As we head towards the festival of food that is the holiday season, and I am currently struggling to lose weight for a knee operation, I wanted to explore the issue of emotional eating and compulsive overeating in general. Overeating is a huge topic and contributes towards obesity, diabetes, osteoarthritis, heart disease and a range of other weight related issues. I put out a call for experts to help me write this article and my mailbox was flooded with experts and professionals working in the field of compulsive, emotional eating and eating disorders in general. It seemed to me to be a huge problem and not just in Australia.
My own background with eating
As an art student at University of Sydney, I developed an eating disorder. Originally it was a healthy weight loss but I went a few step classes too far. It was never enough. I was never small enough. I wanted to be perfect and I saw every ounce of fat as an imperfection. I got so thin my mother burst into tears when she saw me. I knew then, that I needed to get help. I tried to exercise less and eat more, but ended binging and purging, and developed severe bulimia, being sick up to 6 times a day. It was hell and I was miserable. I was still attending classes five days a week and working in a pub five nights a week, as students do.
I took myself to the emergency department, as I just couldn’t cope with it any more. I saw a GP who said she couldn’t help me and I should just stop purging and eat normally. Well that would be great, but I couldn’t do it. I had no resources, support or family to speak of at that time. I opted for treatment through the hospital’s outpatient program. It turned out that this was the best option, as I could carry on with my life, studies and social life, without being in a safety of a bubble being an inpatient.
With the help of a wonderful psychologist and expert dietician, I started to heal, and took back my life. I hated putting back on the weight, but at least I was able to stop purging and my hormones went back to normal. I cut back on my exercise to just 1 session a day (I would do up to classes in a row). The University gym was full of anorexics. They were the ones up the front in every class, working the hardest with stick figures and no idea how thin they were. I was approached by one instructor who said I needed to eat more for the exercise I was doing and I was looking a “bit lean”. One instructor wore a t-shirt with an obese woman on the front of it. I never went back to her classes. I wasn’t interested in fat shaming on any level.
For me, my issues with food, whether I was a compulsive over eater or under eater, began being in the middle of three warring parents. My mother, with whom I didn’t live (a decision both she and I wish wasn’t the case) would show her love with food and on visits would treat me and try to make up for lost time. The step mother who I did live with was very controlling and put me on diets when I was a young as seven, despite not being fat. These generally happened after a visit with my mum. It was like she was trying to “get rid of” my mother’s “love” from my body. I was a competitive swimmer and swam in training squad five mornings a week, so I could have pretty much eaten anything. My weight was never an issue. I believe these factors formed the foundation for my lifetime struggle with food.
Fat in my Forties
So fast forward 25 years and I have had 2 children, and lost and gain weight throughout that time. Currently I am at my heaviest, which is totally depressing, due to emotional eating and comfort eating due to pain of early onset arthritis (not weight related). I can’t exercise much due to a knee injury and the need for a replacement, which means I walk with a stick.
Yes, I probably could swim, but I am not a fan of the chlorine and cold water, and I want to go back to the gym, but it’s just too painful at the moment.
I was in my best shape ever at 40, but had a skiing accident which destroyed my mobility and a combination of comfort eating (distracts the my from the pain in my body) and lack of exercise, has caused me to be as heavy as I was when I was pregnant. I know I am not alone, so I wanted to share my story and offer some help.
So how can we tackle compulsive, emotional eating?
Because of the number of people who responded to my call out for experts on eating disorders and compulsive or emotional eating, I decided to ask each person to give me a short bio, with a few paragraphs about tackling the issue.
What the Experts Say
Nutritional Therapist DipNT mBANT rCHNC
Ditch the Scales!
January we start to get bombarded with new diets, fasts and messages how we need to become healthier, better, skinnier and etc. All these messages are simultaneously saying that we are not beautiful enough or not fit enough or just not enough. It is so important to remember that the diet and beauty industry is worth billions, yet we fall into the trap of going on a diet, suffering and coming out the other end feeling more miserable than before.
The best New Year’s resolution any woman can give to herself is to ditch the scales, delete social media accounts that are triggering and commit to not compare herself to anyone else. After all, we are all unique individuals with unique talents and skills and it has nothing to do with our shape or size!
[maxbutton id=”2″ url=”https://www.nutritionpath.co.uk/” text=”Visit Milda’s Website for More Info” ]
BHSc(Hons), ND, GDCouns
ASLM-certified Lifestyle Medicine Practitioner, Naturopath, Nutritionist and Counsellor with over 22 years’ clinical experience in private practice
It’s not about the food: The thought patterns of compulsive eaters
As a Lifestyle Medicine Practitioner, I see many clients – mostly women – who wish to lose weight. Many of them have struggled with their weight for as long as they can remember, and most have tried every imaginable way to lose weight: counting calories or carb grams, Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, fad diets, starving themselves, laxative abuse, hiring a personal trainer… you name it, they’ve tried it. Most are very well-informed about the nutritional value of food, and have a fair idea what they ‘should’ be eating in order to lose weight; unfortunately this only serves to make them feel even more frustrated because despite their knowledge, they find themselves inexorably drawn to the wrong foods.
I have a simple but profound message for these women: It’s Not About The Food.
The most common scenario that I see in clinical practice is that, early on in life, eating became the client’s go-to method for gaining relief from painful, difficult emotions. Sometimes this was modelled by one or both parents, while in other cases, the client simply figured out for herself that if she ate enough biscuits, chips or ice cream, she could numb out from all her distressing feelings – loneliness, sadness, anger, anxiety, rejection and so on – which she’d never been taught any other strategies for handling.
As she grew up and became more self-conscious about her body, the client began judging herself for overeating. Her thinking style becomes characterised by an ‘all or nothing’ mindset: if she eats even a single bite of a food she’s labelled ‘bad’, or even thinks about eating it, she experiences an overwhelming sense of guilt and failure. She tries to hold out against the urge to eat the ‘forbidden food’, but the tension inside her builds up to an unbearable level and eventually she cracks, and self-medicates with the food she’s deemed ‘bad’.
A slip spirals into a binge, during which she becomes numb; she eats mechanically, without any sense of enjoyment, just a compulsion to finish every last morsel of the ‘bad’ food. Many of my clients have described a sense of not even being in their bodies during the binge. After the binge is over, the numbness abates, feeling returns, and she is overcome with terrible remorse and self-recrimination. She promises herself she’ll never eat that ‘bad’ food again… and so begins another cycle.
I work with clients who are trapped in this self-destructive spiral using Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), which have been validated by research conducted by Dr Peta Stapleton at Bond University as being highly effective at overcoming food cravings and compulsive eating.
Commonly, I locate childhood events that were pivotal in shaping the client’s relationship with food, eating, her emotions, and her body. EFT provides a gentle means of resolving the emotional trauma embedded in these memories, which is key to overcoming compulsive eating and developing a healthy relationship with food.
[maxbutton id=”2″ url=”https://empowertotalhealth.com.au/” text=”Visit Robin Chuter’s Website for info” ]
Emotional eating and food addiction
Emotions can be powerful triggers that lead us to eating addictively. People often say: ‘I KNOW what I should be eating. I KNOW what I should not be eating. I KNOW when I should stop eating. Yet I continue to overeat and make poor food choices. Why?’ The answer is: ‘Because you’re eating for emotional reasons’. Most of us do it every once in awhile. But if you’re anything like me and are an addictive eater, you’re doing it all the time, it’s destroying your life and you want it to stop!
Have you ever wondered why it’s so hard to deal your emotions? Because we’re hardwired to feel and to respond to our emotions, as they are critical for our survival. They motivate us to take action quickly and give us cues about situations, and they communicate what we’re feeling to others. Another reason is that many of us have never learned how to regulate our emotions. Fact is, they are fundamental for us to function.
And what else in our lives is fundamental to our existence? Food! Without food, we would not survive. As soon as we’re born we depend on being fed and cared for, and our emotional security depends on this physical need being met. While some of us may have experienced early childhood trauma and others may not have, fact is, we all have emotional attachments to food and food is essential to our emotional wellbeing. Bottom line, at some point, we’ve learned to outsource our emotional process to something outside of ourselves, as addiction specialist Mandy Saligari has aptly said.Eating for emotional reasons brings relief. It’s like a pressure cooker that needs to let off steam. That’s why diets don’t work. Because we’re biologically wired to respond to emotions, and we’ve learned to depend on food to regulate our emotions, our emotions will always triumph over our intellect. In other words, we know what to eat and how to stick to a diet intellectually, but an emotional trigger will make us act on impulse and pick up the first bite without us even noticing.
So, what goes wrong when we eat emotionally? In a culture where displaying emotions openly is not always tolerated, and in the absence of having learned ways of regulating them, many of us have turned to food as the only strategy for dealing with them. Now combine this ‘emotional illiteracy’ with the fundamental necessity of food for our survival, with the fact that we live in a very stressful and fast paced world, and with the pull of addictive processed foods that are on the market. Here you have food as the number one socially acceptable, affordable method to self-soothe, self-medicate and regulate emotions in a way that brings us pleasure. Perfect! If it wasn’t for the weight gain and the disastrous effects on our health…
When I sought help to let go of my food addiction I had to learn to regulate my emotions without external substances. Life is so much richer with this newly gained skill. And we can all learn it.
[maxbutton id=”2″ url=”http://www.foodfreedomcoaching.com/” text=”Visit Vanessa’s site for more info” ]
Health Advocate & Educator, Broadcaster, Author, Holistic Health Practitioner & Dentist
Dr. Ron Ehrlich is one of Australia’s leading holistic health practitioners and educators
Nutritional stress and the impact this has on our health and wellbeing:
From the book, ‘A Life Less Stressed – the five pillars of health and wellness’, Dr Ehrlich says:
Most of us are aware that the food and drink that passes our lips has a direct impact on our health and wellbeing. As the saying goes, ‘You are what you eat.’ If you eat too many French fries, you’ll put on weight, clog your arteries, and increase your chances of contracting heart disease, cancer, or autoimmune diseases. But working out which foods are good for you isn’t always straightforward.
Gut — brain — immune system
The gut is where approximately 80 per cent of our immune system is located. It has the largest accumulation of lymphoid tissue in the body, which is important for immune response and helps protect from infection and foreign bodies. But there is a whole new area of health called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), which examines how the mind, immune system (including the gut), hormone balance, and nervous system interact — revealing a strong connection between gut health, mental health, and emotional wellbeing. People often associate food with mood, but they don’t always make the leap to the influence food has on mental-health conditions.
The food we eat affects every cell in our body, which includes the skin, immune system, hormonal (endocrine) system, nervous system, and brain.
In conclusion, diet has a dramatic impact on wellbeing for both body and mind. If we don’t consume a healthy and balanced diet, we are at huge risk of suffering from nutritional stress. Slowly, western medicine is starting to accept the message that alternative, complementary, or integrative health practitioners have championed for the last 80 years, one that Hippocrates highlighted over 2,000 years ago: that in food we may find excellent medicine or terrible poison. We are beginning to embrace that self-evident ‘revelation’ — that what you eat has the potential to stress your system and promote the chronic degenerative diseases that plague our modern world. Or, for a more positive way to look at it, we are coming to understand that what you eat can extend your life by years or even decades.
The choice is yours. Nutritionally stress your system or nourish it? What you eat has the potential to control chronic inflammation, restore healthy gut bacteria, and affect your physical, mental, and emotional health. It is central to building resilience and is more important than ever in today’s toxic, chemical world.
[maxbutton id=”2″ url=”http://www.drronhelich.com ” text=”Visit Dr Ron Helich for More Info” ]
Certified Eating Psychology Coach / Certified Martha Beck Life Coach / Certified NLP Coach
I differentiate between emotional eating and compulsive eating/binge eating.
All of eating is emotional
The more we make emotions when it comes to food bad, the more we make eating bad, which leads to bingeing, overeating, dieting, restriction and an overall crazy relationship with food.
It’s important to acknowledge and make peace with the fact that it is OK to enjoy what you eat (even necessary for health and wellbeing), that we don’t have to fight food and our appetite and instead can embrace it, love it, make it be an important and non-moral part of our lives. From an early age on (in fact, from the very first seconds of being born into this world) we associate food with love: we cry, mommy comes over to give us milk, holds us and loves on us.
Food is love. And that is not a “bad” thing. This just is. Actually, it is beautiful.
Where we create our pain then is when we try to make food our enemy, when we don’t have any other streams of love coming into our lives, when food is the only thing that gives us love, comfort, joy, peace of mind, relief and so much more.
Compulsive eating is simply a way of handling food and life. It’s a way of stuffing down emotions that you don’t want to acknowledge and feelings that you don’t want to feel. It’s a way of sabotaging yourself and creating safety by staying stuck. It is oh so complex. It’s NOT, however, a willpower problem or a failure on your part.
Healing from compulsive eating is a road to more self-awareness, to figuring out what is actually going on that causes you so much pain that all you feel you can do is eat. What is it you really want when you can’t stop eating? What causes you to eat so much that you can’t breath anymore? How much are you shaming yourself for doing what you do and how can you be kinder to yourself?
Healing from compulsive eating is all about self-exploration and it is a beautiful opportunity to get to the root cause of your pain.
Yes, eating can give us comfort, love, joy, as well as pain, fear, guilt, shame, an opportunity to put ourselves down. It can feel like coming home and by committing to wanting peace for yourself, you can create a “home” inside yourself that doesn’t relate to eating or dieting. Dieting, in fact, is the most destructive path you can choose for yourself if you are truly ready and willing to live a life free of food struggles.
While you can certainly use journaling, meditation, EFT, connecting with nature, or taking a bubble bath as tools to heal from compulsive eating, the most effective way is coaching. As coaching supports you on your way to finding yourself again, to claiming your body as your own and to actually let go of what is causing this painful way of “doing food”.
Creating a fun relationship with food (and your body) is possible. It is real. It may not happen tomorrow, but with support, the willingness to open up, feel uncomfortable and walk into new areas, you will get there.
[maxbutton id=”2″ url=”http://www.annesophie.us/work-with-me/” text=”Visit Anne Sophie’s site for more info” ]
If you need urgent advice and help for an eating disorder, please refer to the following service/hotline, or seek help with any of the experts/specialists above.
Butterfly National Helpline
Phone: 1800 33 4673
Online Chat: Click here to chat online with someone.
Butterfly’s National Helpline and Online Chat provide free, confidential support for anyone with a question about eating disorders or negative body image, including sufferers, carers, family and friends, teachers, employers and more. The service can provide
- Personalised support and coping strategies
- Information on understanding eating disorders
- Guidance on treatment options
- Information on available services in your area
- Connections with other services and specialists.
The National Helpline and Online Chat service are open Monday to Friday 8am to 9pm AEST daylight savings adjusted (except national/major public holidays).