decorational arrow Psychology | 5 min. read

Feelings play a key role in managing weight

There are many reasons why we gain and lose weight. Sometimes these reasons have to do with how we feel. Eating to feel better is commonly referred to as emotional eating – and it is the reason why we sometimes need psychological support rather than dietary advice.

Our body and mind are deeply connected. Just think about how your body immediately reacts when you get nervous – your palms get sweaty and you feel thirsty. What goes on inside our head can also make us more at risk of developing health problems – we can even become more at risk of developing obesity.

"Some people use food to cope with difficult situations and soothe their feelings when nothing else works. This might work in the short term, but over time it can become a challenge of its own."

- Forman E & Butryn M. Effective Weight Loss: An Acceptance-Based Behavioral Approach - Treatments That Work.

None of us can be expected to feel light and happy all the time. So, we all find different ways to soothe our feelings. Some people binge on tv-series instead of getting the sleep they need. Other coping strategies may include smoking, drinking, gambling or shopping.

Some people use food to cope with difficult situations and soothe their feelings when nothing else works. This might work in the short term, but over time it can become a challenge of its own.

Psychologists call this behaviour emotional eating. We all do it sometimes –  some of us just more than others. Stress, depression and anxiety can all play a role. So can major life events like starting a family, changing jobs or moving home. Or even early life events such as childhood trauma.

Coping with trauma and pain

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.

Emotional eating can have many causes. For some, like Vicki, it is linked to severe emotional trauma and pain. But it’s not easy for everyone to link their emotional eating to an exact cause or life event. For some people, it’s stress that can bring it on.

The vicious cycle of emotional eating

Once the habit has been formed, it can often take on a life of its own. Many emotional eaters say that it feels like any other addiction, for example, smoking.

This can create a vicious cycle. It starts by eating to soothe emotions, which brings about a temporary relief. But then feeling ashamed for overeating – which starts the cycle all over again.

”In order to deal with the trauma I would have a bar of chocolate and feel a bit of comfort.”

-Vicki Mooney

The cycle is also fuelled by the negative experiences that are common for people who live with obesity. People with obesity often feel rejected by society, or feel that they do not receive the support or understanding that they need from their family, friends, or doctors.

Find the support you need

So, it might be reassuring to know that making even small changes to how we live and think can have a huge positive impact on our mental wellbeing. Sometimes we just need someone else’s point of view to help us notice what changes to make – and how to make them. That person can either be a friend, a family member, or a psychologist.

Sad woman sitting on the coach with a tissue in her hand and a professional making notes

One place to start, is to look at the source of our negative emotions. Sometimes, simply discovering what they are can be an important first step. A psychologist can help you on this journey.

"Fortunately, even small changes to how we live and think can have a huge positive impact on our mental wellbeing."

-Forman E & Butryn M. Effective Weight Loss: An Acceptance-Based Behavioral Approach - Treatments That Work.

Another approach is to change the way we respond to our feelings. In this case, behavioural therapy – which helps you to understand and modify your patterns of thinking, eating, and activity – has proven to be effective.

Not sure where to find help, or who to turn to? A great start is to contact your healthcare provider or another trusted healthcare providers.

References
  • 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.

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