How to identify when someone is at risk

At some point in our life, we have found ourselves eating when we’re not really hungry. Whether we are sad, anxious, or bored, food provides us with a sense of comfort when we’re feeling down. Many of us are unaware of the extent to which our feelings can influence our eating habits, even though emotional eating has become an increasingly common problem. Food can temporarily help to soothe or distract us; emotional eating may become a conditioned response to elevated stress or strong emotions. While we all enjoy the occasional binge now and then, emotional eating can lead to deeper problems if unrecognised.

Emotional eating, or stress eating, is characterised by the tendency or urge to eat large amounts (often comfort food) to manage stress or other negative emotions such as fear, guilt, sadness, loneliness, or boredom. A person’s physical hunger appears gradually and can wait to be satisfied. In contrast, an individual’s emotional hunger appears suddenly and requires to be satisfied instantly, often with foods high in fat, sugar, and carbohydrates. Researchers have found that people can gain and lose weight when stressed. 40% of those exposed to stress consume more calories, 20% consume fewer calories, and 20% consume no calories. It is thought that emotional eating is related to binge eating disorder, which is the most common eating disorder, but the symptoms of binge eating disorder are as follows: 

  • Recurrent episodes of binge eating. Both of the following characterise an episode of binge eating:
    • Eating, in a discrete period of time (for example, within any two-hour period), an amount of food that is definitely larger than most people would eat in a similar period of time under similar circumstances
    • A sense of lack of control over eating during the episode (for example, a feeling that one cannot stop eating or control what or how much one is eating)
  • The binge-eating episodes are associated with three (or more) of the following:
    • Eating much more rapidly than normal
    • Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
    • Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
    • Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating
    • Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed, or very guilty afterwards
  • Marked distress regarding binge eating is present
  • The binge eating occurs, on average, at least once a week for three months
  • The binge eating is not associated with the recurrent use of inappropriate compensatory behaviour (for example, purging) and does not occur exclusively during the course of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder

Even though emotional eating is not considered an eating disorder, it can be a sign a person is at risk. In the event a person who occasionally overeats as a means of coping with negative emotions begins binge-eating compulsively, an eating disorder can be diagnosed. Binge eating disorder differs from bulimia nervosa in that someone with binge eating does not purge, whereas someone with bulimia purges following the binge.

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