logically if you’re eating based on emotional hunger, then your body will never be satisfied by real food, which is why depressive eating continues with such momentum.

The cycle works like this. The person starts off feeling “hungry”, and then has something to eat. Soon after they feel bad about eating and start to feel guilty about it.
This guilt leads to them having a “treat” in order to feel better, which sends them back at the beginning of the cycle.

This is why as a therapist when I’m working with a weight loss client I’m most interested in what my client perceives will be different once they have lost weight and hit their target weight. How will things be different, and what will they be doing differently.

Most importantly, what will they be able to do once they lose weight that they feel cannot do now? These things are usually the drivers of the emotional eating and will need to be dealt with immediately because they are obstacles to any lasting progress.

To overcome emotional eating, the person needs to begin to bridge the gap between something that they cannot do now, and what they expect to do once the weight is gone in future.

Let’s take loneliness as an example. Many clients I work with are very lonely and would rather be out and around other people.

For whatever reason, be it social anxiety, breaking up with a partner, an argument around family or friends, moving into a new and unfamiliar area or stress at work – they have entered a cycle where their initial comfort comes from food, and their weight increases.
Over time their self-image and social appetite plummets and they no longer feel motivated to go out.

In this example, my intervention would be based not only around behaviours around food, nutrition and recognising hunger, but also to directly address the issue of loneliness.

Why does this person feel they cannot go out now, but will be able to when they are thinner?
This is key to shifting the weight. By expanding their comfort zone and working with them so they are able to get out there and socialise as they are at their present weight, no matter what they look like, then a large part of their hunger will diminish.

This is challenging but it has some great secondary gains. If the overweight person gets to grip with the loneliness and starts to go out instead of staying in and eating food, then they will be physically more active and they will lose weight quicker than if they waited and carried around this emotional luggage, waiting for the final result.

Their weight loss journey will be much more enjoyable and fulfilling – remember weight loss can take a long time, often around 6 months to a year.

Interestingly, eating disorders follow a very similar pattern of thinking. In cases anorexia and bulimia, both are dealing with a multitude of emotions, predominantly guilt.

  • The anorexic will always feel intense guilt around food, so much so that they find it hard to eat even small amount because of how bad it makes them feel both during and after eating.
  • The bulimic will feel bad about eating, but for brief respite they will eat some food. However, soon after a meal or snack they will either exercise or make them self sick to eject the food and the thus feeling of guilt that comes with having eaten it.

So to recap. If the food is acting as a coping mechanism, then the only long-term way to change and lose weight is to deal with the trigger that activates the coping mechanism in the first place. Utilising CBT to change self perceptions and create new choices will do this.

As always I welcome questions and feedback.  Feel free to contact me to make an enquiry or book an appointment.