Most people eat emotionally from time to time - maybe a bowl of ice cream at the end of a stressful day or a cookie as self-reward for a job well done. When emotional eating is out of control, it can lead to compulsive eating or binge eating (a "food addiction" or often colloquially termed "fat addiction"). Emotional overeating is often considered an issue of weakness or lack of willpower. However, it is a complex and often misunderstood problem.
Experts aren't sure about the causes of emotional eating. It tends to affect more than one person in a family. It often has roots in childhood, when food is used as a reward or pacifier. However, it can begin in later life, often following a traumatic situation such as a death or divorce. It often comes on gradually.
Although emotional eating is a problem that affects people differently, people who eat emotionally share a number of common characteristics. For example:
- People who eat emotionally usually have poor body image. They often hate the way they look and tend to avoid social situations.
- Emotional eating is nearly always triggered by mood changes. Eating becomes a coping strategy that helps people deal with emotions such as loneliness, sadness, boredom and anger.
- Emotional eating is sometimes associated with depression. However, experts don't know if depression triggers emotional eating, or if eating is a way to cope with depressed feelings.
- The good feelings brought about by eating are usually short-lived. The problem that prompted the emotional overeating remains and is compounded by severe feelings of guilt and shame. This becomes a dangerous cycle, as guilt and shame prompt more emotional eating to dull the feelings.
- Sometimes, the physical discomfort of overeating is easier to withstand than the psychological or emotional pain that triggered it.
- Social pressure and an emphasis on weight and appearance often contribute to tremendous shame, disgust, self-hate and resulting emotional eating. Emotional eaters who are overweight are often judged harshly.
- Emotional eaters often blame their own lack of willpower. They may resort to various diets or dangerous diet or laxative pills.
- Dieting or food restriction increases the risks of disordered or emotional eating. Diets never work, but a “failed” diet leads to more guilt and shame, along with severe hunger and feelings of deprival.
- Emotional eaters tend to lose the ability to identify true hunger and satiety. They feel hunger in the mouth and the mind, not the belly.
- Emotional eaters often report a “spiritual” void in their life, a lack of purpose, meaning and direction.
To get well, emotional eaters can learn to manage stress and develop a sense of self-worth. They need help to learn how to monitor moods and find other ways of coping with difficult emotions, peer-pressure and childhood issues.
Treatment for emotional eating can involve counseling and psychotherapy, which help to identify and change misled thinking and belief systems. Many emotional eaters benefit from sessions with a nutritionist who can help the person adopt healthier eating patterns. In many cases, nutritional supplements help to balance mood and to replenish important nutrients, which have been lacking by food choices made through emotional eating. Psychotherapy to identify the root causes of emotional eating has proven to most effective, many methods of psychotherapy have led to a very good and sustainable outcome.