For many of us, food is a source of comfort. We tend to feel good when we are eating, especially when we are eating food that is both filling and emotionally satisfying. Many of our fondest memories might revolve around meals with family members and loved ones. And when our bellies are full, we usually feel nourished and satisfied. However, food has the potential to become problematic when we begin to reach for it as a way to feel better and when doing so causes distress.
Occasional emotional eating happens to most of us at one time or another. We might reach for sweets when stressed or overwhelmed, for example, or have several helpings of our favorite comfort food after a difficult day. While this is generally recognized to be fairly typical behavior, we may find it concerning when emotional eating becomes part of a weekly or daily routine and we want to change that routine but struggle to do so.
As March is National Nutrition Month, it may be a good time to examine any eating patterns that are causing distress and consider healthy methods of change—such as mindful eating—that might lead to improved well-being.
The following are some signs that may indicate an eating pattern is cause for concern and might be worth discussing with a therapist and/or health care professional:
- Frequent thoughts about food. If you tend to spend a lot of your time thinking about food and are constantly tempted to snack throughout the day, you may be eating as a way to self-soothe. Emotional eating is a often used as a method of coping to try to reduce stress and feel better in the moment, but it often has the opposite effect over the long term.
- Excessive or extreme dieting. Many believe a diet is the way to break a pattern of emotional eating, but research has increasingly shown that not only do diets not work, dieting frequently and/or regaining and losing weight repeatedly can have negative effects on overall health. While many people follow a diet that works well for them, it may be a good idea to discuss any diet or dieting pattern that leads to a decrease in energy, disrupted sleep, or frequent and abrupt changes in mood with a doctor or nutritionist.
- Binge eating. If you eat large amounts of food on a frequent basis, feel unable to control your eating, experience a sense of guilt and shame surrounding your eating habits, and try to hide your excessive food intake from others, you might be binge eating. This condition, which is recognized in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, can often lead to obesity, as well as a number of health issues, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and gastrointestinal problems.
- Bingeing and purging. If you binge eat and also purge after meals, you may have what is known as bulimia nervosa. According to the DSM, individuals with this eating disorder may try to compensate for eating large quantities of food by exercising extensively, using laxatives, and/or vomiting after eating in order to try to avoid gaining weight.
- Restricting food intake. Another type of eating disorder, anorexia nervosa, is characterized by severe calorie restriction, an intense fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image. Individuals with anorexia may have a body weight that is considered lower than average for their frame but still consider themselves overweight and/or fear weight gain. They may eat as little as possible out of the desire for a sense of control they may not have over other aspects of life. This condition can be very dangerous, as in some cases an individual’s weight may drop so low as to lead to death.
Many people feel ashamed or are embarrassed to open up and discuss their struggles with disordered eating or other eating and food issues. Not addressing them, however, can often have an impact on physical and emotional health. Finding an empathetic therapist who specializes in working with individuals with eating disorders can be a helpful first step.
Those who are concerned by their use of food to cope may find it helpful to begin exploring some reasons behind this with the help of a compassionate counselor. Therapists are often able to help people develop better coping strategies. Those who wish to develop healthy eating plans and discuss eating habits more extensively might also find it beneficial to seek the assistance of a nutritionist.
- Aamodt, S. (2016, May 6). Why you can’t lose weight on a diet. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/opinion/sunday/why-you-cant-lose-weight-on-a-diet.html
- Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5. (5th ed.). (2013). Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
- Ferdman, R. (2015, May 4). Why diets don’t actually work, according to a researcher who has studied them for decades. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/05/04/why-diets-dont-actually-work-according-to-a-researcher-who-has-studied-them-for-decades/?utm_term=.94a8f3004d72
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