We all know that obesity is considered a national epidemic in the US. What you may not know is what emotions have to do with obesity. For a few minutes, allow yourself to consider the following without judgment. Consider, if you will, that your experiences in life are but one among billions. Remember that each person’s behavior and choices are also impacted by his or her own unique genetic coding and experiences – generally much different than yours. Try to suspend any automatic objections based on how many people are able to overcome the odds and win the battle against obesity. Think of it as sensitivity training – an exercise in empathy.
The Early Childhood Connection
We learn several important things in infancy and early childhood that are imprinted on our psyches – our emotional DNA. One has to do with bonding and attachment, which teaches us from our very first days whether or not we can rely on other people to meet our physical and emotional needs. Those who are unable to get these needs met, whether due to problems with the child or the adults, learn that they have to self soothe in any way possible. Food is usually the only means they have of doing so. Eating becomes paired with self-soothing and lifelong pattern of emotional eating is set. It is important to note that our emotional experience of feeling soothed, satisfied and loved are also linked to feeding by adults.
For those who become fat as children, it can be very difficult to change the trajectory of their body size. This is only done when they grow up in families who teach them to use food in the proper ways by feeding them healthy foods in the proper quantities, monitoring and controlling their intake of junk food and most importantly, providing them with good emotional nutrition – soothe them when they need it and teach them how to soothe themselves by means other than food. Giving a child a popsicle when they get a scraped knee only reinforces the ‘food cures all’ mentality. Freud called this an oral fixation – this is often accompanied by an image of an infant (or adult) suckling a breast.
Some are able to break this habit of eating as a means of self-soothing. However, for many, what began as an infantile coping mechanism soon becomes a craving that can set in motion a cycle of addiction. The craving for food, usually specific foods such as dairy products, during times of emotional upset is as powerful in adulthood as in infancy. In many ways, as adults, we are still resorting to infantile behaviors to meet our emotional needs. Some begin to use other substances to meet these needs as adults. Alcohol, sex, tobacco, etc. offer temporary relief, distraction or chemical alterations in our brains. Many use food and these other substances. For those who began life as an overweight or obese child, dealing with specific cravings often means a lifelong struggle with food, other substances and weight.
Deprivation and Overindulgence
One of the greatest ironies about human behavior is that deprivation and overindulgence often result in similar outcomes. Children who grow up without enough – food, love, structure and safety – often fill the void with food once it is available. Some of these people become obese over time, but even those who do not may overeat or misuse food for emotional reasons. Recent information from the Food Research and Action Center cites several studies that suggest that food insecurity (people who do not have enough food to eat on a regular basis) and overweight and/or obesity coexist in as many as 1/3 of women. The results were mixed regarding food insecurity and children who are overweight or obese, but many studies cited a relationship, with some rates as high as 47% for girls. The emotional connection between satiety, or satisfying your hunger, and what we experience as happiness is very strong.
Among children who are overindulged (aka spoiled) with food, material goods and in many cases, being waited on by overly solicitous caretakers, the risk of obesity is also great. Often these kids have few limits imposed on them, including with food. They may not learn important cues related to hunger and satiety, and often eat when not hungry and/or beyond the point of being full. Again, a cycle of emotional eating is triggered. These kids do not learn to set limits for themselves, which can be very challenging to do as an adult.
Eating disorder treatment providers and support groups such as Overeaters Anonymous have recognized for decades that people who overeat are often craving something that food cannot provide – love, affection, belonging. For many, food offers a temporary reprieve in the absence of these needs. People often eat when they are depressed, eat when they are happy, eat to celebrate and eat to grieve – we eat to feel something or eat to feel numb. For those who learned that food equals love or began the cycle of eating for emotional reasons, obesity is often the result. Some foods offer a powerful sedating influence, specifically carbs. People who developed this addiction to carbs find it especially difficult to break the cycle.
Food addiction and emotional eating are complex. Add obesity to the mix and you have a very difficult problem to solve. When the obesity-related health conditions begin, and unfortunately they do unless you are a very physically active and/or healthy obese person, things get even more complicated. Begin with a complete physical to rule out any underlying medical problems. Find a competent mental health provider who specializes in obesity and overweight issues (they are much harder to find than other eating disorder providers). Work with your provider and his/her team to find the best approach to your specific problem. Stay with it, even when you don’t think you are making progress. Progress happens in your mind before it shows up on the scales.
Poskitt, Elizabeth, and Laurel Edmunds. Management of Childhood Obesity. New York: Cambridge, 2008.
"Relationship Between Hunger and Overweight or Obesity." Food Research and Action Center. Web. 28 Mar. 2014.