DR. SHEELA NAMBIAR M.D.
What is emotional eating and how does one cope with it.
There is a deadline at work, you feel the pressure mounting and you haven’t had much sleep. You feel tired, petulant and anxious. You reach for that bag of chips or packet of biscuits as you try and figure out your presentation. You haven’t had lunch so you are ravenous. You finish that bag of chips and the biscuits and a bottle of some sweet syrupy drink. Why are you still hungry?
You go home in the evening and as you work at your laptop you pile up your plate with, you’re not sure what exactly, something greasy and filling. You mindlessly shovel food into your mouth as you try and focus.
Late into the night you eat a big bowl of ice cream as you watch the late night news, while another part of your brain tries to fathom the final touches to your presentation. By the time you get to bed at 2.00 a.m. you are exhausted, disconcerted and strangely, still hungry. Does this sound familiar?
Here’s another scenario. You’re feeling depressed and sad. You try to appease your senses with chocolate; as you keep eating, you seem to feel better, and the gratification of that creamy chocolate helps, temporarily.
An hour later, you reach for a piece of fresh cream cake; somehow it doesn’t seem to stop with a piece. Before you know it, the entire cake is over. Does this sound familiar too?
Is there a connection between Mood and Food? Apparently, yes.
All too often we find that our longings for food, especially ‘unhealthy’ food, happen to concur with the most vulnerable periods in our life. During emotional low points, we discover ourselves unconsciously seeking solace in food.
Emotional eating however can disrupt our well meaning efforts at weight loss and healthy eating. This leads to a tailspin of weight gain, self recrimination, and plummeting self-confidence, leading to further despair and over eating.
First, we need to understand that nearly all unhealthy eating is motivated by something we’re not always aware of on a conscious level. It is most often the result of unconstructive thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that may be lurking just below our conscious awareness.
This negative thinking is invariably the product of negative programming that we might have assimilated in childhood from parents, teachers, etc. We may have learnt early to soothe unpleasant feeling of a tumultuous childhood for instance with a candy bar, or parents may have used food as a reward for ‘good behaviour’.
The positive sensations that were associated with the food involved may often need to be re-experienced in adulthood whenever one is anxious or unhappy. Major life stressors — such as death of a loved one, unemployment, ill health, divorce, day to day set backs such as bad weather and unwelcome changes in your normal routine can trigger emotions that encourage overeating.
But why do negative emotions lead to overeating? Some foods have seemingly addictive qualities. For example, when you eat beguiling foods, such as chocolate, your body releases trace amounts of mood-enhancing hormones. Eating it may make you feel better, if only momentarily.
Food can also be a distraction. If you’re concerned about an imminent event or rethinking an earlier conflict, eating comfort foods may distract you. But the distraction is short-lived. While you are eating, your thoughts may focus on the satisfying taste of your comfort food. Unfortunately, when you’re done overeating, your attention returns to your worries, and you may now bear the additional burden of guilt about overeating.
As you might have realised, “will power” alone is an ineffective tool to address this problem, since our unconscious motivations are much more powerful and persistent than our conscious desire to eat healthy, exercise and so on.
The only valid and permanent solution to our unhealthy eating habits is to get to the heart of the problem, analyse and eliminate the toxic thinking pattern that created our bad habits in the first place. This may require some amount of counselling and a deeper understanding of the issues at hand.
Happy occasions also call for celebration with food as our society is immersed in experimenting with gastronomic pleasures at any pretext possible. So it doesn’t help your resolve to eat healthy when inundated with an array of pleasures for the palate. If on such an occasion, you are stressed, anxious or unhappy, needless to say, the problem is compounded.
Of course, it’s very important to be armed with a healthy diet plan and a well-structured exercise programme that you can sustain. But neither of these things alone can bring about real and lasting weight loss if our own subconscious mind and concealed thoughts are still destroying us.
The writer is a Practising Obgyn, Fitness and Lifestyle Consultant, NAFC (USA) and Director, TFL Fitness Studio, Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.orgHow to stop this futile cycle Learn to recognise real hunger. Studies have found that the body is sometimes unable to distinguish true hunger from just stress or even thirst. (The next time you think you are hungry, drink a glass of water, wait a while and see if you are still experiencing hunger.)
Identify the triggers that lead you to overeat. Maintaining a ‘food journal’ for a week or two is an excellent way of recording your food intake, satiety levels and correlated mood. You may find to your surprise that there is a very definite association between that stressful meeting you need to attend and your reaching for the nearest ‘comfort food’, or your tendency to overeat at lunch when you have had a showdown with the kids or your spouse.
Identify the thoughts and feelings you normally experience before your gluttonous enterprise and those that justify your indulgences.
The best way to circumvent the downward spiral of overeating, self-loathing and then further overeating is to avoid keeping those sinful temptations near at hand. Instead, stock up on healthier options, so if real hunger strikes you are not left feeling frustrated.
Exercise regularly. It has been found repeatedly that exercise acts as a stress reliever. Modalities like Yoga and meditation go a long way in managing stress. Any form of low to moderate intensity cardiovascular activity like a walk or a swim will help relieve stress. Find your favourite mode of exercise and use it to get you through the tough times instead of using food as a way out.
Get adequate sleep. Sleep deprivation has been shown to confuse the body into misreading the body’s signals of fatigue as hunger.
Make a habit of ‘mindful eating’. Taking 10 minutes off for your meal will enable you to focus completely on the food and enjoy it, rather than consuming hundreds of calories without actually registering it.
Find other outlets for your stress. Taking a walk, talking to a friend, watching a movie, pursuing a hobby can all substitute as distractions instead of food during susceptible times.
See a therapist. If after your attempts to gain control of the situation you find there is no progress, it may be time to see a therapist to delve a little deeper into the psychological aspect of the problem.
Upheavals are part and parcel of life. Learning to use the right resources to deal with unpleasant feelings is an important part of staying healthy. If you intend to make meaningful changes in your diet, weight and lifestyle, understanding yourself a little better will go a long way in preventing self sabotage and regret.