One thing that I hear over and over from patients is that they are emotional or stress eaters. Emotional eating often leads to the over consumption of high calorie, salty, sweet and/or fried foods. These foods may be chosen as a comfort or a distraction and can easily lead to derailing weight loss or causing other health problems, especially for people with diabetes.
Millie Cordaro, Ph.D., LPC, a therapist and psychology professor at Texas State University, gives her insight into emotional eating and provides useful tools for managing emotional/stress eating:
According to the CDC, the national average for obesity (nearly 27%) is at an all time high. Given that obesity is a major risk factor for medical conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, it is important to understand the factors that contribute to the onset and maintenance of obesity.
Typically, we regard obesity as a health problem, but we tend to overlook underlying psychological factors that co-contribute to obesity. Mainly, how we are socialized to think about food, and how we might be using food to cope with stress and negative emotions.
Many of us grew up thinking about food as a source of comfort. For instance, you may fondly recall trips to McDonalds for a Happy Meal. The name suggests an association between food and a positive emotion, and the message influences us from a young age. The psychological associations made between mood and food can set the stage for emotional eating.
Emotional eating, consuming food to feed a feeling, is the main cause of overeating. Rather than address the source of stress or a negative feeling, emotional eaters will mask emotional problems by consuming large quantities of food.
Emotional eaters tend to mask feelings of sadness, boredom, depression, anxiety, anger, or insecurity. Emotional eaters are typically struggling with a relational issue such as family conflict, abuse, social isolation, or dissatisfaction with oneself in the context of interpersonal relationships.
Overall, emotional eating is an unhealthy coping strategy used to deal with a wide range of issues from daily life hassles to painful trauma from the past. Some tips you can try on your own to combat emotional eating include:
Keep a diary- write down what you eat along with your mood state will help you identify and ward off your triggers.
Practice relaxation techniques- practice meditation or deep breathing, healthy coping strategies, to immediately reduce the effects of stress.
Seek social support- having a social support network helps to buffer the effects of stress, and high levels of stress contributes to emotional eating.
Get therapy- if your emotional problems are too painful to confront on your own, seek out a qualified mental health professional to assist you.
Treatment for emotional eating includes exploration of underlying emotional problems, identifying triggers, and developing healthy coping strategies to better manage relational and situational stressors.
According to registered dietician, Jane Jacubczak, 75% of overeaters are emotional eaters; therefore, confronting underlying psychological issues can yield more promising outcomes for weight management.
To learn more about Dr. Cordaro, visit her website goodlifepsychotherpay.com
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overweight and Obesity page. http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html March 2011.
Jane Jacubczak, R.D., L.D. University of Maryland
Mandy Seay is a registered and licensed dietitian. She works as a nutrition consultant in Austin, Texas specializing in diabetes, weight loss, lipid control and preventative nutrition. For more health articles and nutrition information, check out Mandy’s website Nutritionistics.