There are many reasons why we gain and manage weight. Sometimes these reasons have to do with how we feel. Eating to feel better is commonly referred to as emotional eating – and it's the reason why we sometimes need psychological support rather than dietary advice.
Your body and mind are deeply connected. Just think about how your body immediately reacts when you get nervous or anxious: Your palms get sweaty, you feel thirsty, and you may have shortness of breath.
But what goes on inside your head can also have more long-term
effects. They can put you at more risk of developing health problems.
You can even experience emotional barriers to weight loss and be at a
higher risk of developing obesity. And so, it's important to be aware
that feelings play a big role in losing, gaining, and managing your
Emotional barriers to weight management: Eating to feel better
None of us can be light and happy all the time - it's natural to be sad, tired, angry, bored, anxious, or lonely. We all find different ways to deal with bad or uncomfortable feelings. For example, some may binge on a tv-series instead of getting the sleep they need. Others may turn to smoking, drinking, gambling, or shopping to cope.
Some people use food to deal with difficult situations and feelings when nothing else works. Overeating or eating tasty and energy-rich food can be a way to ease the pressure or distract yourself. Psychologists call this behaviour emotional eating. We all do it sometimes, and some of us do it more than others.
Stress and other negative feelings can make you turn to food as a
source of comfort. So can major life events like starting a family,
changing jobs, or moving home. Emotional eating might work and make
you feel better in the short term. But over time, it can become a
challenge of its own. And when you're trying to manage your weight,
eating can be one of the emotional barriers to weight loss or your obesity
Emotional barriers to weight management: The vicious cycle of emotional eating
Once the habit of emotional eating is formed, it can often take on a life of its own. Your emotions can also become so tied to your eating habits that you eat whenever you're stressed or sad without even thinking. Many emotional eaters say that it feels like any other addiction, like smoking.
This can create a vicious cycle. It starts when you eat to soothe your emotions, which brings about temporary relief. But afterward, you feel bad or ashamed for overeating – which starts the cycle all over again.
The cycle is also fuelled by the negative experiences that are common for people living with obesity. People living with obesity often feel rejected by society. They may also feel that they don't get the support or understanding they need from their family, friends, or doctors. Breaking the cycle of emotional eating and other emotional barriers to weight loss can be difficult under these conditions.
In this video, Audrey Roberts talks about the stigma she faces every
day as a person living with obesity.
Emotional barriers to weight management: Coping with trauma and pain
Emotional eating isn't only caused by the hassles of daily life. It may even be a response to early life events, such as childhood trauma.
This was true for Vicki Mooney, who turned to food to cope with growing up in a home with an abusive father. By the time she was 28, she weighed 180 kilograms.
“In order to deal with the trauma, I would have a bar of chocolate. I would go to my room and even though I was going through those emotions, feelings, and pain, I would eat my bar of chocolate and feel a bit of comfort,” she says.
You can find out more about Vicki's journey from comfort eater to
plus-size model here.
Find support for emotional barriers to weight management
Emotional eating can derail your efforts to lose or manage your weight. But, you can get back on track.
It might be reassuring to know that making even small changes to how you live and think can have a huge positive impact on your mental well-being. Sometimes we just need someone else’s point of view to see the changes we need to make – and how to make them. That person can be a friend, a family member, or a psychologist.
To lessen or stop emotional eating, you can start by looking at the source of your negative emotions. Sometimes, simply discovering what they are can be an important step in overcoming the emotional barriers to weight loss. A psychologist can guide you on this journey.
Another approach is to change the way you respond to your feelings. You can learn and practice strategies for managing stress and other emotional barriers to weight loss. If you need more support, behavioural therapy can help you understand and change unhealthy patterns of thinking, eating, and acting.
- Luppino FS et al. Overweight, Obesity, and Depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2010; 67:220–9.
- Freedhoff Y & Sharma AM. Best Weight – A practical guide to office-based obesity management. Canadian Obesity Network 2010.
- Forman E & Butryn M. Effective Weight Loss: An Acceptance-Based Behavioral Approach - Treatments That Work (Workbook Ed.). New York: Oxford University Press 2016.
- Luppino FS et al. Overweight, Obesity, and Depression. Arch Gen Psychiatry 2010; 67:220–229.
- Smith LH & Holm L. Obesity in a life-course perspective: An exploration of lay explanations of weight gain. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health 2011; 39:396–402.
- Nguyen-Rodriguez ST, Chou C, Unger JB & Spruijt-Metz D. BMI as a moderator of perceived stress and emotional eating in adolescents. Eating Behaviors 2008; 9:238–246.
- Rand K et al. It is not the diet; it is the mental part we need help with. A multilevel analysis of psychological, emotional, and social well-being in obesity. International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being 2017; 12:1-14.
- Gomez-Rubalcava S, Stabbert K & Phelan S. Behavioral Treatment of Obesity. In: Thomas A Wadden & George A Bray (eds.). Handbook of Obesity Treatment. New York: Guilford Press 2018.
Find your local obesity care provider
Talk to your obesity care provider about treatment options that could prevent the weight you lose from coming back.