What Causes Emotional Eating?
Emotional overeating disorders can be extremely painful and devastating for those who suffer from them. What is the cause of emotional overeating? Why is it that some people, knowingly or unknowingly, turn to food for comfort? Following are some theories and findings from studies that posed these very questions.
Emotional Overeating Disorder is a generalized term that refers to any of the many varied eating habits where genuine hunger is not the motivational factor. It is more common among women than men, but men are not immune – especially young men in their teens and twenties. Those who suffer from this disorder associate food with emotional comfort, and will turn to eating to escape negative feelings.
For some with emotional overeating disorder, the problem stems from past traumatic events. Someone who suffered sexual abuse, for example, or some other kind of sexual trauma may overeat in response to feelings of severe anxiety, shame or confusion. The result is a heavier body, which some experts believe may cause the sufferer to feel “protected” by feeling they are now less attractive to those who they believe would be interested in a romantic relationship with them. Subconsciously or consciously, the sufferer may want to be seen as unattractive. Other types of past trauma or persistent unmet needs may cause a person to turn to emotional overeating.
People who suffer from low self-esteem and a negative self-image may seek escape by overeating. In a way, emotional overeating is a outer expression of what the sufferer feels inside, and the resulting weight projects the same internal image of a person’s self-image and low self-esteem.
Like alcoholics, those who struggle with emotional overeating may be unconsciously using food as a drug. Eating numbs or dulls the emotions that might be too hard to deal with otherwise.
As we touched upon in part one of this series, studies have indicated a strong correlation between depression and emotional overeating. Ironically, sometimes as depression grows worse a sufferer loses weight; weight loss means the sufferer is not eating as much, and therefore not engaging in his or her usual coping mechanism.
Again, prolonged stress can have a profound effect on the body. Stress stimulates the body to produce, among other chemicals, the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has a hunger-stimulating effect, and as the stressful emotions increase along with the cortisol, a cycle of emotional eating can play out.
Identify Your Triggers
Emotional overeating is usually triggered by something – emotions, yes, but sometimes we need to look deeper. Identifying your personal triggers can help you in be able to start the journey to overcome emotional overeating.
Some examples of triggers might be:
- Emotional– Eating to relieve boredom, stress, or anxiety as a way to overcome family, work or relationship problems
- Psychological– You may eat in response to negative self-talk, or in response to painful memories or self-destructive thoughts
- Environmental/Situational– You may eat simply because the opportunity is there. Also in this category is the habit of eating while doing another activity, such as reading or watching TV
Ways To Stop Emotional Eating
When you think of stopping emotional overeating, does it seem like an impossible goal or cause anxiety?
You’re not alone – many people who suffer from this problem feel imprisoned and helpless. It can seem like you are unable to break free from the overwhelming emotions and coping habits. But there is a way out of the darkness.
Being honest with yourself is an important first step. Emotional overeaters tend to judge themselves pretty harshly, but choose not to do this- you’re not an isolated case or some kind of oddity. It is a sign of courage and strength to seek help. It means you’ve identified the problem and are willing to take a closer look. Here are some steps you can take now to move toward stopping the cycle of overeating:
- Therapy– Seek help from a therapist who works with eating disorders. If you need help finding a therapist or need to speak with someone now, please contact the National Eating Disorders Association’s toll-free, confidential hotline at 800-931-2237.
- Keep a Food Journal– In this journal, in addition to noting everything you eat, also note how you feel when you eat – sad, angry, upset, elated, joyful, bored, etc. Don’t judge yourself or make any changes to your habits when you begin keeping this journal; you’re not trying to prove anything to yourself or anyone. Be gentle with yourself. You are just trying to get an honest picture of your eating habits. After several weeks, a pattern will probably emerge for you that you will recognize.
- Out of Sight, Out of Mind– go shopping only with a grocery list. When an emotionally hard moment hits and you head for the refrigerator or pantry, what kind of foods do you usually go for? Often, emotional overeaters head for high-calorie comfort foods like ice cream, chips, cookies, cakes or candy bars. But you can’t eat those things if they are not in your house.
- Avoid Crash Dieting– the goal is to keep healthy alternatives on hand with high quality protein, vegetables and fruits. Drink lots of pure water throughout each day. Placing yourself on an extreme crash diet will only lead to increasing the cycle of overeating.
- Eat Regularly Scheduled Meals– Experts recommend regular meal times as a way to combat emotional overeating. If it’s not “time” to eat, then you may be better able to hold off on eating until it is the scheduled meal time. Eating regular meals also will helpful in achieving “mindful” eating when taking in nutritious alternatives that nourish your body. Having regular meal times will create a more relaxed eating experience which is the opposite of emotional eating and its anxiety-driven episodes.
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