Emotional eating no trivial matter

Sometimes a bar of chocolate or a handful of bikkies seems to be the cure-all when stress and unhappiness creep up.

It's no great surprise that many of us eat for emotional reasons but what may be surprising is the far-reaching impact that chronic emotional eating can have - and how hard the problem can be to break.

According to Henshaw Consulting clinical psychologist Sophie Henshaw, emotional eating is not so much about the actual food but a symptom of a deep emotional upset. Often there is an "emptiness" or yearning for something missing in your life, she says.

"It's an emotional hunger that they're trying to fill. They're using one substance - food - to meet another emotional need. Often along with that is a lack of nourishment or love in the person's life."

Food could also be used as a coping strategy when dealing with periods of stress or anxiety.

"It's a way that people have to relax because the mind quietens for a moment," Dr Henshaw said. "They experience it as a kind of release. And people may not even recognise that they're experiencing anxiety; they just know they can relax when they eat."

Unfortunately, it is not easy to simply stop doing it, even when the evidence starts to show up on the scales.

"If you start to put on weight, then a whole raft of problems start to pile up. It's very difficult to crack - it's not as simple as putting someone on a diet," Dr Henshaw said.

Tania Ferraretto, accredited practising dietitian and spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says overindulging on sugary comfort foods means far too many kilojoules and fat are consumed but not enough important vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and dietary fibre.

"These foods fill them up and they often feel guilty for what they have eaten so they try to reduce other eating, like skipping meals or cutting back on healthy food."

Emotional eating becomes a vicious merry-go-round when that guilt affects self-esteem and mood - often leading to more eating.

"People feel like they don't have control over their eating and they feel weak willed. The common result of weight gain also further reduces people's self-esteem as they are often not happy with the way they look," Ms Ferraretto said.

  • INSIDE: How to stop emotional eating. *

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