The relationship between emotions and obesity
Learning to detect and control emotional hunger is essential to achieve and maintain optimal weight.
The World Health Organisation warns that worldwide obesity rates have tripled since 1975. Moreover, according to the latest Nutritional Study of the Spanish Population (ENPE), more than half of Spaniards are obese or overweight. This has a direct impact on both quality of life and the increase of risk factors for many non-communicable diseases, including heart disease, hypertension, stroke and type 2 diabetes.
World Obesity Day is celebrated on 12 November to raise awareness that a healthy, energetic and balanced diet and daily physical activity are essential tools for fighting this global pandemic. Sedentary lifestyles and a diet rich in processed foods, sugars and saturated fats are the main causes, but emotional management also plays a decisive role. Which is why SHA’s weight control programmes are not only limited to personalised diet and physical exercise plans, but also include mindful and emotional eating sessions.
Eating is a basic need and a source of pleasure, but it can also become an escape route from situations that cause discomfort, anxiety, depression, stress, fear or uncertainty. For this reason, cases of emotional eating grew exponentially during the lockdown. Unable to leave the house, people sought immediate satisfaction in food, for example, by making a cake or a pie. As Cinthya Molina, psychologist at SHA Wellness Clinic, tells us, “emotional eating is eating large amounts of food in response to our emotions rather than the purely physiological need for hunger. It is the direct connection between mood and eating”. The first step to avoiding emotional eating is learning how to recognise it. Cinthya explains that “physical hunger is accompanied by very specific sensations, such as an empty stomach or a lack of energy, it usually starts four to five hours after the last meal and, once we start to feel it, we are able to wait and we can eat any food. On the other hand, emotional hunger doesn’t consider the time between meals, is usually preceded by thoughts focused on the search for pleasure or to avoid discomfort and by phrases like ‘I deserve it’ or ‘I need it’. Moreover, we don’t want a salad when we’re emotionally hungry: we want fats, carbohydrates and sugars, which are the foods that have historically helped us to survive and which the body demands because it feels better with them and the dopamine and pleasure hormones they generate”.
However, the search for comfort in food is only a symptom of inadequate emotional management. That is why Cinthya invites us to practice mindful eating. “Mindful eating is the ability to eat mindfully and attend to the needs of the body and mind. The first step is to be aware, that is, to be conscious of what we eat and in what quantities. Then, eat like a food critic, what I call the gourmet experience: sit at the table with no distracting elements around you, enjoy the colours, smells and textures of the food, taste it and try to identify what ingredients are in it and how they are cooked. Finally, eat slowly and chew your food well because it takes 20 minutes for your brain to tell your body that you’re full.”
In short, working on emotions and learning new ways to manage them is essential when it comes to stop seeing food as an emotional refuge and for it once again to be a source of pleasure and a cornerstone of optimal physical and mental health.