Emotional Eating and Body Image
Without Locking the Fridge: Emotional Eating and Weight Gain Are Not a Life Sentence
Food is, above all, a comfort. Many of us eat not only due to hunger, but because we are seeking pleasure or distraction – a moment of concentrated enjoyment to help us forget our worries. Few people, especially in the Western world, have not experienced the need for endless snacking that has nothing to do with hunger, and which can occur even after we have eaten a full and satisfying meal.
But often, this goes beyond mere snacking and becomes overeating, which leads to weight gain, harms physical health, and brings up negative emotions. Compulsive overeating, often referred to as emotional eating, is not related to physiological hunger. It can be conscious and intentional, but all too often it is caused by an uncontrollable urge.
Beyond the undesirable weight gain, compulsive overeating leads to feelings of guilt and regret, frustration and disappointment. These same negative emotions lead to more emotional eating that seeks to compensate for the psychological pain, creating a vicious circle.
People bounce from diet to diet, but the solution cannot be found in counting calories
Compulsive overeating is characterized not only by unwanted binges, but also by excessive preoccupation with food, diets, and weight, often to the point of obsession. People suffering from it think about food, about eating it or avoiding it, around the clock. They try one trendy diet after another, feel encouraged for a short while, and are disappointed time after time.
Eating occupies all the senses and thus, as we’ve said, diverts attention from psychological suffering. It serves as a momentary solution for boredom, feelings of emptiness, a need for distraction, emotional detachment from psychological pain or anxiety, a need that has not been met, or an urge to punish and harm the body. There are also cases where it provides a temporary and complete sense of control within an experience of helplessness.
Although many assume that negative body image is the result of compulsive overeating, in many cases body image is actually the cause of the disordered eating. Negative body image is a perception of the self that can originate in childhood, in the attitude of one’s parents or surroundings, or sometimes – but not always – in traumatic experiences.
Often it turns out that the solution to compulsive overeating is not related to counting calories at all, but to addressing the problem at its source, which may have been suppressed. In therapy we will shift the spotlight to the right area and help fill the psychological need so that the body will not have to compensate by consuming large quantities of food and sweets.
Leave Bingeing in the Past: Success Stories in Overcoming Overeating
A., 43, struggled with binge eating for years. In the home environment she grew up in, she absorbed criticism and abusive messages about her weight and the appearance of her body, and she felt lonely, unappreciated, and unloved. For her, food was compensation for feelings of emptiness and rejection.
For as long as she could remember, A. had tried endless diets that led to temporary success but a lasting sense of failure later on. In the course of my conversations with her, it emerged that she had absorbed a clear message regarding sexuality from her parents during her childhood and adolescence: it was a forbidden and dangerous world. Gradually, this unconscious message began to direct A. in her life. In therapy she discovered that she believed that losing weight and having a positive perception of herself and her body would turn her into an attractive woman who could then tempt and be tempted in turn. Treating this anxiety, alongside building a positive self-image, helped her balance her eating and weight.
D., 38, suffers from binge eating, especially during the evening hours. In therapy, it came up that he was struggling with feelings of detachment from his wife and that he was afraid to initiate intimacy with her – and that this was related to weight gain, a negative body image, and the fear of being rejected by his wife. Without understanding the connection between the two, D. had developed overeating as a protective barrier, especially in the late evening hours when he and his wife had time together – thus avoiding closeness and intimacy with her.
Therapy helped him reduce the anxiety surrounding relations with his wife and create intimacy between them, which significantly lessened his experience of loneliness. He learned to recognize his emotional triggers for eating, began to eat in an orderly and mindful manner, and developed respect for himself, his body, the act of eating, and physical activity. He has lately learned to peacefully accept the stumbles that inevitably occur during any process of change, discovering that these stumbles are not failures, but steps along the way.
The course of therapy includes:
- Deciphering the emotional source of disordered eating patterns
- Improving self-esteem and building a positive body image
- Finding genuine inner motivation for change, with an emphasis on the mental, nutritional, and physical aspects of this change
- Acquiring the skills needed for regulated and balanced eating
- Restoring a sense of control and enjoyment during eating
The goal of therapy is to bring about a holistic transformation: emotional, mental, and behavioral. Though this may seem impossible at first, it is evident that establishing a balanced and positive mental state, together with regulating eating habits and building motivation for physical activity, removes the psychological need to overeat, paving the way for weight loss.