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Help for emotional overeaters

If you eat when you’re hungry, stressed or sad, you need to address the cause of the emotion. 

22 August 2016
4 minute read

Woman eating doughnut and crying

Tracey (not her real name) lost her husband at a young age and was devastated by his passing. While her friends and family offered her love and support, she found herself eating more and more for the comfort that it brought her. Having never been an overweight child or teenager, the years of eating in the wake of her husband’s death took their toll and after years of weight fluctuations, she ended up weighing 97 kilograms at the age of 50.

“I tried every diet and owned every book, but I couldn’t stop myself. I’d start eating the things I shouldn’t, and then I’d overeat. Then I’d feel remorseful and swear not to do it again. Every Monday, I’d promise to myself I was starting over – but I’d just repeat the cycle,” she says.

Tracey turns to Overeaters AnonymousTracey finally found an Overeaters Anonymous (OA) group and this was when things shifted for her. Like the other “Anonymous” support groups, OA focuses on the 12 steps, which include acknowledging that you are powerless over your addiction.

Tracey says that OA addresses the emotional, spiritual and physical aspects of overeating, and helps its members to work out their own ways of dealing with their addiction. “There is no diet or rule book. It’s about working out what you can and can’t do, and being responsible for your own choices.”

Tracey realised that her emotional triggers were what AO calls HALT: hungry, angry, lonely or tired. If she is any of these states, she is at risk of overeating. Today, she weighs 74kg, which she says is a weight that she can comfortably maintain and at which she is happy.

Are you an emotional eater? WebMD explains that “emotional eating is the practice of consuming large quantities of food – usually comfort or junk foods – in response to feelings instead of hunger.” They say that experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.

Many people enjoy so-called “comfort food” for the boost it gives them when they are tired or sad. This in itself is not a bad thing. The problem arises when comfort eating leads to overeating and then becomes compulsive. The foods that seem to give relief become addictive, and perpetuate a cycle of negative emotions followed by bingeing.

You may be an emotional overeater if:

  • You turn to food for comfort when you are sad, angry, tired or stressed.
  • When you are in any of these states you reach for food without thinking about it or questioning whether you are really hungry.
  • Food feels like the only thing you look forward to.
  • You know that you want to stop overeating but feel that you can’t because of the perceived support it offers you.
  • You binge when you’re alone to hide your overeating from others.
  • As much as food may bring you relief in the moment, you feel worse soon afterwards because of your loss of control and the effect that overeating is having on your body.

How do I stop emotional overeating? To address emotional overeating, the Mayo Clinic recommends:

  • Keep a food diary. Write down what you eat, how much you eat, when you eat, how you're feeling when you eat and how hungry you are. Patterns might reveal a connection between mood and food.
  • Tame your stress. If stress contributes to your emotional eating, try yoga, meditation or deep breathing.
  • Have a hunger reality check. Is your hunger physical or emotional? If you ate just a few hours ago and don't have a rumbling stomach, you're probably not hungry. Give the craving a time to pass.
  • Get support. You're more likely to give in to emotional eating if you lack a good support network. Lean on family and friends or consider joining a support group.
  • Fight boredom. Instead of snacking when you're not hungry, substitute a healthier behaviour.
  • Take away temptation. Don't keep hard-to-resist comfort foods in your home. And if you feel angry or blue, postpone your trip to the grocery store until you have your emotions in check.
  • Don't deprive yourself. Limiting calories too much, eating the same foods repeatedly and banishing treats may just serve to increase your food cravings. Eat satisfying amounts of healthier foods, enjoy an occasional treat, and get plenty of variety.
  • Learn from setbacks. If you have an episode of emotional eating, forgive yourself and try to learn from the experience.
  • Get professional help. If you’ve tried self-help options, but still can’t control emotional overeating, consider therapy with a mental health professional or support group.

The support offered by Overeaters AnonymousOvereaters Anonymous offers emotional overeaters the opportunity to gain control of their addiction with the support of other people who are in the same boat. In addition to the 12 steps, they have a number of tools that help members to deal with their condition. These include an individualised plan of eating, sponsorship (another member who helps you through your recovery programme), meetings, telephone support (you can phone or text your sponsor at any time that you are struggling with a high or low that might lead to overeating), putting your feelings and thoughts into writing, having access to OA literature, and putting in place an action plan for your recovery process.

You can do it! If you realise that you are eating for emotional reasons, take steps to set yourself on the road to recovery. As Tracey told us, it wasn’t about finding the right diet; it was about filling the hole in her soul. Good luck on your journey.

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