Feeding an Emotional Hunger
Life pangs: Avoiding distractions during meals is part of mindful eating.
It’s the message we hear over and over again: that sticking to a healthy weight boils down to eating the right food and exercising more. What we don’t hear so loudly is how we can tackle one of weight management’s most common saboteurs – emotional eating.
”With emotional eating, dieting is barking up the wrong tree. You need to get to the reason behind the eating,” says Louise Adams, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist who specialises in eating disorders and emotional eating.
Although happiness and boredom are among the feelings that can prompt overeating, Adams rates stress and anxiety as two of the major drivers.
If you’re wondering why some of us turn to food for comfort, she believes it’s the same reason others turn to alcohol or other drugs – because we’re not taught skills to cope with bad feelings.
”We need to recognise that it’s OK to have a strong feeling that makes you feel bad – yet we have this idea in our culture that a negative feeling must be banished straight away. Look how often we distract children with something like a biscuit if they’re upset,” she says. ”We’re not taught to ride out the feeling. Instead we learn to numb it with alcohol, eating or drugs.
”Yet if you learn to sit with the feeling, you realise that it’s like a wave – it builds in intensity and then it passes. It’s very empowering to realise you can handle it. I think that as parents we need to teach kids that negative emotions happen, that we’re not happy all the time. If my five-year-old says she’s annoyed because of something her sister did, I’ll say, ‘Being annoyed is normal.”’
Mindful eating is another useful technique to get reacquainted with hunger and fullness signals. This is more effective than dieting, says Adams, who gets clients to use a zero-to-seven hunger scale that rates ravenous as zero and stuffed as seven.
”Do your best to stop eating when you’re satisfied, at four or five, before the stuffed stage and to eat at slightly hungry, two to three, before you reach the ravenous stage – that’s when it becomes too easy to overeat,” she says. ”I get people to think of ‘ravenous’ as a punch on the arm and moderate hunger as a tap on the shoulder that reminds you to eat.”
”It’s also about slowing down and engaging with the food rather than eating while you’re doing something else such as working or watching television. If you’re not engaged with the food, not only can you miss recognising the fullness signals but you also miss out on the experience of enjoying the food.
”Emotional eaters feel as if they’re not in control, but the wonderful thing about mindful eating is that when you’ve mastered it, you feel you are in control – and if you keep practising, you’ll be in control.”
Is emotional eating an increasing problem?
”We don’t know. However, we do know that eating disorders are increasing and that emotional eating is a central feature of eating disorders. Although it has always been a problem that tends to affect women, we’re now seeing more men with emotional eating,” says Adams, who believes tackling the stigma that goes with being overweight could help.
”It’s the last bastion of acceptable discrimination. I’ve lost count of the larger clients I’ve had who don’t eat while they’re at work because they’re ashamed of being seen eating – and who then go home and overeat because they were so hungry.”