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Is ‘emotional eating’ always due to emotions?

Posted May 03 2011 6:29am

Some individuals have themselves down as ‘emotional eaters’. The idea here is that they sometimes feel driven to eat foods as a result of their emotional state. Usually, this is in response to ‘negative’ states such as stress, anxiety or sadness. In a moment, I’m going to suggest two approaches that, in my experience, can be highly effective for dissolving emotional eating effectively and quickly. Before that though, I wanted to explore for a moment whether emotional eating is always as emotional as we think it is…

Imagine someone suffers from a tendency to unstable blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels drop, biochemical and physiological changes occur in the body including the secretion of ‘stress’ hormones like adrenaline. The brain will also tend to increase its production of a substance called glutamate which has the capacity to increase anxiety.

Allied to any change in mood, low blood sugar levels can also provoke a craving for foods that replenish sugar quickly into the bloodstream such as chocolate, biscuits or bread. But here’s the question: what caused the food cravings – the person’s emotions, or the fact that they dropped their blood sugar level in the first place?

In my experience, many individuals who believe they have an ‘emotional eating’ problem appear to have nothing of the sort. How do I know this? Because, I’ve seen time and again that when an ‘emotional’ eater eats properly, and in particular stabilise their blood sugar level, their ‘emotional ‘eating’ just disappears. In many individuals, what appears to be a psychological issue is, in reality, physiological in nature.

This is not to say that emotional eating cannot happen – it most certainly can. For example, after repeated offering of sweet foods as a treat or pacifier in childhood it is undoubtedly possible for individuals to associate such foods with certain emotions. If that is genuinely the case for you, then taking a more mind-oriented approach may indeed help.

To understand how best to approach this sort of issue, it helps to understand a bit more about the mind. The brain can be thought of as having two major components: the conscious mind and the unconscious mind. The conscious mind is what, among other things, allows you to think about things and rationalise and work things out. While you’ve been reading this book, it’s likely that your conscious mind will have been quite active.

The unconscious mind, as its name suggests, controls unconscious thoughts and behaviours. Many emotional responses are seated here. An example is my spider phobia. I am afraid of spiders, even though I know that here in the UK they can’t hurt me in any meaningful way. In my unconscious mind I have associated spiders with some form of threat. And no amount of talking it through with a therapist or attempting to rationalise this in my own mind is unlikely to make much difference. Basically, taking a conscious approach to a problem that is unconscious is nature is of questionable value. It’s a bit like attempting to work on a problem with the engine of a car without first flipping the bonnet.

What this means is that for a genuine emotional eating issue we need to ‘flip the bonnet’ and get access to the unconscious mind. In my experience, two approaches that have considerable merit here are hypnotherapy and ‘emotional freedom technique’ (EFT). The latter can be learned and self-applied relatively easily, and plenty of resources regarding it are available on-line.

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