Emotional eating – we all do it whether it’s down to a breakup, money stress, work overload – whatever. But what are the real reasons our drive to eat our feelings is so strong?
Comedian and actress Rebel Wilson is reported to have recently said ‘I don’t think my emotional eating is every going to change’ and physiologically, she could never ‘go skinny’. The Pitch Perfect star said she can do a week of being healthy and then reaches for an ice cream sandwich. Sound familiar?
In the UK, 67 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women are either overweight or obese, according to the Global Burden of Disease study. This makes us home to the highest levels of overweight people in Western Europe except for Iceland and Malta.
In the UK, 67 per cent of men and 57 per cent of women are either overweight or obese,
However there is a common misconception that all emotional eaters are overweight people who eat when they are sad. But emotional eaters are also normal weight, guilty of binge eating or yo-yo dieting with a distorted view on eating habits. Emotional eaters who have an initial goal to lose weight may also wish to feel ‘normal’ around food with the ability to make rational decisions.
Everyone makes an emotional connection with food as we grow from a dependent vulnerable baby through to the beginnings of self-definition in adolescence, and into the autonomy of adulthood. Food and eating become complicated for many people when they become something other than an aspect of being alive and well. Social, cultural and psychological constructs influence everyone, and not all these influences encourage a healthy relationship between oneself and food.
In their new book, Seven Simple Steps to Stop Emotional Eating: Targeting Your Body by Changing Your Mind Sally Baker and Liz Hogon uncover the reasons why people may emotional eat and form negative relationships with food. Here’s a run down of some of the reasons we eat our feelings
- UNSUPPORTIVE FAMILY
Bottling up emotions has never been beneficial for relieving stress, and emotional eating has been linked as a coping mechanism for lack of a supportive family. Families that do not permit children to express uncomfortable emotions such as anger and sadness often indicate through non-verbal ways that these emotions are unwanted or shameful.
In particular, a child with an emotionally absent mother can suffer difficulties with this type of neglect and will turn to food as a way to swallow down their feelings. An emotionally absent mother may be withdrawn because of depression, mental illness, alcoholism or drug abuse, or be emotionally immature herself, often putting her own needs above her child’s.
If a mother is living under the threat of sexual or violent behaviour, their child’s natural search for other’s care may be blocked as they grow up observing the world as unsafe. A maternal absence can lead to a child learning to not express their emotions and to withdraw – and later in life to cope with food. It is not to be confused with a mother who is physically absent due to work, as the child can still gain an emotional connection when she is at home.
- STRICT PARENTS
Ever felt like your parents pushed you for their own gratification rather than yours? Or that you wanted to do well as to not disappoint your parents, rather than yourself? This may be the reason you have developed a negative relationship with food from childhood. A recent scientific paper presented by the clinical psychologist Jonathan Egan, at the 2014 annual conference of the Psychological Society of Ireland, looked at a group of 550 individuals, most of whom were women. It highlighted that the daughters of strict parents who put their own needs first ahead of those of their children had a higher incidence of emotional or comfort eating, and were typically most likely to gain weight in the long term. The daughters of easy-going, liberal parents fared somewhat better. Parental behaviours can have a large impact on the way we view food.
daughters of strict parents who put their own needs first ahead of those of their children had a higher incidence of emotional or comfort eating
The most favourable outcome for the women: having the lowest levels of emotional eating and correspondingly lower body mass index (BMI) was found in those with a strict but responsive mother and an easy-going father.
You’ve tried every diet, every juice detox, and every fitness trend. All the motivation to be slimmer is there, so why do you keep going back to old habits? Despite how much you think you want to change your ways, you may have an unconscious desire to remain overweight. It sounds mad, but when you imagine the obstacles that stand ahead of you and your goal weight, you may have an unacknowledged fear of change. Perhaps you have a crisis of confidence that causes you to believe it will never be possible for you to lose your excess weight or you don’t have the ability, because if you did, it would have worked by now. The fears do not need to be logical and these feelings and beliefs can often be at odds with your conscious efforts, buried very deeply below your level of awareness.
When you’re on the verge of cracking and giving in to those cravings, you may have thoughts such as:
‘Its too late to lose weight. I’ve wasted all these years already being big’
‘Being fat makes me invisible’
‘What happens if I lose this weight and my life is still awful?’
‘I can stay safe being fat’
Your resistance to change is much like your resistance to leave your comfort zone. Despite the benefits you know it will reap, deep down you’re not convinced you’re capable.
- NEGATIVE JUDGEMENTS AND ‘THE PERFECT BODY’
No one is exempt from some degree of negative self-judgement about their body. This not-being-good-enough influences everyone to varying degrees, and inevitably affects how they relate to food.
The degree to which negative versus positive emotions are triggered around food and eating is a key factor in whether a person develops emotional eating issues.
Emotional eaters share the trait of unrelenting over-thinking about food coupled with harsh, critical self-judgments.
The definition of an acceptable body-type for women, and increasingly men, is force-fed to us through the media. What many people forget to remember is that it imposes an impossible ideal. Unattainable standards of physical perfection are loudly proclaimed on all media platforms by ‘body fascists’ who deride anyone, especially the famous, who fails to comply with their narrow definition of perfection.
The same negative judgements emotional eaters make about themselves are common to the overweight and obese, and the dangerously underweight for that matter. All share the trait of unrelenting over-thinking about food coupled with harsh, critical self-judgments.
- A LIFE-CHANGING OBSTACLE
Emotional eaters often focus a lot of their attention and time thinking about food, whether it’s dieting or binging. People who don’t emotionally eat nor have a distorted view of eating have a calm take-it-or-leave-it attitude towards food, and can focus their mind on other things such as hopes and aspirations, their career, their interests and their loved ones.
Unlike emotional eaters, non-emotional eaters do not define themselves completely by how much they weigh or what they look like. Therefore, for them losing weight is no more of a challenge than any other aspect of their lives, such as learning conversational French or taking up pottery as a hobby.
If they do eventually pile on some extra pounds they don’t torture themselves over it or immediately lose their self-esteem. Being overweight is not an important issue and it doesn’t bother them enough to do much about it. Even if they do decide to shed some excess weight, they have the option of just applying their tried-and-trusted methods until they are at their goal weight again.
- YOUR STOMACH ISN’T EATING
Food is entering the mouth, but your stomach isn’t acknowledging it. Increasingly, people are eating as their secondary activity while watching television, surfing the net, walking or driving. Some people are confused and amazed about their excess weight as they are barely aware of how often they eat, or even what they eat because their consumption is barely registering with them.
Eating mindfully is the exact opposite of the zoned-out eating or eating on the run that are now so popular. Fifty years ago it would have been a rare sight to see anyone eating anything except when seated at a table. The modern widespread habit of walking along the pavement eating fried chicken from a cardboard box would simply never have happened. The takeaway culture and on-the-go food is contributing to an informal way of eating.
Because of this, you may also find yourself grazing all day, because you aren’t properly thinking about the food going into your mouth, or when you are hungry and when you are full.
- WASTING FOOD
Wasting food may be a challenge to you – even if you know you are full, you can’t leave the last two mouthfuls on your plate or the last cookie in the packet. Many of us recall growing up and hearing phrases such as, ‘you can’t have your dessert until you finish your meal’, or ‘there are children who are starving, don’t be ungrateful’, and have carried this into adult life, believing wasting food is unappreciative of what has been given to you or what our country can offer us.
Perhaps you believed wasting food was a criminal act if you yourself suffered economic hardship. Or you were raised by parents who had experience food scarcity and wanted to send a clear message to their offspring that wasting food was unacceptable.
- CHAOTIC MEAL TIMES
Growing up as a child in a dysfunctional household can be a fraught and stressful experience, a veritable minefield to tiptoe through on a daily basis. Mealtimes will often be the arena where all the deficiencies and pressures on the household come into sharp relief.
Or perhaps meal times didn’t even exist. Busy parents and after school clubs may mean the rarity of a sit down meal with the whole family, and food was just a fuel to shovel down before the next task.
Seven Simple Steps to Stop Emotional Eating: Targeting Your Body by Changing Your Mind £14.99 by Sally Baker and Liz Hogon is published by Hammersmith Books and available from Amazon