Food consumed for reasons other than meeting the true physiological needs of the body is generally driven by feelings such as being upset or bored or deeper unresolved emotional issues. This emotional eating inevitably leads to weight issues and given that obesity is a real problem in society, then emotional eating aught to also be regarded with concern.
Obesity and health
Obesity and related diseases (eg, cardio-vascular disease, breast cancer, Type II diabetes, joint degeneration, fertility problems and possible impaired foetal development resulting in increased risk of autism) have undoubtedly become a major health issue, both for the impaired lifestyles of individuals affected and the tax imposition on society as our healthcare system is burdened by the cost of ‘preventable lifestyle diseases’. Research has now shown that refined sugar and highly processed foods which contribute to obesity are also linked to ’brain shrinkage’. Individuals with Type II diabetes or blood with high sugar levels have been found to have this ‘brain atrophy’, which may also be linked to Alzheimers. Recent research has
revealed that babies of overweight or obese mothers are born with thickened walls in a major artery, the aorta, which is a sign of heart disease. Hence, these babies are born with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. These health problems have the potential to get worse, as indicated by reports that 60% of women of child bearing age in developed countries are overweight or obese and a British report on the health cost burden of individuals who are ‘super obese’, with a BMI of 50.
A major obstacle to addressing the problem is the psychological condition where the individual has a distorted view of their body image. This usually occurs with individuals with anorexia nervosa, who, when they look in the mirror, see a fat person. However, this condition also commonly occurs with obese individuals ‘in denial’ that they (and/or their children) are overweight. Instead, they consider themselves to be of ‘normal weight’. Perhaps with the high incidence of obesity - latest figures for Australia indicate that two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese – then being overweight has indeed become ‘normalised’.
Children are now being treated for obesity-related diseases generally associated with obese adults and degenerative diseases generally associated with old age. This includes ‘late onset’ (Type II) diabetes which is mainly associated with obesity, high cholesterol and heart disease, hip operations and removal of tonsils so they can breathe. Parents of obese children are often accused of ‘child abuse’ for over feeding their kids. The view has been expressed by health officials that Generation-Y could be named Generation-D, with one in three being predicted to develop obesity-related Type II diabetes.
Summing up these conditions is the concern that after medical advances have achieved longer life expectancy for successive generations, today’s children may be the first generation to not outlive their parents.
Note: Do NOT use food as a substitute for giving affection and comfort. If your kid needs comforting, then what is needed is a
hug and reassuring words. Never give food for emotional comfort – this is setting up a pattern of ‘comfort eating’ which generally leads to lifelong problems with obesity and yo-yo dieting. When carbohydrate foods (ie, anything ‘yummy’) are consumed, they release endorphins (ie, the body’s own analgesic hormone or neurotransmitter). This has a natural function of producing a feel good mood after eating an enjoyable meal that satisfies true hunger, but in emotional eating, it functions more as an emotional analgaesic. Never give food as a ‘reward’ – this is setting up potential problems of self sabotage in weight management. Instead, give your child calorie-free hugs and praise.
The term ‘comfort food’ is used to describe high calorie food in two different contexts. One is hot, warming food such as hearty soups, that are favoured in Winter. The other, of interest here, is the substitute for ‘emotional comfort’. Hollywood has turned ‘comfort eating’ into a cliché, with women typically responding to relationship breakups by going to bed with a box of tissues, a tub of ice cream and a spoon. However, the origins of emotional eating lie in our evolutionary biology but generally only become self defeating behaviours when learning is added, generally in childhood. During childhood, if the mother is not emotionally demonstrative or not good at providing comfort for her child when it is distressed, (or is otherwise occupied) then the child is likely to feel unloved, emotionally deprived, unsupported, alone and may even feel rejected. If instead of comforting words and a cuddle, the mother hands the child a high-calorie snack (eg, chocolate, biscuit) and the child receives some comfort from the endorphins released, the child learns lesson #1 - that food is a source of comfort. The mother, who may be busy juggling responsibilities or not good at giving comfort, also learns - that handing out a high-calorie snack is a successful way to pacify the child, congratulates herself on finding this successful trick, and continues to offer food whenever the child is upset. The child subsequently learns lesson #2 - that food is their only source of comfort. Food then becomes a substitute for nurturing and comfort. Unfortunately, the comfort from food is only transitory, requiring constant eating to provide ongoing comfort – which may lead to weight gain and also be a problem for attempts to lose weight. This ‘comfort eating’ will be represented in the subconscious mind as a Child Ego State who may feel unloved, unsupported, rejected and alone (and also with low Self Worth, feeling unworthy of love and comfort).
The value of chocolate for reward may also be learned in childhood if parents use high-calorie ‘treats’ to reward children for achievement or even just for ‘being good’. This will be reflected in a Child Ego State subconsciously influencing eating habits in the adult. Strictly speaking, eating for ‘pleasure’ (ie, dopamine release into the ‘pleasure centre’ in the brain) might not qualify as ‘emotional eating’. However, I suspect that where weight gain is a result, then some of the ‘food for reward’ situations in childhood may be more a substitute for affection and/or praise from parents, hence have elements of comfort eating (ie, opioid release) in later so-called ‘eating for pleasure’. Eating for pleasure (ie, dopamine release) may also aim to compensate for a life lacking in rewarding experiences. (See ‘Validation Hypothesis’ in “More Info”, for a discussion on the role of consuming food as an ‘artificial source’ of dopamine, rather than to meet nutritional needs of the body).
Sabotaging weight loss
When being overweight plays a 'protective role', there may be a subconscious resistance to weight loss efforts and any success is followed by putting the weight back on. An example of this is when a child has been sexually abused, engages in comfort eating, so by about puberty age has gained extra weight and notices that the perpetrator has lost interest. What the child 'learns subconsciously' is that being overweight discouages sexual interest by others. In therapy there are two issues that need addressing: the source of the 'need' for comfort eating and the subconscious 'saboteur'.
The question arises as to whether foods can be addictive and the implication this has for weight gain and hindering efforts to gain control and lose weight. Terminology commonly used to describe desire for consuming particular high-calorie foods
reflects an understanding that the experience has much in common with addiction to illicit drugs. For example, ‘chocoholic’, ‘chocolate craving’, ‘carbohydrate craving’, and ‘sugar hit’ imply, even if in jest, addiction-like behaviour. Given that foods which are frequently ‘craved’ tap into the same neurotransmitter systems associated with addiction to illicit drugs, the commonalities are plausibly real. How can foods be addictive when they do not contain psycho active substances or even if they do (eg, chocolate), these substances are in concentrations too low to be responsible for addiction? The fact that behaviour such as gambling and sex can become addictive without consumption of a substance suggests that consumption of a psycho-active substance is not necessary for addiction to develop. There may be a role played by the higher concentrations in high-calorie processed foods over-stimulating appetite regulation mechanism resulting in over-stimulation of the relevant
neurotransmitter (opioids and dopamine) release. The culprit generally considered to be implicated in addiction is dopamine
(reward or reinforcing hormone) released into the pleasure centre of the brain.
You may consider that you are not addicted to any particular type of food, but if you are unable to resist having a high calorie snack when you know you should resist it, then you are addicted. It could be said that society is addicted to the dopamine ’hit’ from ‘artificial sources’ of dopamine, such as highly palatable, high calorie food.This is characterised in television cooking shows where the emphasis is on getting away from natural food flavours and adding more and more flavours to boost palatability and enjoyment (ie, dopamine ‘hit’).
The principal function of food is to provide nourishment for the physical body. However, in the modern fast-paced life of materialism, consumerism, instant gratification and disposable sex partners, for many people, life is full of stress and pressure, but lacks meaning, satisfaction, rewarding activities or true human connection. Hence, through exploitation (of evolutionary biology and the involvement of dopamine and endorphins), the role of food in society has shifted to become a substitute (‘artificial source’ of dopamine) or principal source of nurturing and pleasure – both for giving and receiving.