Health: Escaping cycle of emotional overeating

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Expert Dr Jane McCartney shows Kate Whiting how to give up the comfort foods.

I’m an emotional overeater. There, I’ve admitted it. When I get stressed, I reach for the nearest sugary treat, and shovel it into my mouth.

In psychological terms, this is a Displacement Activity, something that puts off the inevitable.

I’m not alone. Some 1.3m of us in the UK are comfort eaters and it’s become so common that in October last year, doctors in America gave it a new classification – binge eating disorder.

In a world where obesity is now a major strain on medical resources, comfort eating, overeating or binge eating is a big issue.

Dr Jane McCartney, a chartered psychologist and author of Stop Overeating: The 28-day Plan To End Emotional Eating, knows only too well “the emotional pitfalls, the irritations and highs and lows” of trying - and failing - to lose weight.

She became a comfort eater in her early teens as a way of rebelling against her dad’s draconian no-snacking rule.

“The moment I got that tiny little bit of freedom from my first job, I just ate all the things I wasn’t allowed: chocolates, milkshakes and things like that. The more independent I got, the more I put on weight,” she said.

“It’s often down to formative relationships with parents and siblings and poor current relationships with partners or family. Sometimes people are stressed, anxious and depressed because of the relationship they have with their own children.”

Many emotional eaters will snack in secret, too embarrassed to be seen eating by others.

“There’s a lot of secret eating that goes on, which then adds to the shame and guilt and humiliation about the eating, so these poor people seem to go round in massive circles all the time.”

In her book and therapy sessions, Dr McCartney gets overeaters to think about the chain of events that happens each time they’re in a distressing situation. The ‘emotional trigger’ can be something small like thinking a colleague has just blanked you.

Then she encourages people to identify the emotions they’re experiencing, rather than automatically reaching for the nearest morsel of food to make them feel better. Dr McCartney advises me to take 10 minutes after something triggers me to eat, to see if the emotions will subside.

“Think of it like a wave and the peak of the wave is the peak of you wanting to eat. Give yourself 10 minutes and if you still feel like you really want to eat, make an adult agreement with yourself and say, ‘Yes, I can have some’. Think about what’s going on and what’s driving [the impulse] and take the opportunity to think about the longer-term issues too.

“Going completely cold turkey can make us feel miserable, so try to think of alternatives you can have like a handful of raisins or some fruit.

“It’s about being your best advocate, but it’s going to be difficult.

“I’d love to wave a magic wand for everybody, including myself and make it not so difficult, but it’s hard denying yourself nice things you’re used to having. We’re all pre-programmed to like sweet things that are fatty.”

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