People who eat in response to their emotional states find it particularly hard to lose weight, research finds.
Emotional eaters often agree with statements like:
- “When I feel lonely, I console myself by eating.”
- “While on a diet, if I eat a food that is not allowed, I often splurge and eat other high calorie foods.”
In contrast, people who eat mainly in response to external factors (like festive celebrations) find it easier to lose weight and keep it off.
Breaking the cycle of emotional eating involves identifying the feelings and situations that trigger eating and changing the habit.
The strategies that most psychologists recommend include cognitive therapy, mindfulness and problem-solving.
Dr Heather Niemeier, the study’s first author, explained:
“We found that the more people report eating in response to thoughts and feelings, such as, ‘when I feel lonely, I console myself by eating,’ the less weight they lost in a behavioral weight loss program.
In addition, amongst successful weight losers, those who report emotional eating are more likely to regain.”
In other words, emotional eaters are particularly susceptible to weight regain following weight loss.
Dr Niemeier said:
“Participants in behavioral weight loss programs lose an average of 10 percent of their body weight and these losses are associated with significant health benefits.
Unfortunately, the majority of participants return to their baseline weight within three to five years.”
The conclusions come from a study that looked at thousands of people trying to lose weight.
The results showed that it was critical how people’s eating was triggered.
Some people were triggered by external events and others by internal events.
Internal events include thoughts and emotions — what are commonly known as ’emotional eaters’.
Emotional eaters found it harder to lose weight and tended to put it on again later on.
Dr Niemeier said:
“Our results suggest that we need to pay more attention to eating triggered by emotions or thoughts as they clearly play a significant role in weight loss.”
Emotional eating patterns are often learnt in childhood.
Children given sweet treats as a reward can continue this habit in adulthood.
The problem with emotional eating is that once the pleasure of eating is over, the emotional hunger remains.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Obesity (Niemeier et al., 2007).