Misunderstanding, lack of help and stigma affect people with emotional overeating issues finds a survey by Beat - the UK's leading eating disorder charity which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
Over 1,000 people across the UK responded to the survey and the findings were significant.
- 88% said their problems with food were related to emotional problems
- 73% who visited their GP said their emotional health wasn't investigated
- 92% said they'd like to lose weight
- 76% felt their self esteem was low
- 85% had a negative body image of themselves
- 79% felt under pressure from society to lose weight
- 53% suffered from depression
Amongst the responses to the survey: "I've spoken to several GPs over the last 16-17 years (which is how long I've been dealing with this). I've been told various unhelpful things from "you don't have an eating disorder if you're overweight", "just go for a jog", "all you need is a bit of discipline". I've never been taken seriously when I've said I'm out of control with my eating."
"As someone who has previously suffered from anorexia and bulimia, the attitude to people with binge eating is completely different. Instead of being empathetic and supportive, people assume that you are just greedy and lazy"
"People need to appreciate this is a devastating condition which affects every aspects of a person's life - I am not a stupid person - I know what I should be doing but am totally overwhelmed by my incapacity to process any excess of emotion other than using food"
"Anorexia and bulimia are recognised illnesses whereas overeating is seen as gluttony (the emotional aspect of it is little mentioned and barely understood). I am overwhelmed with guilt and self loathing for large periods of time which impact on my relationships with others. As an emotional binge eater my depression shows in my waistline which only serves to boost the feelings of worthlessness, failure and self loathing" said 44 yr old Sarah from Manchester.
Dr Andrew Hill Professor of Medical Psychology at Leeds University said "Emotions, mainly negative emotions, play a major role in unwanted and uncontrolled eating. Unhelpful relationships between food, eating, and mood can be longstanding and very difficult to change. They are also very difficult to talk to others about. For some people, recognizing the interplay between food and feelings is an important first step. Others require more specialist psychological support. Lifting the stigma of mental health is one of the challenges for our time. Understanding the role of food and eating in emotional health is part of this challenge, as is making opportunities for access to the varieties of helpful support available."
Beat Chief Executive Susan Ringwood: "We need to raise greater awareness that people with emotional issues around food need psychological support. We know from the daily contact our Helpline staff have talking to people in emotional distress they can't necessarily tell whether the person on the line is underweight or overweight because the way they talk about their emotions are so similar. They talk about the way they feel rather than their size.
"There is a significant proportion of those people who are overweight and who have an emotionally unhealthy relationship with food. They may need skilled psychological and emotional support to help them achieve and maintain a healthy weight and shape. It is this skilled support that is lacking. Being told to eat less and exercise more isn't an adequate answer. This survey demonstrates only too clearly that people struggling to overcome their overweight need better help and understanding - both from healthcare professionals and society in general."
Dr Maureen Baker, Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners said: "GPs are the health professionals most trusted by patients. We have a unique relationship with our patients and are trained to help them open up and discuss difficult issues, but this can take time and can often only be achieved after many consultations.
"Overeating remains a taboo subject for most people and the reasons for this are varied and complex. It is vital that mental health achieves the same attention as physical health and we need greater access to talking therapies so that patients can feel more confident and comfortable about discussing difficult issues affecting their lives."
Beat has Emotional Overeating support groups funded by the Department of Health across the Midlands and the east of England. The groups, facilitated by trained Beat volunteers provide an open and non-judgemental space for peer support between adults who either binge eat, compulsively overeat, feel they have emotional eating issues or are overweight, obese or struggling with their weight.
The charity is also launching online support groups on the 9th July.
Emotional Overeating Fact Box
- Emotional eating is often thought to be caused by an inability to distinguish physical hunger from unpleasant emotional states.
- There are a number of recognised differences between emotional and physical hunger. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly rather than gradually, is experienced as an inescapable craving rather than a hunger pang in the stomach, and feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly. It causes cravings of foods high in fat and sugar and is not satisfied once the person is full, leading to overeating to the point of discomfort. Emotional eating triggers feelings of guilt and shame which do not normally follow eating to satisfy physical hunger.
- Emotional overeating is a way of coping with or silencing a range of negative emotions. However, the feelings of guilt and shame which follow an episode of emotional overeating usually leave the person feeling worse rather than better.
- As overeating can cause weight gain, over time emotional overeating can lead to further difficulties such as greater dissatisfaction with body image and diminished self-esteem. Recent research suggests around 45% of people who are obese use food as a means of managing their emotions. (Buckroyd, J. & Rother, S. (2008) 'Psychological Group Treatment for Obese Women' in Buckroyd J. & Rother S. (Eds) Psychological Responses to Eating Disorders and Obesity: Recent and Innovative Work, Chichester, Wiley & Sons, 103-119.)
- There are a range of individual and group talking therapies which can help those who emotionally overeat to find healthier ways of coping with negative emotions. Beat's new Emotional Overeating Support Groups aim to provide a peer supported space for exploring and overcoming issues related to emotional overeating. Our many years' experience of running self-help and support groups has shown the emotional support helps service users engage with treatment; research has highlighted the usefulness of group support in the treatment of eating disorders (De la Rie et al, 2006).