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Have you ever devoured an entire pack of cookies during your favorite TV show and not realized it until you were grasping for one more, only to find there were none left. Been there, right? Most Americans admit to eating beyond the feelings of fullness, and research shows that 43 percent of people use food to alter their mood.
What is emotional eating?
Typically we think of emotional eating as an activity we engage in following an emotionally difficult event, a breakup, the death of a loved one or friend, or simply general exhaustion. People often believe that in such situations, eating will help soothe negative emotions.
But this isn’t the only kind of emotional eating. Emotional eating occurs whenever a person consumes large amounts of food in response to feelings other than hunger. Dietary experts believe that 75 percent of overeating is triggered by emotions. Other less obvious emotional eating situations include times of boredom, periods of relaxation, and social gatherings. For many, emotional eating can be a compelling and complex feeling of imprisonment, for which they seek therapy to break the spell food has over them.
Why do we overeat?
Emotional eating can range from eating despite a lack of hunger to an all-out binge where we lose control and use food as an escape, in a similar manner to how an alcoholic might drink.
The psychological reasoning behind this often depends largely on the individual. For instance, ‘boredom’ eating is common because boredom is an acute state, void of pleasure and stimuli, and eating is a way to satisfy the brain’s desire for activity. This can more positively be countered by calling a friend, reading a book, or simply by recognizing the boredom trigger. Some people experience an even further level of boredom known as anhedonia, which is a neurobiologically-based reduction in sensitivity to pleasurable experiences. This form of boredom makes satisfaction very difficult to attain and often leads to drug abuse, compulsive sexual activity, smoking, and of course, overeating. Eating is a quick way to satisfy the pleasure centers of our brain since we are naturally wired to enjoy food and culture has in many cases trained the brain to think of food as a reward.
What are the consequences?
The satisfaction obtained from food is short lived and the original underlying feeling often lingers. On top of this, there is probably a new feeling of guilt from overeating. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that overeating can lead to weight gain, and those who suffer from depression, anxiety, or any sort of mood disorder have a higher likelihood of chronic emotional eating, potentially leading to weight problems. In some cases this can swing the other way and fuel an eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia.