So comfort eating wasn’t one of your New Year’s resolutions right? Anna Magee asks the experts for the key signs you’re an emotional eater – and finds out how to stop
Eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full should be the easiest thing on earth but I can think of a million reasons to eat that don’t involve hunger: boredom, frustration, tiredness, sadness, or my big one, a stressful work deadline. They’re all emotions I sometimes face not by talking them out or writing in a journal or taking a rest as I know I should but by reaching for the quick-fix comfort of a Galaxy Bar or a bag of Walker’s crisps.
I can think of a million reasons to eat that don’t involve hunger: boredom, frustration, tiredness, sadness to name a few
‘Everybody’s an emotional eater some of the time,’ says Professor Julia Buckroyd, psychologist and specialist in eating behaviour, emeritus professor of counselling at the University of Hertfordshire and founder of understandingyoureating.co.uk. ‘In all human societies food has been used to mark life events from births to funerals to coming of age parties, so few people eat only in response to physiological need such as hunger, all the time.’
In all human societies food has been used to mark life events from births to funerals to coming of age parties, so few people eat only in response to physiological need such as hunger
Of course, most of us will occasionally reach for that bag of crisps at the end of a hard day, she says. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if most of your eating is governed by your emotional state, and that is causing you to feel unhappy in the long-term it could be time to rethink your eating habits. ‘Emotional eating is a problem if you think it’s a problem,’ asserts Dr Buckroyd. ‘For example if it is leading you to gain weight or if you are eating in secret and that is affecting your relationships and leaving you feeling ashamed and guilty’.
While 45 per cent of obese people regularly binge eat in response to unpleasant emotions, research from Canada’s McMaster University published in the journal Appetite found that 97 per cent of women have felt food cravings as a result of something other than true hunger (like you needed a study to tell you that!).
So, why is eating something sugary or fat-laden so inextricably linked to fast comfort? According to experts, you can blame biology – at least in part. ‘Food helps us feel safe and soothed,’ says Dr Ken Goss, author of brilliant book The Compassionate Mind Approach to Beating Overeating: Series editor, Paul Gilbert (Compassion Focused Therapy) (Constable £15) who works in th e NHS with emotional overeaters.
‘There are some interesting studies suggesting that food has a similar effect to anti-depressant medication on mood, especially when that food is highly processed and high in fat,’ he asserts. Scientists have in fact used brain-scanning technology to prove that eating substances such as sugar, fat and salt is closely linked to emotional centres in the brain, proving we literally self-medicate our feelings with food. So, while emotional overeating – for example finishing the whole packet of Digestives when you’re feeling lonely – might make you feel guilty, it can also make you feel better on a chemical level. ‘Fat and carbohydrate release pain-relieving opoids and calming cannabinoids – class A drug-mimicking substances – into the brain making us feel instantly better,’ says Professor Buckroyd.
We literally self-medicate our feelings with food
Trouble is, the more we use food as a sedative or a counsellor or a fix for our feelings, the less we draw on other self-soothing options, such as talking things out or learning to comfort ourselves in other ways, says Dr Goss. ‘That is when emotional eating can become a habit that’s hard to break,’ he says.
You can also blame your mother. ‘Emotional eating is a displacement activity, a way of not dealing with a problem,’ says hypnotherapist Ursula James. ‘That can go back to childhood when you fell over in the street and your mummy gave you an ice-cream. The ice cream didn’t heal the knee but it took your mind away from the pain long enough for it to be okay. That’s how even as adults we come to use food as a soother, distraction or diversion from pain.’
Emotional eating goes back to childhood, such as when you fell over in the street and your mummy gave you an ice-cream. The ice cream didn’t heal the knee but it took your mind away from the pain long enough for it to be okay
Overcoming emotional eating begins with learning to care for yourself and to accept that negative feelings will pass and cannot hurt you, says Professor Buckroyd. ‘Crucially, it requires learning to manage your emotions in ways that don’t involve food,’ she says. To learn more about managing your emotions without compensating with crisps, see Professor Buckroyd’s book Understanding Your Eating (Wordery.com £15.92).
The great news is that each time we choose not to turn to food in response to a feeling is a small victory in breaking the habit. ‘Each time you resist the urge to eat in response to your emotions, you strengthen alternative neural pathways in your brain which break the food as comfort association you have developed,’ says Professor Buckroyd.
3 KEY SIGNS YOU’RE AN EMOTIONAL EATER
Is your eating ruled by your emotions? ‘Draw a line from left to right across a page,’ says Professor Buckroyd. ‘On the far left put your weight or dress size as early as you can remember it and on the far right, your weight or dress size now. Then in between plot the rises and falls in your weight at different times in your life. For example ,if you went to university and gained a stone or had a bad break up and lost two stone. If the majority of fluctuations are in response to emotional life events, your eating may be governed by your emotions.’
Do you feel out of control around food? ‘Do you feel that the fridge or pantry are often calling you and you feel you have no choice but to go and take something high in fat or high in sugar,’ asks Dr Goss. ‘Most emotional eaters are drawn to high-fat, high-sugar foods as these provide the fastest effect in calming the brain and many will feel they can’t control these urges.’
Are you using food as a ‘fix’ for your feelings? ‘Do you eat quickly, rarely stopping to taste or chew what you’re eating,’ says Dr Goss. ‘You may be self-medicating your feelings with food.’
‘Many people will say yes to number 1’, says Dr Goss. ‘But if you say yes to 2 and 3 as well, you may want to think about working on ways to change.’