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Emotional Overeating



Over the past few days I have shared some of my thoughts on how a “healthy” diet must not only ensure appropriate nutritional and caloric balance but must also foster emotional balance (reasonably skewed to the positive side).

Thinking about this issue, yesterday, I finally got around to picking up the copy of a book on emotional eating that was sent to me several months ago (disclaimer!) by Marcia Sirota, a Toronto-based psychiatrist, who specializes in the treatment of trauma and addictions.

The book with the title, “Emotional Overeating: Know the Triggers, Heal Your Mind, and Never Diet Again“, focusses on the many emotional reasons that drive us to diet and overeat.

To Sirota, dieting and compulsive overeating are simply two sides of the same coin, both rooted in the need to deal with childhood hurts, losses and unmet needs as well as adult suffering, whether conscious or unconscious.

“People think that they don’t have an eating disorder if their weight is normal for their age and body type, but it’s not your size that’s indicative of the problem; it’s the degree to which you think obsessively and behave compulsively with regard to food and your weight. Until you’ve let go of the obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviors associated with disordered eating, you’ll never be happy or free.”

“No matter what your size is, if you can’t stop thinking about eating and weight and can’t stop compulsively indulging or restricting, then you’re unhappily locked in the prison of food addiction.”

The severity of the problem depends on

“…the degree to which you’ve been wounded emotionally and the degree to which food has become the solution to your emotional needs.”

But perhaps, I should allow Sirota to speak for herself in these introductory posts on her blog:

Emotional Overeating Part 1: The Most Overlooked Reason for Why We Overeat

Emotional Overeating Part 2: How to Tell if You’re Doing it

Emotional Overeating Part 3: Be Aware of How You Eat

While clearly, not everyone with excess weight has a story of childhood or adult trauma or loss, I have no doubt that many (not just those, who experience some degree of emotional eating – and who doesn’t?), will benefit from reflections on the emotional aspects of weight and food obsession.

I am still only half way through, so I cannot provide a final opinion on the book and the solution it may provide.

However, I am always happy to see a book on obesity and weight management that does not include recipes or exercise tips – by that standard alone, I would happily recommend this book to anyone interested in a deeper and meaningful analysis of what drives obesity and what doesn’t.

AMS
Edmonton, AB

11 Comments

  1. The trouble with her thesis is that it emphasizes the “eat less” part of ELMM without consideration of the other elements of obesity, including what you talked about the other day, whether some people react differently to food in obesogenic ways. Her clients sound kind of like the “woman” you described from the NWCR who exercised obsessively. She might have been doing that for “addictive” reasons, or simply because she wanted to keep the weight off a body that didn’t agree with her goals.

    I happily admit to childhood trauma and even using it as an excuse for eating at one point, but now at 48 after having lost 80 lbs and put it back on a few times, I don’t overeat (2000 cals per week) and cannot take any weight off for love or money. I would no sonner binge eat than ram my head into a wall and I don’t fantasize about doing either. So nothing in her prescription would help.

    What helps are posts like the ones you had about the NWCR and others that start to turn the balance in favour of health over weight. Her stuff doesn’t, it simply pathologizes weight in a different way. If you are overweight you must be suffering from trauma.

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  2. something happened to my post which makes it seem like I eat 2000 cals per week. i exercise 2000 cals per week and eat 1500 cals per day.

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  3. I think it’s also a mistake to think that you can NEVER eat for emotional reasons. Food is an emotional experience as well as a physical experience.

    @Melinda — you pegged it. I find it just as insulting for someone to assume an overweight person is an emotional mess as to assume they are lazy and gluttonous.

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  4. I think she has a lot of good information that will be of use to many, but certainly not to all. Some of her language is patronizing and negative: “If you’re an over-eater, you know that being heavy and eating excessively aren’t your only problems. In fact, you can’t stop thinking about food and weight.” As if she knows what everyone is going through. She describes emotional eating as a problem for everyone who is overweight. We all make a huge number of decisions about our eating habits every day and emotions are one of many factors but it doesn’t mean everyone is emotionally damaged.

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  5. So now we refocus our obsession or compulsion or addiction on recovery and on a personal philosophy required deal with the unresolved issues of modern life, as we know it. We are amazed at crap we see, like Coke adds, that do not understand the issues of life, or obesity or the exobese, but heck, we, the people, are responsible.

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  6. Dr. Sharma thanks for the information in regards to Marcia Sirota. I am very interested in reading this book and continuing my research into emotional eating (binging on junk when I am upset); something I do on a regular basis which sabotages my weight loss efforts. I will choose to see this book as insightful information regarding my own personal experience and how I can heal myself. I disagree with the comments so far in regards to every person who is overweight is being seen as an “emotional mess” or “emotionally damaged”. Not sure why you find this book insulting ksol. Just because health information is written does not mean it pertains to everyone. I do agree with Marissa that “her information will be of use to many, but certainly not all”. I am grateful for this resource and will use it to try and heal myself. Since yoyo dieting has not worked in 40 years I am trying a new approach in order to attain a healthy weight and healthy life.

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  7. This line of thinking perpetuates the idea that every overweight person is a broken, emotionally-wounded mess. Originating from Hilde Bruch’s theories in the 1950s, we’ve readily accepted the assumption that if you’re fat, something must be “wrong” with you. When will we accept the much more significant contributing factors of genetics, brain wiring, body chemistry, and the ridiculously obesogenic culture we live in and quit treating overweight people like they’re all broken and diseased?

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  8. Dr. Sirota’s psych-based rhetoric—which seems to describe emotional eating as a problem of living unconsciously (dissociated from the emotional pain of trauma, for instance)—reminds me of so many (typical) therapeutic conversations I shared with clinical psychologists (and 12-step Overeater Anonymous members) during the past several decades.

    The dominant psychology discourses supporting “emotional eating” as a form of psychological defense mechanism are widespread and common in our culture. They construct a kind of weight loss/over eating paradigm that follows very predictable patterns and outcomes.

    Abstaining from overeating (a tricky condition to define, typically, unless one resorts to using body weight or body size as a convenient barometer of progress) is held forth almost like a spiritual awakening or psychic cleansing process—as some pure, authentic form of conscious existence or mindfulness that leads to a special kind of “freedom”.

    Thus, within the parameters of this cultural paradigm, abstaining from overeating may be understood as a kind of emotional/spiritual tool or gift that one adopts for one’s use, to gently expose oneself (as the designated “food addict”) to lived experiences that are fuller and more emotionally intense—i.e., to face one’s “life on life’s terms”, i.e., far more “consciously” with less need to rely on compulsively acted out behaviors—with less unhealthy dependence on any immature or excessive emotional cushioning from pain (e.g., cushioning formerly provided by overeating).

    Moreover, overeating and/or compulsive overeating is gradually understood as living with self deception (denial of childhood emotional wounds, for instance), or existing with a false consciousness—e.g., while psychologically dissociated from emotional pain and trauma…which overeating presumably served to numb or diminish…because the emotional pain/trauma had not been thoroughly experienced or processed—that is, it had not been FELT fully and consciously acknowledged as painful.

    According to this cultural paradigm, as one loses weight, and one loses the punishing social stigma and shame of obesity, and one abandons the dissociated comforts of compulsive overeating, one holds fast to the belief (as did I, several times) that she is healing—emotionally, spiritually, or psychologically—from the core issues or deep emotional wounds that provoked the original need to escape into overeating.

    Eventually, the excess weight is gone, the painful social stigma of fatness and gluttony is mostly lifted, and new sources of approval and reassurance (social and medical) arise to offer rewards and praise for one’s creation of a “healthier new you”. YAY! A life lived with authenticity and expanded conscious awareness stretches forth before you as a beautiful promise for a fuller & richer life.

    And then, usually within months or years of significant weight loss, the physiological forces of the human body begin to activate their homeostatic drives to replenish the brain with adequate Leptin, to stabilize dopamine pathways, for instance, or to balance other hormonal shifts (estrogen or T3, for instance)—which often create uncomfortable sensations of increased appetite, difficulty experiencing satiation after eating, urges to eat more than before, confused and/or false cognitive interpretations of these new physiological processes, and so forth.

    Suddenly, or gradually, what we frequently observe is (again, I’ve lived this scenario and have witnessed it in many others) a highly distraught patient who begins little-by-little *giving in* to increasingly more powerful and demanding hunger signals, for example, while she feels convinced (and often ashamed) that she is (once again) unconsciously returning to denial and avoidance as a psychological defenses, returning to her former dependency on cushioning emotional pain—numbing by means of compulsive eating.

    And this newly frightened patient almost inevitably blames herself, or blames her own emotional weaknesses or her “unconscious” desire to escape, while she frantically attempts to ferret out (in an obsessive, driven, or “fearlessly searching” manner) whatever possible hidden traumas or emotional injuries or character flaws are yet lingering below her conscious awareness—and are thus resulting in her “relapse.”

    As her weigh regain continues, she *knows* she is emotionally disordered, she understands herself to be a particularly vulnerable person who needs an abundance of emotional support to overcome this “relapse.” She feels needier and less self confident than before she lost weight. She understands that she is failing to put her self care and her self awareness efforts—her dedication to mindfulness—as a priority.

    Obviously, to her, this outcome reveals even deeper self esteem wounds than she had previously imagined. The promise for a life of conscious living remains a distant hope or a dashed dream as she continues to focus inward on her psychological vulnerabilities and emotional inadequacies. She no longer trusts her own perceptions about how she feels, or why she feels, or what she feels—for now her emotional life is (to her) an inextricable part of her *disordered* relationship with food.

    Each future loss of weight, or each brief period of successful abstinence, will offer her another distorted but hopeful glimpse of what might result if only she stays focused on her inner emotional growth. Each regain or slip with “overeating” will indicate (to her) that there are still more hidden emotional problems that she is not facing fully.

    Sadly, her drive (*compulsion*) to regain lost weight, to eat more and/or to move less, may result purely from normal, typical, yet complex homeostatic (physiological) processes—processes which her health care professionals (and therapists) will seldom (if ever) discuss with her as powerful or even relevant factors compelling regain and/or causing shifts in post-weight-loss hormone signalling and/or energy access…specific physiological processes that usually happen FOR PERSONS WHO WERE FORMERLY OBESE. Processes unlike any that happen for people who have never been fat.

    However, if she can’t trust her mental and physical health care providers to explain these physiological changes and processes, and she can’t rely on her own emotions as indicators of her well being (feelings being all tied up, apparently, with her eating patterns), then who or what is she supposed to trust to help her with her confusing and/or shameful regain of lost weight—who can she talk with about her desperate new self experimentation with laxatives or purging or exercise bulimia—and who will help her with her *failed* enlightenment—and her return to a life of false consciousness (denial)?

    Naturally, the above *story* represents only one kind of scenario, the kind that blames obesity and weight regain (after weight loss) on an individual’s emotional problems, on her faulty psych defense mechanisms, or on her failure to face and therapeutically confront (and work through!) her past victimization.

    It’s also a scenario that creates more victims, more fat stigma, and more shame-based identities.

    I’ve experienced a different kind of transformation, I hope, I’ve reached a point of immunity (I pray) regarding false promises for freedom and hope and enlightened consciousness—or “health”—in connection with so-called “emotional eating” and/or body size categories. Personal salvation can’t be earned through “mindful eating” or through weight loss.

    Also, I’m not alone in seeing the social damage and the personal harm caused by repeatedly linking one’s emotional health (one’s degree of “consciousness”, for god’s sake) with one’s eating behaviors and with one’s body size.

    Increasingly, those of us who are committed to fighting social injustice have become unwilling to adopt or support shame identities (based on body size categories or assumed eating behaviors). We refuse to look away when professionals reinforce fat stigma with their promises of freedom from “overeating”, while these same professionals refuse to acknowledge (or are unwilling to confront) the powerful and complex physiological drivers of eating behaviors—and they remain in denial abut the significant physiological barriers to long-term weight-loss maintenance in people who were formerly fat.

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  9. Linda – I do not find the book insulting, although I was a bit irritated at her implication in one of the article that if you overeat in the slightest you must be an emotional eater. It struck me as a bit rigid. There is a spectrum. I don’t think the occasional bowl of popcorn at the end of a stressful day is not the end of the world. I do believe that if you are crying over a pint of ice cream out of frustration and unhappiness every night, bingeing to the point of discomfort to stuff down feelings you should be dealing with, dealing with emotional eating is a good thing.

    What I do find insulting is when work like hers gets translated into the popular culture, that every person over BMI 25 must have mental/emotional issues, just as ELMM turns every fat person into a lazy glutton. Some do, some don’t. Is it helpful for some people to look at it? Yes. Can a fixation on it lead to additional stigma? Yes.

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  10. In my experience, the reason I became overweight (combo of emotional over-eating due to childhood trauma, and my body changing due to puberty) is not the same reason I stayed overweight (to protect myself), and it’s not the same reason that today, 80 pounds lighter (and within a healthy BMI), I still have to work hard to maintain a healthy weight (biology, slowing metabolism, pre-menopausal). I still “use” food for comfort. I just use it in smaller quantities and less frequently than I did when I was overweight. And today I KNOW that’s why I’m doing it.

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  11. I’ve never believed in this idea of “emotional eating.” A lot of folks turn to food when stressed, but the difference between an overweight person and a naturally thin person is that the overweight or obese person just eats more when stressed because she’s hungrier!

    There are people who are overweight and obese since infancy, and for them overcoming eating challenges is beyond my comprehension. I simply cannot imagine the difficulty in that. For the rest of us, we don’t just have a stressful moment and decide to eat 3500 extra calories. No, it doesn’t work that way any more than thin people being zen masters who are completely open to their experiences in life.

    Anyone can be convinced he or she has some void he wants to fill. Think deeply. What void is food filling for you? Well, maybe I’m upset because I always wanted to be a painter, but my dad told me to get a real job. So now I must overeat to fill that void??

    We all have some slight moments of regret or unfulfilled hopes. The problem is that obesity is cyclical and what motivates people to eat motivates them to eat, but they eat progressively more and more—but that’s a physiological problem. It’s not some emotional problem.

    There are, perhaps, a sizable number of people who’ve dealt with real traumas in their childhood—but “emotional eating” has become ensnared into the average obese person’s lists of “potential causes” of obesity. The media portrays the “fat woman” as some emotionally unstable, sad-because-she-can’t-find-a-boyfriend mess. It makes me cringe that this “emotional eating” thing has become so widely accepted as a common thing. It makes normal, functional men and women who’ve never experienced an abnormal emotional trauma to say, “I eat because of stress and whatnot” and that does a big disservice to understanding that there are physiological changes happening. That makes them feel even more stressed and vulnerable, when they were just normal people with normal emotional responses—including eating a bit more when stressed—but a healthy body does feel full at times, and the occasional stress binge doesn’t usually equate to obesity.

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