EXPERTS BELIEVE THAT BINGE-EATING IS NOT WHAT YOU’RE EATING AS MUCH AS WHAT’S EATING YOU.
Everyone knows that smart nutrition and exercise are important factors of weight control, overall health and ways to avoid obesity. You’ve heard this at least a thousand times.
Yet perfectly intelligent, educated, accomplished people who understand the connection are seemingly unable to put that knowledge to good use. Excess weight and obesity skew toward lower education and economic levels, yet there still are historically high rates among well-educated, well-paid people as well. There seems to be more to this than understanding the math of calories in/calories out.
Indeed, addiction therapist Janet Greeson, Ph.D., authored the book It’s Not What You’re Eating, It’s What’s Eating You in the early 1990s, kicking off a deeper understanding of why we eat too much. The idea of food addiction became part of the collective consciousness, and subsequent books and weight loss programs have been built around this idea, and many a guru has built his or her life around it as well.
So what are those psychological drivers? And can they be overcome, enough to better manage (i.e., lose) weight?
What is driving the overeating?
We searched out the most current thinking on this topic and tapped into a few experts who work with individuals battling food addictions. Emotional eating consultants Roy Nelson and Tricia Greaves (healyourhunger.com) have built their entire practice around the emotional factors of overeating. Says Greaves of her own journey with excess weight, “My hunger — especially for the ooey, gooey, chewy foods that were my staple when no one was watching — wasn’t a physical hunger. Every day I lived with a gnawing, gaping, yawn of a hole inside that was screaming to be filled. I had a hunger much deeper that no pastry, doughnut or plate of pasta could satisfy.”
Nelson and Greaves’ products get rave reviews from their consumers. (Note: no books or products were purchased by this writer for this story — to do so might require a second mortgage). One said, “I observed my eating, grazing, snacking behavior … as incentives, rewards, accompaniments, compensations, comfort, stress relief, boredom management.”
Karen Koenig, a licensed clinical social worker with a master’s degree in education, has authored four books on the emotional components of food (Nice Girls Finish Fat, The Rules of “Normal” Eating, The Food and Feelings Workbookand a professional tome, What Every Therapist Needs to Know about Treating Eating and Weight Issues). Like almost all therapists and authors believing in the concept of emotional eating, she speaks of her own recovery from chronic dieting and bingeing.
Clinical psychologist and writer Patricia A. Farrell, whose dissertation was in binge eating in women over age 30, observes from her own practice that boredom, behavior reactions to stress and self-medication are key factors in weight gain. “If [self-medication] seems loopy, consider that there is such a thing as CCO, carbohydrate craving obesity, where carbs break down into substances that actually ‘treat’ depression and anxiety by producing tryptophan, a natural substance that combats depression. Diets don’t work because the miracle diet or pill hasn’t yet tackled the problem of stress and its relationship to obesity.”
Farrell points out not only how economic stress adds to this, but also that less disposable income translates into cheaper, carbohydrate-rich foods, “which really are the ‘comfort food’ that we need to make us feel better. It’s not all in the palate, but in the brain.”
Is childhood abuse a factor in obesity and eating disorders?
Several therapists suggest that childhood sexual abuse plays a role in a segment of the overweight population. No one claims it is the sole cause, but there is scholarly research that suggests it could be a factor.
A study conducted at Yale University School of Medicine (C. M. Grilo et al., “Childhood Psychological, Physical, and Sexual Maltreatment in Outpatients with Binge Eating Disorder: Frequency and Associations with Gender, Obesity, and Eating-Related Psychopathology,” Obesity Research, May 2001) found that among 145 patients with binge-eating disorder, 83 percent reported some degree of childhood maltreatment. Thirty percent said they suffered sexual abuse, 36 percent physical abuse and 59 percent emotional abuse. High rates of emotional neglect (69 percent) and physical neglect (49 percent) were reported as well. While emotions as causative factors are more often associated with women than men, in this study sexual abuse in men was associated with greater body dissatisfaction than among women.
Several additional studies report similar findings. Some therapists we spoke with suggest that memories of this abuse are often repressed or occurred before memories could be formed, such as in the first year of life.
How emotional factors involved in overeating can be addressed
Because emotional factors are individual and complex, few can expect to solve these problems by reading an article here and there. But simply knowing such factors could be at play is a big start. The therapists we corresponded with offered several points to consider and suggested approaches.
Koenig employs a cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) approach to changing how people think and act around food. She says there are two components to the diet/overeating cycle. One is that people simply fatigue of self-denial, because they miss the foods they used to indulge in. Second, there is for many a fear of looking too attractive or sexual, of the hard work involved in avoiding favorite foods, of not having the emotional crutch of food, or of feeling undeserving of success and happiness. She also thinks it is important for everyone — dieters, doctors and well-meaning friends — to avoid oversimplification of the problem.
“The subject of why, what and how much we eat is enormously complex,” Koenig says on her Web site. “[It] involves genetics, hormones, brain chemistry, self-esteem, relationship dynamics, learned behaviors, mood disorders, stress and trauma, among other factors.”
Using the high of carbohydrates can be curbed with smaller portions, suggests Farrell. Regarding the use of carbohydrates to “raise mood and create a feeling of calm,” she says, “a little carbohydrates can satisfy the hunger for them. You don’t have to eliminate them completely. Tiny bits can be therapeutic, too.” She also recommends relaxation breathing, muscle tensioning exercises (contractions alternating with relaxation), and “watching funny DVDs … delegate duties to others and take time out for fun.”
Yes, she said “exercise.” But not for a strict “calories-out” effect — rather just to unleash feel-good vibes that overcome the negative hormones associated with pent-up stress.
Therapy of all kinds is largely recommended. Some suggest the sometimes-controversial approaches to unveiling repressed memories of childhood trauma.
Seth-Deborah Roth, a clinical hypnotherapist and registered nurse, works with hypnotherapy “to facilitate the release of old negative emotions (usually events of emotional pain that have not been dealt with). It is like a wound that is left to fester instead of cleaning it up and moving on.”
The bottom line seems to be there are no easy solutions. But approaching it outside of the simple construct of diet and exercise could establish a more meaningful basis to weight management — changing the dynamic enough to approach healthier living with a completely different mindset.