Eating in response to emotions and stress has been linked to being overweight for decades. The implication: People who haven't learned traditional coping skills are more likely to engage in emotional eating, which then leads to overweight or obesity. Some experts now suggest this link may not be so clear-cut.
Regardless of how emotional eating begins, recognizing the signs and developing a new approach to eating are essential skills that are necessary to build a healthier relationship with food and with yourself.
Much of the research on emotional eating focuses on poor coping skills. In a study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association in 2008, participants who said they were most likely to eat in response to their emotions (and least confident about being able to control their eating) were over 13 times more likely to be overweight or obese than those participants who reported the least emotional eating.
In the study, the participants' perceptions of their ability to cope with emotions and stress were strongly linked to excess weight. The inadequate coping skills included lack of strategies to change stressful situations and manage emotions.
Although people who engage in emotional eating may not face more stressful events than others, they often perceive situations as more stressful. While some researchers ascribe this to their poor coping skills, others note that the perception of stress depends on how much someone thinks is at stake. For example, people who feel a greater need to please people or to do things perfectly might find obstacles more stressful than those who do not have perfectionist tendencies.
Yet some researchers and therapists contest the very idea that emotional eating causes becoming overweight. For many overweight people, they argue, emotional eating results from the hunger and sense of deprivation that is caused by chronic dieting. According to the theory, when a dieter's tight self-restraint breaks down as a result of stress, she often makes food choices that offer short-term gratification and relief from emotions, despite negative long-term physical and emotional results. Accordingly, supporters of this hypothesis note, overweight people who are not chronic dieters and do not practice unyielding self-restraint, do not respond to stress by eating.
Avoiding or ending emotional eating may require developing adaptive coping skills and creating stable eating habits to meet nutritional and hunger needs without fostering a sense of deprivation. Taking a class or reading a self-help book on problem-solving or stress-avoidance may work for some people, while others may find meeting face-to-face with a registered dietitian more helpful. Some emotional eaters may also wish to seek help from a mental health professional to develop effective solutions for dealing with stress and eating.
A review of studies that looked at factors affecting successful weight loss and weight maintenance found that success was not only affected by an individual's social supports and stress-coping strategies, but was also impacted by establishing a physically active lifestyle and a regular meal rhythm that included breakfast.
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In the end, key factors in helping people establish a more healthful relationship with food include: Eating regularly throughout the day when hungry and stopping when hunger ends; choosing healthful foods that promote sustained energy most of the time, while allowing an occasional treat to avoid feeling deprived; enjoying some kind of physical activity for at least an hour each day.