Posts Tagged ‘Emotional Eating’
In all likelihood, many Americans will gain some weight over the holidays. It may only come to a few pounds, but statistics show that even small nudges on the scale can stubbornly persist and add up over time. The annual spike may not surprise anyone, but if partying and celebrating almost inevitably lead to overindulging, there are also other elements at play that make it harder to resist temptation this time of the year. One of them is stress.
Whether you look forward to the holiday season or dread it, either way it’s an emotionally charged time. Choosing gifts, preparing festive meals, attending family events and office parties can give cause for joy or misgivings. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can become more intense for those who feel left out.
“Many people use eating as a way to cope with difficult emotions, not only bad ones, but also happiness, excitement and celebration,” says Alexis Conason, Psy.D., a psychologist at the New York Obesity Research Center, in an interview with the Huffington Post.
To handle their emotions better, some people find their greatest comfort in food. Food can have, among other things, a numbing effect. Emotional eaters, she says, often eat to cushion themselves against the challenges they’re facing. Especially when food is as plentiful as it typically is during the holidays, these responses are easily triggered and overeating occurs as a result.
Emotional eating is commonly identified as a behavior pattern where food is used for other purposes than just stilling hunger – such as to deal with stressful situations or as a means for reward. Unlike physical hunger, which increases gradually, the emotional need for food can emerge suddenly, demanding instant attention. It cannot easily be stilled by filling one’s stomach because the emptiness it is based on may persist beyond the physical satisfaction. Additionally, emotional eating can leave a person even more distressed by triggering feelings of guilt and shame in the wake of the eating event.
Not all emotional eating leads to compulsive disorders like binge eating or bulimia nervosa. But the risk of developing dysfunctional behaviors over time is greater when emotional eating is misunderstood or unnecessarily demonized, according Dr. Pavel Somov, a psychologist and author of “Eating the Moment.” When it results in mindless overeating, it can be both psychologically and physically unhealthy, he says.
To prevent such consequences, it is important to identify the sources that trigger certain emotional responses. The next step is to find alternative solutions when negative emotions strike. If the natural tendency is to reach for comfort food, it may be helpful not to keep certain items around the house or the office. The harder it is to get to a juicy burger, a sugary donut or a bag of candy, the better the chances will be to overcome sudden cravings. Sometimes, this will take a bit of strategic thinking, but it’s doable, even during the holidays, and over time it will get easier to avoid the traps that worked all too well in the past.
Of course, these can only serve as intermediate measures. The ultimate goal is to find the source of the inner void and fill it with something that isn’t food but is truly satisfying.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “Emotional Eating – A Widespread but Poorly Understood Health Problem.”
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.
There is no general agreement among the experts on the exact causes of the growing obesity crisis in America and around the world. Easy access to inexpensive calorie-dense but nutritionally poor food and sedentary lifestyles are often named as leading factors. Our culture that promotes ever-increasing consumption my also play a role. But could it be that our eating habits can make us not only physically ill but also harm our psychological and emotional well-being?
In her book, titled “Emotional Overeating” (2012), Dr. Marcia Sirota, a Toronto-based psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of addiction, says that constant eating, especially when it leads to weight problems, is actually a form of psychotic behavior.
“It seems as though we’ve become a society of addicts,” she says. “In particular, we’ve become a nation of compulsive overeaters, hyper-focused on everything having to do with food and eating.”
Even our efforts to control our weight through dieting can fit this pattern, says Dr. Sirota. “We’re compulsive in our eating behaviors, whether this means binge eating, restricting, purging, or a combination of all these. […] Both compulsive eating and compulsive food restricting (dieting) cause a behavioral vicious circle in which overeating leads to remorse, self-recrimination, heightened obsessions and further overeating.” The result is enormous emotional suffering, “suffering from a constant preoccupation with food and weight.”
Dr. Sirota believes that it is actually not desire for food that lies at the root of this kind of addiction but rather an inner emptiness, hurt or loss that needs to be filled. In other words, emotional eating is not about stilling hunger but numbing a pervasive state of unhappiness.
“When it comes to our relationship with food, there is much more going on than we would often assume,” says Dr. Lisa Firestone, a clinical psychologist in Santa Barbara, California. Like any addictive substance, food is often used to cover over or subdue emotional pain.”
But that’s not necessarily the case with all people who eat for emotional reasons. We should not assume that food, especially so-called “comfort food,” is only there to help us get out of a funk, when we are depressed, bored or lonely, says Dr. Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam, 2006). Food can just as well evoke feelings of safety, love or belonging and reconnect us with happy memories of loved ones and past events. Also, most people eat more than they should when they are celebrating, when they eat out or gather at the table on holidays. Fewer than half reach for the munchies when they have the blues or the blahs, he says.
Still, he concedes, there are significant differences between physical hunger and emotional hunger. Physical hunger builds gradually and recedes when the stomach is filled. By contrast, emotional hunger arises suddenly, unrelated to the time you last ate, and it persists even after sufficient food intake, thereby often leading to overindulgence. Also, there is no negative psychological fall-out after eating in response to physical hunger. But there can be feelings of shame and guilt after bouts of emotional overeating.
Using food to satisfy our emotional needs every so often does not necessarily have to be considered problematic. “We all eat for emotional reasons sometimes,” says Jane Jakubczak, a Registered Dietitian at the University of Maryland. “When eating becomes the only or main strategy a person uses to manage emotions, then the problems arise – especially if the foods a person is choosing to eat to satisfy emotions aren’t exactly healthy.”
By dealing constructively with our emotions, we can achieve a healthy relationship with food as well, says Deborah Kotz, a health writer from Silver Spring, Maryland. She advises people with tendencies toward emotional overeating to pay close attention to their reactions to stress, sadness or boredom. What actions can you take to avoid eating when temptation arises? Establish some rules before a craving attack takes place and follow through with your plan. Engage in activities that distract you. Avoid dieting, since it can lead to other forms of negative food addiction. The more you learn about the nature of your tendencies, the better you will be prepared to exercise restraint and stay in control when you need to.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (http://www.timigustafson.com), and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.