Emotional Eating is Never About Food
Breakups, money woes and stress at work can all trigger emotional eating
But real reasons for gorging on food are more deep-rooted, say experts Sally Baker & Liz Hogon.
From strict parents to hating change, having an emotionally absent mother and eating while watching TV, their new book uncovers the real causes of
emotional eating – we all do it whether it’s down to a breakup, money stress or work overload.
But what is 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 ever 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.
However, there is a common misconception that all emotional eaters are overweight people who eat when they are sad.
Emotional eaters can also be people of ‘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 emotionally eat and form negative relationships with food.
Here’s a rundown of some of the reasons we are driven to eat by our feelings…
AN EMOTIONALLY ABSENT MOTHER
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 unacceptable 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.
This 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.
Ever felt like your parents pushed you for their gratification rather than yours?
Or that you wanted to do well as not to 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 significant impact on the way we view food.
The most favourable outcome for the women: having the lowest levels of emotional eating and correspondingly lower body mass index (BMI) was to be found in those households with a strict but responsive mother and an easy-going father.
Children who want to do well so as not to disappoint their parents – rather than for themselves – tend to develop a negative relationship with food from childhood onwards which can lead to disordered eating including anorexia.
AN UNCONSCIOUS DESIRE TO REMAIN OVERWEIGHT
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 profoundly below your level of conscious awareness.
When you’re on the verge of cracking and giving in to those cravings, you may have thoughts such as:
‘It’s 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 leaving your comfort zone.
Despite the benefits you know it will reap, deep down you’re not convinced you’re capable.
Some dieters may have an unacknowledged fear of change and so unconsciously want to remain fat.
THE QUEST FOR THAT ‘PERFECT’ FIGURE
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 by food and eating is a critical factor in whether a person develops emotional eating issues.
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-judgements.
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 entirely by how much they weigh or their appearance.
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.
Many people now eat as a secondary activity to watching television, surfing the net, walking or driving. This means their brains may not register when their stomach is full.
Some people are confused and amazed by 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 is 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 widespread modern habit of walking along the pavement eating fried chicken from a cardboard box would just never have happened.
The takeaway culture and the on-the-go food is contributing to an informal way of eating without fixed meal times.
Because of this, you may also find yourself grazing all day, because you aren’t thinking about the food going into your mouth, or when you are hungry and when you are full.
YOU CAN’T STAND 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 ‘Some children are starving, don’t be ungrateful’, and have carried this into adult life, believing wasting food is unappreciative.
Perhaps you believed wasting food was a criminal act if you suffered economic hardship while growing up. Or you were raised by parents who had experience food scarcity themselves 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 mealtimes didn’t even exist.
Busy parents and after school clubs may mean the rarity of a sit-down meal with the whole family, and the food was just a fuel to shovel down before the next task.
This article originally appeared in Healthista and had been reproduced in The Daily Mail. It is based on the work of Sally Baker & Liz Hogon in their book 7 Simple Steps to Stop Emotional Eating. Available from Amazon.
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