Is food your solution to emotional distress?
If you catch yourself eating large quantities of food, typically “comfort food” (chips, cookies, chocolates) in response to feelings rather than hunger – then it’s quite likely you are.
Broadly called emotional eating, experts estimate that nearly 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.
“Culturally, we are taught to cheer ourselves up with food,” says Jyothi Dayal, a practicing psychotherapist in Bangalore. For instance, “When a child is emotionally distressed, most mothers show support by whipping up a special dish to lift his/her spirits.” Along the way — this — she says, “conditions us to reach for food when we’re feeling low.”
Overeating feeds depression
Typically, a person struggling with the problem of binge eating/overeating is also struggling with depression. Depression, loneliness, anxiety, chronic anger, boredom, poor self-esteem, problems in interpersonal relationships can all result in overeating, leading to unwanted weight gain.
Overeating feeds into the cycle of depression. It gives you a temporary fix. Dr Abha Bang, a Mumbai-based psychiatrist says, “Food stimulates a neurotransmitter (endogenous chemical) called serotonin, the happy chemical in your body. Therefore, providing temporary relief, and tempting people to reach for food to bring comfort.” But that feeling dissipates quickly. And you’re likely to feel compelled to eat more to achieve that temporary relief again.
Dayal stresses that, “Covering your emotions with food will only make the problem worse. It’s only a temporary solution.” While food may provide an escape route, it only worsens the problem in the long run. An emotional eater also feels extreme guilt or shame after a binge. So, after binging on that bag of chips or cookies, you’re likely to beat yourself up for doing so.
By turning to food to heal our emotional problems, we deprive ourselves of learning skills to effectively resolve emotional distress. Experts suggest that by identifying what triggers our eating, we can substitute it with suitable methods to manage our emotional problems.
How to identify eating triggers?
Keeping a food dairy to record what you eat and when; in addition to jotting down thoughts, emotions and stresses you’re facing will help you identify eating triggers. Soon, you’ll be able to notice patterns that lead you into excess eating.
Break the habit of binge eating!
Break that habit by substituting it with a healthier one. So every time you’re tempted to eat try any of the following:
Pick up something to read
Go for a walk
Take a shower
Do deep breathing exercises
Talk to a friend
How to treat emotional eating?
Merely finding a distraction won’t do away with the problem. What you need to do is treat the underlying cause.
Individual or group counselling might be an effective tool. This addresses the root of the problem, that’s causing you to binge. It will also enable you to learn effective ways to resolve the issue and cope better with the stress around you.
Most importantly, “overeating could be a sign of depression,” says Dr Bang. So if you find yourself binge eating, do not hesitate to seek professional help. Dr Bang stresses, “Depression is an illness that can be treated.”