Is “Emotional Overeating” Really Emotional?

By Jean Antonello, RN, BSN, obesity and eating disorders specialist and author of The Great Big Diet Lie, How to Become Naturally Thin® by Eating More, Breaking Out of Food Jail and Naturally Thin® Kids,

Primary overeating, like primary or essential hypertension, from which I borrowed the term, does not exist. Primary overeating—overeating in and of itself without an underlying physical cause—does not occur. There is always a reason for overeating or people wouldn’t do it, and the causative factor is almost always physical, although it is probably not obvious. The emotional side has been blamed much more often than it deserves. Diet literature often purports that people most commonly overeat because of stress and emotional problems. This is simply not true in my experience. So if you have labeled yourself an emotional or spiritual jellyfish, take heart. There are other, more concrete, logical reasons.

These logical reasons are right in your body, not your mind. They are physical and they make good sense once you become aware of them. People who are overweight often have emotional problems, but that is because they are human. The problems didn’t make them overeat and get fat, their bodies did. Oh, they all helped their poor bodies along the way by going hungry, eating lousy food, trying in the traditional way to lose weight, but their bodies did the overwhelming bulk of the work. I’ll explain.

The body’s normal, adaptive response to stress, including emotional stress, is to turn off the appetite, which causes a person to avoid eating. So, in the normal, well-fed body, the appetite is physiologically suppressed under stressful conditions. This is true of psychological or emotional stress too. The very thought of an upcoming performance or speech will stop the gastric juices fast while the heart skips a beat and a lump in the throat forces a dry swallow. This elimination of normal appetite under stress is transient and adaptive, promoting the body’s survival.

But what about overweight people? They often have the opposite reaction when something stressful happens. Why?

Overweight people are almost universally trying to avoid food at least some of the time. Almost every overweight person I have ever encountered was either consciously or unconsciously under eating in an attempt to control her weight. Most have been on structured diets. So, one can conclude, overweight people are hungry people. They almost always suffer from an exaggerated, under satisfied hunger because of their chronic attempts to ignore their appetites. Chronically hungry overweight people don’t experience the normal hunger suppression that usually comes with stress because of this exaggerated need for food. This need is physical, caused by their reckless eating (and under eating) habits.

Under the influence of stress, there are two sources of stress for these hungry under eaters. Whatever the acute stress, the chronic stress of under satisfied hunger is relievable. The body can eliminate the discomfort of such hunger by compelling the person to eat, often in excess of her immediate needs. It is her body’s physical need for compensatory eating that causes overeating. This is exactly what happens to the overweight person who is faced with stress plus chronic under satisfied hunger. The body fixes the hunger and copes the rest. As long as the person is on this cycle—under eating followed by over eating—she will likely overeat when under stress.

In summary, emotional and physical stress, without the ongoing presence of under satisfied hunger, does not normally cause overeating. Stress normally causes eating- avoidance, which naturally thin people experience. Obese people tend to experience just the opposite effect. They are more likely to overeat under stressful conditions because food represents a stress-relief to their bodies. Instead of the normal additive stress effect that it has on the hunger-satisfied thin, food offers irresistible relief to the over hungry.


Emotions That Do Cause Overeating

There is one emotion which has a universal effect on the eating behavior of many people, both overweight and normal weight. This emotion is often the most powerful force in keeping people on the Feast or Famine Cycle—under eating and over eating. It indirectly brings about overeating because it directly causes under eating and eating avoidance. This emotion is fear.

Fear and anxiety propel the vicious Feast or Famine Cycle. Fear keeps the hunger signals quiet. Fear of what? Fear of eating, because eating means gaining weight, losing control. Many people who have been trying to lose weight by dieting are convinced that eating—even the most healthful foods—makes them and keeps them fat. They are afraid of food and afraid to eat. They are anxious about eating a great deal of the time, whether dieting or not, whether it shows or not.

Overcoming this fear is no easy task. It is almost a phobia with some dieters, and certainly for anorectics. These people have the greatest obstacle to deal with in losing weight for good. People must learn to eat in order to recover from weight and eating problems.

Two other emotions contribute to overeating by propelling the Feast or Famine Cycle. Dieting, or going without food when you are hungry, is painful. This pain can be a form of self-punishment for people who feel guilty or ashamed. And what do overweight people feel guilty about? Their overeating, of course, not to mention all the “bad” things they choose to eat. And what do overweight people feel ashamed about? Their bodies, of course, and their inability to control their eating or lose weight, which everyone everywhere has always said they should be able to do with a little willpower.

So, shame and guilt indirectly set people up for overeating whenever a person tries to pay for her “sins” by the self-inflicted pain of unsatisfied hunger. Dieting serves an important emotional need in this way; fat people feel better about themselves when they are on a traditional diet (in pain) because of these emotions. Painful and extreme dieting temporarily relieves feelings of shame and guilt and overeating promotes these same feelings. It’s a vicious cycle.

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