The connection between emotional eating and obesity

Obesity is an epidemic that threatens many people around the globe today. It can be said that health-related habits have become commonplace as consumers consume more and more meals, drink more significant portions and eat out more often than they did years ago. This behaviour is a high rate among overweight and obese people. There are approximately 475 million obese adults worldwide. The elevated problem is a significant measure of health factors, mortality, systemic disease, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.


What is emotional eating?

Emotional eating is characterised by episodes of binge eating or eating when you are not hungry to soothe your feelings. Emotion eaters are often stimulated by foods high in sugar and fat. Research suggests that meals eaten in positive and negative moods are larger than meals in neutral.

Emotional eating is primarily based on rewarding yourself. The behavioural reward is closely related to dynamic management. Emotional eating has been defined as eating in response to various negative emotions, including anxiety, depression, anger, and loneliness, to reduce negative affect and increase positive affect.

In addition, research has shown that "emotional eaters" are more likely to eat high-fat, high-calorie foods. Emotional eating is becoming an increasing problem as obesity rates rise. There is an ongoing debate about whether external forces, including market-dominated sources such as food advertising and social norms, help further perpetuate the potentially disruptive tendencies of 'emotional eaters'.

Some researchers suggested the question: "Is emotional eating when we are emotionally aroused or eating that arousing us emotionally?" Given the growing number of overweight people and the rise in obesity worldwide in recent decades, the causes of this phenomenon have been studied. Research suggests that both environmental and personal factors come into play. Individual factors are primarily the answer to the question of how does a person individually react to food? Are there different possible answers depending on the specific dishes? Are there people who are prone to food addiction or eating addiction?

When does emotional eating arrive?

The frequency of emotional eating in childhood is usually shallow. If a child is under severe and prolonged stress, the body's natural reaction is to lose its appetite. Then, during the transition from childhood to adulthood, emotional eating manifests in the opposite form, namely overeating. Increasingly, however, these natural reactions are negated by adults, forcing children to eat and replacing, for example, emotional support with sweets.

Puberty (with accompanying hormonal changes) is usually the basis for changing this phenomenon during this period. An environmental impact is a common explanation for the increased obesity among adolescents in recent decades. Especially the availability of very varied, tasty and fattening food - which was found to be addictive - is the main factor in this growth.

Many people, including young people, resist these temptations and maintain a healthy weight, but it has been shown that people at risk (e.g. those who are overweight and obese) prefer high-energy foods. However, younger people are more susceptible to environmental influences, so they are a vulnerable group in advertising and marketing unhealthy food.

Therapy work with a person experiencing emotional eating

The term "emotional eating" describes the eating process in response to various negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger and loneliness. When starting to work with someone who has a problem with emotional eating, it is worth paying attention to the factors accompanying such behaviour. What are the most common situations when overeating or under-eating occurs?

When working with an obese person who struggles with emotional eating, the cooperation of the psychologist with the GP is also essential. A thorough interview conducted by a doctor, psychologist or psychotherapist will help find factors that may negatively impact the patient's health. Any hormonal changes and comorbidities are essential in determining a psychological intervention plan. The role of relatives is also important - their support or the lack of it may be one of the factors accelerating or slowing down the therapeutic process.

Relaxation techniques, mindfulness basics, and gradual help accepting your body can effectively complement the "traditional" form of psychotherapy. An essential element of working with a person suffering from obesity and emotional eating is to make it easier for them to find access to their emotions, often repressed and blocked by a given person.

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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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Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh, EH16
Written by Anna Bajus, HCPC Reg. MA, MBPsS
Edinburgh, City of Edinburgh, EH16

Anna Bajus, clinical and counselling psychologist based in Edinburgh, HCPC and BPS registered.

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