Q: Some days I feel like eating every piece of food that’s in front of me. I sneak to the store by myself and eat in my car. I sneak food from the kitchen after my family is asleep. Sometimes I look frantically for some type of food without really knowing why, or what exactly I’m looking for. I justify my extra eating by telling myself that it’s OK this once, that I deserve this. Snacking and munching on food makes me feel good and relieved in some way at the time. I forget about my stress. But after the eating is finished, I still feel stressed and sometimes worse about myself than before. So then I eat something else, like cookies and bread with jam. It seems that I can’t stop eating until I feel so full and guilty. Why do I keep doing this? Why does it feel so good while I’m eating and then terrible afterwards?
A: Eating can be categorized in two ways: One driven by biological hunger (sometimes referred to as stomach hunger), and one driven by psychological hunger (sometimes referred to as mouth hunger). The first type generally is related to the body’s need for fuel to sustain life and functioning. The second type is related to the human need for stress relief, comfort, safety, love and nurturing.
Needless to say life is full of stressors — family and work responsibilities, deadlines, financial pressures, relationship challenges and internal pressures (e.g., feelings of guilt, anxiety). For some people, even minor stressors can lead to overeating when they feel upset or overwhelmed.
Eating certain types of food can calm and sooth emotions and thoughts for many people.
Foods high in simple carbohydrates (e.g., highly processed: sweet desserts, white flour pasta with creamy sauces) and fat are often those used to comfort and ease distress, hence the term comfort foods. Though, sometimes people eat those foods just because they enjoy the taste. Cravings for comfort foods have also been linked with biological functions (brain and body) that are involved in stress (e.g., chemicals of mood regulation, other hormone fluctuations), as well as other psychological factors (e.g., negative self thoughts, shame, guilt).
Sometimes eating for comfort and stress relief is referred to as emotional eating or stress eating. Eating for comfort can relieve psychological hunger by changing pleasant or unpleasant feelings and sensations. For instance, increasing, positive feelings/emotions (e.g., happiness, excitement/surprise), decreasing or eliminating negative feelings/emotions (e.g., worry, negative self thoughts, guilt), and increasing a sense of relief (e.g. calm, content).
The good feelings and positive experience that occur while eating can lead to not wanting to stop and longer and longer periods of eating over time. Some people describe that while eating, they feel removed from their stress, numbed out, blissful and out of touch with time and other events going on around them. The need to feel and taste food in the mouth can be very powerful and make it difficult to stop eating even when excessively full.
For some people, emotional eating becomes a problem, as they find themselves repeating over and over the same pattern: Stress. Need for comfort and relief. Eat. Feel better/good. Positive feeling subsides. Feel guilt. Stress, intense emotions, and negative thoughts result. Need for soothing, comfort and relief. Eat, and feel temporary relief. More, guilt, and weight gain (stress). The cycle repeats.
There are many reasons why people develop this type of relationship with food and find themselves feeling trapped in what seems like an unsolvable cycle. For some, emotional eating is not a major problem, as they do it only occasionally and to a lesser extent. For others, emotional eating becomes compulsive eating and is potentially more serious. It may become a chronic problem that can develop into binge eating disorder.
If you are in doubt as to whether you have a more serious problem, the following brief checklist of common behaviours associated with compulsive eating may help you decide if you should seek additional help and support. It is not intended to be a diagnostic tool or to replace the advice of a medical or mental health professional.
Do You: Feel lack of control over food while you are eating? Eat very quickly? Eat until you feel very uncomfortably full? Eat large amounts of food when you are not physically hungry? Eat alone because you are embarrassed about what or how much you are eating? Feel very guilty, depressed or disgusted with yourself after overeating? Plan secret over-indulgences in advance? Feel excited when thinking about time alone with food? Hide the evidence of your overeating and keep secret your eating? Get strong cravings for specific foods? Feel better, even temporarily, during or immediately after eating? Feel annoyed, hurt and trapped when others suggest that you use willpower or confront you about your eating? Eat to escape distress, worry and other negative experiences?
If you answered yes to three or more of the above questions and your binge eating episodes have occurred, on average, at least two days a week for the past six months, you are likely eating compulsively. If you engage in these behaviours and purge, fast or use excessive exercise to control your weight, please seek medical attention from your doctor and inform him/her of your problem.
For counselling and therapy for compulsive eating/binge eating, please contact Pacific Therapy and Consulting at 250-338-2700.
If you would like to ask a question of the counsellors, for a response in future columns, e-mail them at email@example.com. Consult a Counsellor is provided by the registered clinical counsellors at Pacific Therapy & Consulting: Nancy Bock, Diane Davies, Leslie Wells, Andrew Lochhead and Karen Turner. It appears every second Friday.