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What are we really hungry for? Understanding the causes of emotional eating

There have been many recent headlines about obesity. Currently, we are the second most obese country in Europe. It is predicted that by 2030 36% of men and women will be obese. Our health service is in financial crisis particularly in relation to the treatment of type 2 diabetes, a condition commonly associated with being overweight. Some hospitals are even trying to restrict surgery until obese patients lose weight.

There has been much written about the reasons why we are overweight –  too much high calorific food, insufficient education around healthy eating, and taking insufficient exercise. But why is it then so difficult to lose weight – and more importantly to keep that weight off? Although many people have marvellous success stories from following diet plans what we know is that approximately 95% of those who diet will regain the weight within one to five years. Even those who manage the weight loss often don’t find their life transformed in the way they think it will be. Life goes on with all the same self-doubt and insecurity, just in a smaller dress size.

I recently attended a very enlightening course on understanding emotional eating delivered by Weight Wise Academy which has made me rethink my attitude to food and to diets. The objective is to take the focus away from diets and to help people learn to manage their emotional difficulties more effectively than by overeating. The links between your mood and your weight can be explored. We look at all the negative parental messages that there may be around food such as ‘you must clear your plate’, ‘no dessert unless you finish your meal’, ‘don’t be greedy!’ and look at how these impact here and now. You might have been punished by having food withheld, or frequently rewarded with food for good behaviour, which all influence how you view food now.

So in effect explore what you are really hungry for – what are your unmet needs that you satisfy with food? It might be a need for comfort, company, more time, sex, excitement, stress relief – and then find alternative self-soothing strategies which are not food related.

What is particularly exciting is that this is not about dieting, no food is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This is about helping people feel better about who they are and increasing their self-worth – but coincidentally the by-product of this means that people may be able to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight, perhaps for the first time in their adult lives.

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Written by Sally French MSc, UKCP accred

Sally French is a UKCP accredited psychotherapist. Prior to concentrating on her private practice Sally was a sexual offences specialist prosecutor, working for the Crown Prosecution Service for 25 years. Sally has a particular interest in emotional eating and a strong belief that diets don't work!… Read more

Written by Sally French MSc, UKCP accred

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