By Jeff Schnaufer
11:30 AM EST, December 28, 2012
You've had a bad day at work. Or maybe someone cut you off in traffic. Or perhaps you found a handful of bills in the mailbox. Whatever the case, you walk through the front door and head straight for the freezer and devour a carton of frozen goodies to relieve that emotional angst gnawing at you.
No matter age, weight or gender, emotional overeating is an equal opportunity offender affecting millions of us. But is it an eating disorder?
"Emotional eating is not in itself a specific eating disorder, though emotional eating occurs in eating disorders," says Dr. Jennifer Taitz, co-author of End Emotional Eating: Using Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions and Develop a Healthy Relationship to Food.
Taitz, who is a clinical psychologist and director of the dialectical behavior therapy program at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy in New York, says emotional eating is associated with binge eating, obesity and bulimia. In the United States, nearly 10 million females and 1 million males are fighting a life and death battle with an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). Millions more are struggling with binge eating disorder.
So why do we emotionally overeat? Health, psychological and nutrition experts give a variety of reasons.
"Eating may serve as a temporary distraction, facilitating moving away from boredom, sadness, anxiety or other distressing feelings," Taitz says. "In addition to helping you briefly escape an uncomfortable emotion, eating may also add a positive emotion. So its doubly rewarding- takes away a negative and adds a positive."
In addition to being a distraction from a negative emotional state, Manhattan psychologist Dr. Joseph Cilona adds that "psychological hunger and craving for food is also very often closely tied to the experience of pleasurable emotional states such as feeling loved, cared for, comforted and relaxed. Often times culture, family history and social customs come into play here. Most cultures have many customs tied to food and eating that foster a sense of community and connection that may be considered one of the deepest emotional needs or 'hungers' we experience."
Amy Jamieson-Petonic, registered dietitian, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and director of coaching at Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, says emotional overeating is a habit with psychological benefits.
"When we have had a bad day, there is nothing like a chocolate sundae to make ourselves feel better. It's a mindset we have created," Jamieson-Petonic says. She adds that when we eat, "our serotonin levels and dopamine levels are affected thus affecting our mood. When we eat, we feel a sense of relief due to the release of these chemicals. Especially once we start to associate the "feel good" sensation with a certain type of comfort food such as ice cream."
Whatever the reason for emotional overeating, it becomes a problem when it gets out of control. And while many experts agree that this pattern usually starts in childhood, there's also evidence to suggest it may be harder to tell when we have eaten enough as we age.
"Recent research into physiological hunger and food craving has revealed that specific cells and hormones that control appetite are impacted by age," Cilona says. "The finding was that as we age damage to appetite-suppressing cells may result in decreased regulation of hunger. Specifically, the ability for our brain to recognize when we have eaten enough. This has been tied to adult obesity."
How can people stop themselves from emotional overeating? Many experts agree it's all about awareness.
"One of the main ways to stop ourselves from emotional eating is truly paying attention," Taitz says. "Mindfulness, the science of fully paying attention in this moment, is a remarkably effective path toward moving towards emotional intelligence and intelligent eating. Mindfulness furnishes space between urge and action."
Being mindful of where we are in a moment of emotional hunger allows us to ask the following three questions, Taitz says.
1) What emotions am I experiencing?
"Observing emotions with distance is the first step towards regulating emotions," Taitz says.
2) How hungry am I?
"Appetite awareness, learning to notice physical hunger and satiety is instrumental in moving away from eating feelings," Taitz says.
3) What else may I choose?
"We may find alternative ways to soothe when we are fully present," Taitz says. "For example, eating a piece of chocolate with full awareness and attention is more enjoyable than swallowing the entire bar. I often try to help people explore methods to self-soothe beyond eating: talking to a friend, volunteering, listening to music, enjoying a warm bath."
Nutritionists and dietitians, too, can help you find other foods to appease your emotional appetite (see sidebar). Diets, though, are not apparently the answer. Girls who diet frequently are 12 times more likely to binge than girls who don't diet, NEDA reported.
Since compulsive emotional overeating may be linked to other, deeper issues, experts may also recommend visiting a psychologist or therapist. Esther Kane – the author of It's Not About the Food: A Woman's Guide to Making Peace with Food and Our Bodies – recalls one client in her mid-30s who weighed over 400 pounds.
"When we started therapy, I soon discovered that she had learned to stuff her feelings down with food as a toddler and had been doing this her entire life," recalls Kane, a registered clinical counsellor in Courtenay, British Columbia.
"She learned that it was OK to feel fear and that she could manage just experiencing the feeling without stuffing it down and that nothing bad would happen as a result. In time, she learned how to safely feel all of her varied emotions without stuffing them down with food."
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