Overcoming emotional eating


April 26, 2016

Dear Readers,

Erica is an overweight 22-year-old, who said she eats when she is stressed or depressed, which is actually all the time, as, between studying and attending university, she also has to work part-time and look after a sick parent at home. Money is always very tight.

Erica said she purchases chocolate or potato chips almost every day. If she stops for a while, she eventually goes right back to daily comfort foods. She enjoys her chocolate bar, but is gaining weight! She asked Check Up what she to do!

Many people do experience what is called 'emotional eating', which is thought to involve the eating of high-carbohydrate, high-caloric foods with low nutritional value in response to stress.

Emotional eating is thought to result from a number of factors rather than from just one problem. It is the person's response to stress and does not require hunger as a trigger.

The foods eaten are referred to as 'comfort foods' as they are craved by the person and include foods like cookies, chocolate, chips, pizza and ice cream, among other foods.

It is said that 40 per cent of persons eat more when stressed, 40 per cent eat less, and 20 per cent experience no change in their eating patterns.

Emotional eating may be a symptom of atypical depression, but many people who are not really depressed will eat more and eat sweet in response to stress, be it something of the moment or something of a chronic nature.

This kind of behavior, in response to stressful moments, is very common and can interfere with maintaining a healthy, balanced diet and contribute to the onset and development of obesity.

Emotional eating can also be part and a symptom of bulimia or binge-eating disorder but these are distinct mental disorders characterised by recurring episodes of compulsive eating, which may involve eating large amounts much faster than is normal and is often associated with a sense of shame and disgust after the act.

These more serious disorders, which are associated with other symptoms, require psychological help and counselling and, at times, even hospital admission.

The hormone cortisol is released in increased amounts in the body, due to stres, as it is part of the body's fight-or-flight response to perceived danger. Its presence causes an increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, increased visual acuity and increased appetite to provide the body with fuel for action. This results in the craving for comfort foods!

People with chronic stress (like Erica) may have chronically high cortisol blood levels, which can contribute to developing a chronic emotional eating pattern.

People who connect eating food with comfort, security, power, etc, can be at risk of emotional eating. A warning sign is that emotional eaters crave junk food, and the urge to eat is usually preceded by stress or some unwelcome emotion such as sadness, anger or frustration.


Stopping this behaviour involves recognising the triggers and developing appropriate ways to alleviate stress. One good suggestion is increased exercise, which lowers the production of the stress hormones and lessens anxiety and depression.

Teaching the individual to develop better eating habits is also necessary as is the avoidance of caffeine and drugs.

Meditation and relaxation techniques also help reduce stress and will help decrease emotional eating. Other life- style changes such as not over-scheduling daily activities can also destress one's life.

When untreated, emotional eating will cause obesity and can lead to food addiction. There are times when the eating behaviour is so entrenched that the help and guidance of a psychiatrist are needed.

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Email: arnaj56@gmail.com


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