Feeding the emotional void: Complexities of emotional eating

Feeding the emotional void: The complexities of emotional eating

Losing weight is easy. Isn’t it? After all the formula is simple; eating fewer calories than your body burns will result in weight loss. We know it.

Why then is the UK in the grip of an obesity epidemic?

Are you an emotional eater?

Do you:

  • Eat when you are not hungry?
  • Find that food sometimes has a powerful hold?
  • Finish food despite not being hungry?
  • Have certain foods that you cannot resist?
  • Find that diets do not work in the long-term?

If any or all of the above sound familiar, you are likely an emotional eater.

Conventional diets can be effective, some might even achieve life-long weight loss. They are in the minority. Research conducted by the National Eating Disorder Information Centre suggests that up to 95% of people who lose weight lost on conventional diets will be regain the weight within one to five years.

Why don't diets work?

There are many reasons, including:

  • Diets treat the ‘problem’ not the person.
  • They are also short-term and whilst they might educate about ‘good’ foods and portion control, overtime old habits soon creep back in.

It has long been suspected that the answer lies in a lack of understanding and now psychologists have given it a label: ‘binge eating disorder’. Whilst identifying over-eating as a response to emotional distress is a positive move, there is yet another restricting label; another box to put people in.

Add to that attention grabbing headlines such as 'The Cost of Obesity is Greater than War or Terrorism’, it’s no wonder that people who suffer from the effects of emotional eating shy away from seeking support. In a world that blames and shames how can they trust that a non judgmental, supportive approach exists?

We are not a country with a naturally supportive attitude to obesity, how often have emotional eaters been told to eat less and exercise more? These words of wisdom, perhaps said with good intention, are often espoused by people who have no idea what it is to be an emotional eater. They have not glimpsed at the hopelessness and powerlessness that accompanies emotional eating, to say nothing of the accompanying feelings of guilt, anger and even self-loathing.

Emotional eaters will often eat when they are not hungry. They feel that food has a powerful and overwhelming hold over them. Restricting food only works in the short-term, if at all, and diets come with cupboard full of problems because when the diet inevitably stops working for the emotional eater, feelings of self-blame, self-loathing, guilt and shame are not far behind and life-long negative scripts such as ‘I am useless’ and ‘I am weak’ begin to play in their mind. How are these feelings regulated? How else - food.

A glimpse into an emotional eater's world

Emotional eaters often feel a lack of control over their eating habits when in fact food is their solution to unwanted, negative and self-destructive thoughts and feelings. It is these feelings that are uncontrollable – food is the panacea, but because this is happening on an unconscious level, it feels as if the food is in control. Emotional eating programmes will help to change this perception through understanding and eventually put the person back in control of life and food.

Emotional eating is a complex and potentially destructive area that requires an empathetic, therapeutic approach aimed at supporting, understanding and at times challenging. So it is no wonder that many conventional diet clubs steer clear of tackling such an area. Their club facilitators are simply not equipped to support such a delicate subject.

Putting emotional eaters back in control

Emotional eaters do not need to diet; ask an emotional eater what they want and top of list will be control; control over their eating which can only be gained through understanding and ultimately acceptance. Of course it is easier said than done because there is no magic wand, but the good news is: there is no magic wand. There is however the reality and understanding that accompanies emotional eating programmes.

Helping an emotional eater identify their own version of ‘thin’ can help facilitate the change that follows; being a size 10 might look good for some whereas for others it will look unhealthy. Challenging both personal and media ideals begins the process of normalising food, image and attitude and making the illusion of control a reality.

It's not as simple as 'dieting'

We are born with a fundamental need for food. From the moment we are born we know on an intrinsic level that hunger means danger, we know that not eating will result in death – we are born with this knowledge, babies scream when they are hungry – they demand attention in order to be seen and therefore fed, so why should our developing relationship with food be dismissed rather than explored? When we are in emotional distress is it any wonder that we sometimes turn to food?

Children are pacified with many things: dummies, comfort blankets, hugs and of course, food.

As adults, bad days are often the norm; we will still have times when we need reward or comfort or pacifying and though it might be tempting, we can’t reach for our dummy after a particularly stressful morning, or wrap our favourite blanket around us in the middle of a meeting, or pull a teddy bear out of our bag and hug it as we balance the monthly bills. But there is still something from our childhood that we can rely on – food. The use of food as a reward, pacifier or bribe was implanted in our minds as children, it is not surprising then that it takes more than restricting calories to understand an emotional eaters relationship with food, as humans we far too complex for it to be that easy. 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Birmingham B17 & B15
Written by Claire Mcritchie, Registered Member BACP (Accred). PGDip
Birmingham B17 & B15

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