Food & feelings Explore the mindbody connection
What drives a person to eat when the body doesn’t need food?
Linda Shumway managed her diet carefully during the day. She portioned food thoughtfully, read food labels and tracked carbohydrates. But at the end of the day, her stress set in. Four years after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, she began eating large quantities of Doritos, Cheezels and barbecue-flavoured potato chips at night. “When they were on sale, I stocked up,” she says. Eating crunchy, salty snacks made her feel special and kept her emotions at bay.
So she kept up the habit for more than a year, until she learned of the consequences. “I never realised the damage
I was doing until an annual blood test revealed kidney disease, stage 2,” says Shumway. “I now know emotions control my eating habits, and I’m determined to change my habits for the better.”
“Compulsive overeating is the ingestion of food beyond what is needed, against a conscious wish to stop,” explains J. Michael Gonzalez-Campoy, medical director and CEO of the Minnesota Center for Obesity, Metabolism and Endocrinology. People who compulsively overeat don’t just snack at night or eat more than their peers. Instead, they eat beyond a feeling of fullness, responding to stress and emotion rather than hunger.
HOW EMOTIONS ARE INVOLVED
Food provides a way to cope with emotional energy, says Ann Goebel-Fabbri, clinical psychologist and author of Prevention and Recovery from Eating Disorders in Type 1 Diabetes: Injecting Hope.
And overeating can develop into a comforting habit. She recalls how a client once told her, “Food has been my best hug.”
Emotional triggers for eating can be both positive and negative. They can run the gamut from sadness, loneliness and anger to joy and celebration, says Goebel-Fabbri. Stress related to work, family, finances and even vacations and holidays can find an outlet in food.
Negative emotions about the act of eating can also play a role. After overeating, shame can set in, says Gonzalez-Campoy. That can trigger further eating, launching a vicious cycle.
Food can also act as a rewarding relief after good behaviours. That’s why, for many people, the compulsion to overeat can arise at the end of the day, especially on days when they have carefully managed food intake. The urge usually sets in at home because it feels like a safe environment, says Gonzalez-Campoy.