Eating is a way many people suppress or soothe their feelings. Feeling stressed, grab a snack! Feeling happy, grab a treat! We use food to fuel our bodies but sometimes that turns into fueling or feeding our feelings too, which can turn into emotional overeating, binging, compulsive, and stress eating. This isn’t overeating that awesome sandwich at lunch or that one last bite of cake, it’s overeating past your sense of fullness, past your sense of caloric needs, and maybe even past your ability to be mindful of what and how much you are consuming, due to your emotional state.
April is Emotional Overeating Awareness Month. With the increase in stress and demands on the average person, emotional overeating is on the rise. The Medicine.net shared, “About 40% of people tend to eat more when stressed, while about 40% eat less, and 20% experience no change in the quantity of food they eat when exposed to stress. Consequently, stress can be associated with both weight gain and weight loss.”
If 80% of the population is admitting to not eating “well,” as in too much or too little based on their emotional state, we know we have a problem! The American Institution of Stress states that more than 60% of Americans are identifying as being stressed, which means too many of us aren’t eating well and therefore probably not feeling well either. Stress is a physical or mental reaction to the external factors of this life, whereas anxiety is how the body reacts. Add both together and an unbalanced diet, and you plain won’t feel well! And it’s hard to undo.
When it comes to the emotional aspect of overeating or even restricting food due to stress, anxiety, sadness, or whatever emotion may be taking the stage at that moment, the emotional trauma doesn’t end there. When a person has overeaten, almost half will start to have a flood of other negative emotions about their actions including disappointment, guilt, and shame, added to physical repercussions such as stomachaches, bloating, and other uncomfortable sensations perpetuating a toxic cycle of behaviors and feelings.
Like many things, emotional overeating isn’t as simple as just eating too much. Individuals may start to develop an abnormal association with food from childhood. Simple things like, “Eating to feel better,” or “Let’s celebrate with ice cream,” can start to train our brain that food has a direct impact and relationship with our emotions. Many people think of food to rejoice, gather, etc. Is that true? Yes, but really, food is fuel for our bodies. Food gives us the nutrients needed for our bodies to run as best they can. It is not a prize, a reward, or a comfort. People with emotional overeating, may not even realize at first that ownership of food has taken over in their bodies and minds. Emotional overeating can start as a “bad habit” and turn into a real addiction to food for self-soothing and comfort.
Overeating in general can happen, but it shouldn’t happen as a focused reaction to…” life!” If this feeling is recognizable to you, it doesn’t have to stay that way. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), through outreach, education, and advocacy, made great efforts to increase awareness, proper diagnosis, and treatment of eating disorders. They strive to educate people about their eating disorders and help them find access to proper care.
Emotional Overeating Awareness Month was started to spread awareness about emotional overeating disorders, to help people cope with stress in healthier ways, and to provide support for people who need it. If you need support, it’s there! You are not alone. Ask your physician about it or even ask for a referral to a clinical dietitian or therapist in our area to talk about it. Emotional overeating isn’t anything to be embarrassed about and with the help of a professional, you can work to start to find a healthy relationship with food, where food no longer becomes a comfort, but nourishment. You no longer lose control around food or must resist anything. You won’t be someone whose emotions can be found in a certain candy wrapper or ice cream carton.
Your body matters! It’s a measure of a healthy life, physically and emotionally. If you are struggling with food, ask for help. Occasional overeating is one thing, but there is a risk and dangers when overeating becomes emotional. Eat enough, not too much, not too little. Look for ways to manage your emotions in a healthy way and be mindful of the places where food and emotion meet!
Director of The Wellness Center