When food becomes more than nutrition: Understanding and dealing with emotional overeating
Truth is, Mrs. A’s battle with food and her weight is not an uncommon problem for many individuals. Emotional eating in times of stress, depression, loneliness or external pressure, and in the absence of real need for food to eliminate physical hunger, is a common behavior that plagues many individuals. When eating in response to emotions, food is used for reward, nurturing, or excitement, and takes the form of a mini-super hero who promises to eliminate every bad thought and any negative emotion that follows it. However, the effect of eating to alleviate negative emotions is most of the times temporary, and the individual sooner or later finds him or herself feeling sad, hopeless or even guilty. These feelings can lead to the start of a vicious cycle of emotional eating.
The phenomenon of emotional eating has been cited as the reason why many diets fail. Although individuals may approach weight loss as a long-term goal, more proximal goals such as mitigating emotional distress disrupt their higher order goals. Eating to alleviate negative emotions and to attain positive reinforcement is in contrast to the normal physiological response to negative affect. This should be a loss of appetite due to the effects of distress, including inhibition of gastric contraction and elevation of blood sugar.
Emotional eating can often facilitate over-consumption and lead to serious health consequences in the long-term. Emotional eaters have been shown to consume more energy-dense foods and larger meals in response to negative emotions, than non-emotional eaters. Food over-consumption has become a growing concern, given the worldwide obesity epidemic. In the USA, approximately 68% of adults aged 20 years and older are overweight or obese. Important health concerns including chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and increased morbidity and mortality are linked to being overweight and obese. Obese patients spend at least 42% more money in medical costs than normal weight individuals, while the annual cost of obesity is nearly $5000 for women and $3000 for men.
Understanding and dealing with the internal and external processes that underlie emotional eating behavior, can help overcome this behavioral pattern.
Feeding the negative emotions
In a 2013 study, emotional eating informants consistently cited how the experience of a negative emotion ignited eating behavior. All of them indicated that they were not eating to eradicate hunger, but to assuage negative emotion. This was not the case for the non-emotional eaters who participated in the same study. Many of them expressed how eating was the last thing on their minds when they were stressed, and indicated that they engaged in other behaviors such as exercising or knitting, when they were feeling sad, nervous or stressed. In the same study it was shown that food over-consumption was typically followed by some form of guilt. However, and contrary to non-emotional eaters, emotional eaters would consistently engage in the same guilt-producing behavior, rather than curtail indulgent behaviors to alleviate guilt and to secure self-esteem.
Prefactual thinking and rumination
Prefactual thinking is a behavior that occurs when individuals contemplate imaginary alternatives to events in terms of the ramifications these events may have in the future. For instance, an individual may think to him or herself, “If I buy these trousers today and they go on sale next week, will I regret it?”. Two types of prefactual thinking include hedonic rationalization and cognitive deliberation. Hedonic rationalizations are thoughts that people use to justify conceding to a temptation or a consumption experience. For instance, someone may think “I should have this dessert because I broke up with my girlfriend and I am sad.” In contrast, cognitive deliberations are thoughts that reflect an individual’s resolve not to yield to a tempting stimulus (food in this case). For example, someone may think “If I eat this dessert, I’ll consume more sugar than I should have today, and this is something that I do not want.” In the same study of 2013, the difference between non-emotional eaters and emotional eaters was that cognitive deliberations were employed more frequently by the non-emotional eaters, which would enable them not to succumb to certain temptations. In contrast, emotional eaters’ comments reflected feelings of entitlement toward indulgence and suggested that before consuming a hedonic food item, they often rationalized in favor of the product.
Rumination is the occurrence of conscious, repetitive and intrusive thoughts on recurring episodes or negative feelings. Emotional eaters appear to have a tendency to focus, in a repetitive manner, on negative feelings and distress - enlisting rumination. According to research, ruminating individuals do not actively engage in problem-solving, and if they do attempt to find solutions to their problems, the solutions they generate are often of lower quality than solutions they might develop if they were not ruminating. Research has also found that rumination is related to cognitive and emotional disturbance, including pessimistic thinking, depression, anxiety, and decreased feelings of control over one’s life. In particular, women are more likely than men to report greater ruminative propensities. Rumination may eventually lead to behaviors where individuals fantasize about how eating will allow them to escape negative feelings, and this fantasizing and excessive eating have been argued to serve as a means of avoiding one’s true problems.
It is suggested that emotional eaters may find the marketing of hedonic food products to play an important role in promoting hedonic rationalizations and rumination. Such marketing stimuli possibly has minimal impact on non-emotional eaters, and some even view such advertisements with scorn and disbelief. In a study, informants who engaged in emotional eating noted that packaging served as a compelling promotional apparatus for them, and indicated a lack of motivation to process the nutrient content information on the package. Rather, they expressed a desire to remain oblivious about the nutritional value of foods and, instead, enlisted hedonic rationalizations in favor of the food items, possibly because they were trying to prevent subsequent feelings of consumption guilt.
Engaging in “normative behaviors”
Eating behavior is highly subjected to social norms. Social norms are the beliefs about behavior that reflect the perceived social pressure to perform or not perform a behavior. The prevalence of a behavior or perceived approval of a behavior among important reference groups (i.e., family or friends) increases the probability that an individual will engage in that behavior.
Studies have linked food over-consumption to social facilitation. Specifically, when people are around those whom they feel comfortable (i.e. friends), they are “socially facilitated” to eat up to 40 to 50 per cent more than when they eat alone. This may occur because of the greater duration of the meal, as well as the meal size. Additionally, a positive association has been found between the number of eating companions and the extent of increased food intake. Nowadays, the focus of many social activities is centered around food. However, for emotional eaters such encounters might be outlets for them to engage in emotional eating, whereas non-emotional eaters might be more able to exercise self-control when around friends, so as to prevent over-consumption.
Shaping a child’s eating behavior
Interestingly, studies suggest that emotional eating may in fact be a part of early consumer socialization. A child’s diet and eating behavior is shaped by exposure to specific foods and parental modeling, along with parental monitoring and concerns. Parents can implement rules for snacking and control a child’s accessibility to food. Sometimes, parents may reward children with food like cake and candy to allay negative affect from minor incidents (e.g., scraping a knee). The learning provided by the process of reward and its association may set the stage for emotional eating behavior. Research shows that those individuals who report being frequently offered food to comfort themselves when they were upset as children were 2.5 times more likely to admit to frequent emotional eating as young adults.
Similarly, nostalgia for family experiences, a phenomenon that begins in childhood and can last a lifetime, has also been found to influence eating behavior. Nostalgic bonding, which may include warm memories of eating certain foods at home and with family, can be identified as a source of pleasure or may help individuals in overcoming feelings of loneliness and sadness. Although everyone can have nostalgic eating experiences, emotional eaters might be more likely to indulge in nostalgic eating experiences when they experience negative affect.
Strategies for improving choice
If you are finding it hard to cope with stress and your negative emotions, and as a result you overindulge in food, speaking with a clinical psychologist who is experienced in emotional/disordered eating, or joining related public health programs or support groups can be very beneficial for you. You are more likely to make better food choices when you possess high levels of emotional ability (adeptness in managing emotions) as well as high levels of confidence in those abilities. Through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) - or any other form of psychotherapy, the right psychologist will encourage you to actively engage in problem-solving, to regain cognitive and emotional balance so as to curtail surreptitious eating behavior, and to rethink unhealthy behaviors learned in childhood in order to overcome emotional eating and make appropriate consumption decisions.
The psychologist can also collaborate with your dietitian in order to help you make better food choices. This teamwork can help you activate deliberations against consuming a tempting, hedonic food product, adopt realistic restriction goals (limiting/avoiding foods high in saturated fat and refined sugar) but also re-categorize alternatives. Instead of eating being an option or alternative used to manage emotions, you might engage in non-eating activities such as exercising, meditation, yoga, relaxation techniques, and distraction to reduce emotional duress. Some strategies that have been proven to aid in managing eating behavior and about which you can practice with your psychologist and clinical dietitian include:
Doing nothing else whilst eating
Chewing your food thoroughly
Putting your knife and fork down between mouthfuls
Taking time to appreciate the smell, colors & taste of each bite
Using smaller plates or bowls when eating
Putting food out of sight when it is not meal/snack time
Always shopping from a list and never on an empty stomach
Also, if you are an emotional eater, you might benefit if some rituals—getting together with family and friends—are re-defined to include more healthy behaviors. For example, instead of having a get-together with friends where the primary focus is eating, you might meet for a non-food related activity, such as hiking, or a day at the spa.
Finally, both parents should be encouraged to cultivate healthier relationships with food. For example, increased awareness among adult emotional eaters of the consequences of their behavior, not only for themselves but also for their children’s food-related behaviors, is an important starting point. Family meals might be re-conceptualized to include healthier foods, as opposed to those which are high in fat and sugar. Parents should also be encouraged to teach their children how to cope with emotions as opposed to anticipating or using food as positive reinforcements.
There are internal and external processes that underlie emotional eating. Individuals who may or may not be aware that they are eating in response to emotional states, should be helped so as to become aware of such behavior and be encouraged to find healthier alternative solutions to manage their emotions and regain control over their lives.
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