Posts Tagged ‘Emotional Eating’

The Holiday Season, A Time for Emotional Eating

October 30th, 2013 at 7:07 am by timigustafson

As the holidays are nearing, even those among us who mostly manage to stay in shape have to wonder how they can prevent serious damage to their waistline this time of the year. It’s no secret: from Thanksgiving (or earlier) through New Year’s Day, we all indulge in lots of parties, festive meals, and treats all abound. The aftermath, of course, is filled with regrets and renewed vows never to succumb to such temptations again – a.k.a. resolution season. But as many know from experience, those efforts will likely be just as futile next time around as they were in the past. So is there no escape from this vicious cycle?

Holiday bingeing is hard to avoid, not only because of the many opportunities (and excuses) to indulge more than usual, but also because the holidays are a rather emotional time. It may be meant to be a joyous season, however, it also brings negative emotions such as anxiety, depression and loneliness closer to the surface and makes them even harder to bear. Add the extra stress that holiday preparations inevitably produce, and you have the perfect set of conditions where emotional eating can thrive.

Not all indulgence is automatically dysfunctional, of course. In some ways, we as humans are genetically programmed to overdo it now and then. Our forbearers of hundreds of years ago had little choice but to eat as much and as fast as they could on the rare occasions when food was plentiful, to be followed by periods of near starvation. But those times are long gone and, for most of us, every day is a feast by comparison. Combined with our predominantly sedentary lifestyle, the negative consequences of our now considered “normal” food consumption should not surprise anyone.

But there is a much darker side to overeating when it becomes compulsive. Only recently, binge-eating disorder (BED) has been recognized as a medical condition. It is now defined as “a serious mental illness in which emotions and thinking patterns cause a person to adopt harmful eating habits, such as overeating or starvation. Often, these habits are a way of coping with depression, stress, or anxiety.” BED differs from other eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia, as it does not typically include purging (mostly by vomiting or using laxatives) to avoid weight gain. But like those other behaviors, BED is often rooted in serious emotional conflicts.

Not everyone who engages in emotional eating will lose control and end up self-destructing. But if the underlying causes remain unaddressed and untreated, dysfunctional behavior may become harder and harder to overcome.

Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than physical hunger, explains Jane Jakubczak, a Registered Dietitian at the University of Maryland. Studies have shown that 75 percent of overeating, that is eating without being hungry, is caused by emotions. So dealing with emotions appropriately is most important, she says.

So it would make sense to think that because the holidays not only stir up both positive and negative emotions and give us also good excuses to feed them (literally and figuratively), we are more at risk than at any other time to fall into the well-known traps.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Learning what triggers your emotional responses is key to avoid them from happening. There are many ways this can be achieved. For example, if being around food and treats is too tempting, try to avoid being in their presence as best as you can. There are many ways to get into the holiday spirit without surrounding yourself with edibles. Resist buying urges. Ask to have food platters or candy jars placed in parts of your office space where you can’t see or smell them. Busy yourself with thoughts other than about food. Instead of partaking in every lunch or dinner party you are invited to, suggest some alternative events like going on a ski trip or some other outdoor activity. For those eating events you cannot escape from, make a plan how to navigate them, including how much you will allow yourself to eat no matter how often you are urged to dig in.

Most importantly, feed your emotions with what they really need: fun, laughter, companionship, compassion… You can never overindulge in these.

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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 and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Emotional Eating, a Common Phenomenon During the Holidays

December 19th, 2012 at 3:36 pm by timigustafson

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.

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Emotional Eating – A Widespread But Poorly Understood Health Problem

September 16th, 2012 at 7:21 am by timigustafson

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.

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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