Home => Newsletters => June 2010 • Family Meals Focus • #46 Emotional Eating from the Eating Competence Perspective
In my review of the January through June issues of the journal Appetite, I found that a high number of articles addressed emotional eating. As with earlier articles on the topic, the underlying assumption of authors was that emotional eating is to blame for overeating and weight gain and that getting rid of emotional eating is key to weight loss.
Emotional eating doesn't cause weight gain. That assumption is oversimplified and physiologically naive. Let's assume that emotional eating leads you to eat a lot at any one time. That eating-a-lot only makes you gain weight if your body ''forgets'' those calories, which it doesn't. In reality, your body remembers: You are less hungry the next meal, the next day or even the next week. The body corrects long term for short-term errors in food regulation. To overwhelm your body's natural regulatory abilities, you would have to overeat day after day without stopping. Few do.1
Emotional eating is normal; abusing emotional eating is not. From the perspective of the Satter Eating Competence Model (ecSatter), it is natural to eat for emotional reasons. Eating can raise your spirits when you are low, soothe you when you are tense, and distract you when you are upset. We cook special meals to celebrate and we use food to help us connect with other people.
Emotional eating is a problem only when you abuse it: You have no idea what you feel, other than generally upset or stressed. You eat to feel better or to push down or to blot out your feelings. You eat fast and don't pay attention and end up feeling guilty, unsatisfied, and out of control. Certainly, such eating makes you feel bad. However, the biggest problem is not weight gain, but rather having feelings go straight to eating. To make good choices in life, you have to know how you feel. Knowing how you feel helps you cope. Eating is one of several solutions, including talking about your feelings and dealing with the problem.
Restrained eating increases abuse of emotional eating. In my clinical experience corroborated by the research, restrained eating exacerbates the tendency to abuse emotional eating.2 People who are not restrained eaters consume less, not more, under stressful conditions.3 Restrained eaters try to eat less and less-appealing food than they need and want and are chronically hungry. Trying not to eat in the face of hunger and food-preoccupation takes a lot of energy. Stress undermines the energy to sustain food deprivation, and the person overeats. Thus, rather than overeating in response to stress, the restrained eater disinhibits. The restrained eater still eats a lot, but the root cause is undereating rather than emotional arousal. The cycle continues: The remorseful fallen-away restrained eater redoubles her efforts to restrict and again falls prey to stress induced disinhibition.
Here is how to stop abusing emotional eating.
Feed yourself regularly and reliably. Have meals and snacks at predictable times, and include the food you like.
Set aside restrained eating. Trust yourself to go to the table hungry and eat until you feel satisfied. Then stop, knowing another meal or snack is coming soon and you can do it again.
Know what you feel. Use that knowing in choosing how to be and do. Include eating as one of your options.
Be clear about what eating can do for you. Eating in a focused fashion is likely to soothe or calm you and even raise your spirits a bit. It won't resolve the problem-unless the problem is being hungry! When you feel like eating because you are bored, depressed, happy, or celebrating, say to yourself, ''It is all right to eat. But first I will find out what I am feeling.''
Then eat positively, deliberately, soothingly, and cheeringly.
For a discussion of children and emotional eating, take a look at page 315 in Child of Mine, with particular attention to the discussion of the toddlers' developmental task of somatopyschological differentiation at the bottom of the page. The toddler is particularly vulnerable to learning to eat for emotional reasons because s/he is learning to recognize her bodily sensations – hunger, restlessness - and to differentiate sensations from emotions – anger, boredom. Feeding to address sensations teaches the toddler to eat for emotional reasons: feelings go straight to eating, with no interpretation. To prevent feeding for emotional reasons, emphasize structured meals and snacks.
1. Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: How to Eat, How to Raise Good Eaters, How to Cook. 2008 , Kelcy Press: Madison, WI. p. 243-246.
2. Van Strien, T. and M.A. Ouwens, Counterregulation in female obese emotional eaters: Schachter, Goldman, and Gordon's (1968) test of psychosomatic theory revisited. Eat Behav, 2003. 3(4): p. 329-340.
3. Herman, C.P., J. Polivy, and V.M. Esses, The illusion of counter-regulation. Appetite, 1987. 9: p. 161-169.
Copyright © 2012 by Ellyn Satter. Published at www.EllynSatter.com.
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