Are you an emotional eater, mom?


Every few years yet another new diet appears on the scene that everyone is convinced is going to work for them. From cabbage soup to Atkins, there’s no doubt that many of them work, but for some people it’s just a short reprieve before the weight piles back on again.

Giving up eating so much is like clearing other addictions such as smoking or alcohol – there is clearly an emotional need and unless it is addressed it isn’t going to be possible to keep the weight off permanently.

A weighty matter

Sixty-one percent of South Africans are overweight or obese, according to a 2010 study done by pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Smith Kline, and 17 percent of our children under nine worryingly overweight. Furthermore, a whopping 1.6 billion people around the world are overweight, making it clear that something needs to be done.

Especially when you take into consideration that 78 percent of the obese people interviewed in the study consider themselves to be healthy or somewhat healthy. A twisted self-image that has us fast approaching the USA and UK as one of the fattest nations on earth.

Read: Are you ashamed of your post-baby body?

So why? Emotional eating is a relatively new term coined to emphasise that eating too much doesn’t happen by accident. Behind most large people are a range of negative emotions – self-disgust, loathing, wretchedness, feelings of rejection, feeling unloved and ugly, and a sense of despair.

Hypnotherapist Tricia Woolfrey claims,”‘Most people who are overweight use food to fulfil their basic need for love and acceptance. The more they eat the more dejected they become as they are eating because they are angry, or they are stuffing down feelings they don’t want to face.

They may eat to hurt themselves or as a kind of medication for hurt feelings. But there’s no lasting fulfilment in food and after they’ve eaten they don’t feel any better.”

The root of the problem

Frequently the issues with food start in childhood. Let’s face it, many of us have issues relating to how we see food that are rooted in our childhoods and a lot of parents use some ploys to get their children to eat – who hasn’t been guilty of rewarding their kids with chocolate when they do something good?

The kind of behaviour that can result in emotional issues around food are:

  • Parents using food as a punishment.
  • Parents using food as a reward.
  • Disharmony at the dinner table between children and adults or between parents.
  • Emotional difficulties in childhood concerning divorce or relationships, the death of someone close, bullying and much more.
  • Being told to eat up everything because of the “starving people in Africa”.

“Comments about feeding the starving people in Africa or India are completely irrelevant because the food we leave won’t get to them, but it can do immense harm,” says Bar Hewlett, a cognitive behaviour therapist with Lighter Life.

Also read: Wanting a boy, having a girl

“I liken food to other addictions like alcohol, but people don’t often recognise this. Some people say that they need a cigarette or a drink to make them feel better but, with the exception of chocolate, they don’t always say this about food.

“With emotional eating, the rational you has gone awry and you eat things that you may not even want instead of something healthy. It hasn’t got anything to do with hunger.

“Parents often manipulate their children – ‘You’ll eat it if you love me. I’ve spent a lot of time preparing this food!’ or, ‘What a good girl – you’ve cleared your plate.’ Some mothers even give a lot of food to their children to make up for the love they are unable to offer. Consequently the child learns if they want love from their parent they will have to put up with food so they transfer their feelings on to the food.

“When someone is ill they often tell you what they want to eat – it’s usually what their mother gave them when they were sick as it brings them comfort. Similarly when people are unhappy they go back to the food they liked as a child – sweets, chocolate or whatever it may be.”

Ways of change

Cognitive behaviour therapy can go a long way to rewire your emotional approach to food. With cognitive behaviour therapy, you identify the thought and behaviour patterns that lead to certain actions, and learn how to alter them.

There are still various ways of changing behaviour patterns and if someone is put into a hypnotic state of deep relaxation they are able to accept and respond to suggestions. “It is as if they are on autopilot,” explains hypnotherapist Jose Penrose. Jose helps people with weight problems at her UK clinic.

“My sessions last an hour and we spend 20 to 40 minutes discussing the issues around the person’s weight problem.” Once she has gathered all the facts she puts them under hypnosis to help them to change their behaviour – be it bingeing or snacking all the time.

“Many people’s weight is bound up with their self-esteem, particularly if they are yo-yo dieting and never achieving any lasting weight loss. Often they think, ‘People don’t fancy me so why bother?’” Jose adds.

Good read: Breastfeeding benefits... for you

The big picture

Carole Gaskell is a life coach who doesn’t specifically deal with weight problems, but who believes that often the issue is obvious in every aspect of a person’s life. “They may have a body size which is unnatural to them and causes them to lack energy.

“People who consult a life coach are looking to move forward in life and this affects everything including their weight. We discuss what they can let go of and the physical things they can do to lose weight, which may well relate to their relationships or work.”

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