Emotions are the stock-in-trade of psychologists and psychotherapists, but if your training and expertise is primarily to do with diet and nutrition, then being asked to help someone with their Emotional Eating may be something that feels scary.
As one colleague put it,
“I’m worried that I might dig something up then not know how to help them with it”
It is so important that you and I are aware of the scope and limits of our expertise – knowing the range of what we are qualified to do is a fundamental part of professional ethics. It’s essential we remember that.
Another side of the professional ethics coin is that we all need to continue developing our skills and keep up to date. If you’re working with people whose eating can be driven by emotions, and you want to learn more, I may be able to help you.
Why does Emotional Eating matter?
Katie McAtamney, a Ph.D. student at Birmingham City University is studying Emotional Eating. She found that whilst it often comes up in weight loss work, Emotional Eating can have negative psychological impacts irrespective of any influence on weight.
She also points out that Emotional Eating is associated with poor physical as well as poor psychological outcomes, so it’s clear that it really matters.
What are the root causes of Emotional Eating?
Perhaps the first point to note is that Emotional Eating is learned, not genetic. Herle et al (2017) showed this pretty convincingly.
The way it develops varies between people, but essentially it’s to do with difficulties around emotional regulation. When we turn to food in the face of particular feelings, we are eating emotionally rather than in response to hunger or other cues.
So how can I help my client who struggles to manage feelings without food?
- What you’ll be able to do is something gentle and practical rather than engaging with the underlying intensity
- Being able to notice and name the feeling is gentle but can produce real change in how the client experiences and responds
- What your client partly needs, is to help them move away from feelings of shame about using food to manage feelings
- If they need help to deal with or process underlying issues, refer on to a colleague who is trained to do this
Take the example of my own client, Lois
Lois came to see me because she had been gaining weight in the six months since her daughter had died after a short illness. Lois, a single parent, had nursed her, and memories of her daughter’s final weeks were very raw, as was the visceral pain of the loss.
Lois was in the throes of adjusting to suddenly living alone. My own expertise includes the treatment of psychological trauma, and Lois had experienced traumatic times during the final stages of the illness that killed her daughter, but was clear that she wasn’t looking for therapy at that point.
So instead of psychological therapy, we did what I described above – I asked if she could name the feeling that was around in the evenings when she found herself heading for the kitchen. She said she thought it was boredom during the hours after she came in from work.
We talked about what sorts of activities she had enjoyed in the past. Lois had always enjoyed crafting and decided that she would like to have a go at macramé, which she hadn’t tried before. She bought the materials and made a plan to have those ready to work with when she sat down in front of the TV.
Lois found that this made a difference – she felt creative and absorbed, and found that focusing on what she was making helped bring any thoughts of food that popped up back to the macramé and away from the kitchen.
There might be more than one emotion
A few weeks in, Lois noticed that on occasional evenings the macramé wasn’t really working for her, though she didn’t know why.
I asked her to think about the last time that happened and see if she could gauge whether there was any other feeling. Her hunch was that those nights, she was lonely.
So we talked about how macramé could help boredom but not loneliness, and she decided that if the macramé didn’t seem to be helping on any particular evening, she’d text or phone a friend.
The two strategies didn’t change her grief, but together they made a big change to her evenings. Lois felt more content, and more in control. She lost a stone over 3 months and has kept that off in the six years since.
Sign up for my Masterclass on Emotional Eating
I’m delighted that I can now unveil my new Emotional Eating Masterclass!
You are welcome to join if your work involves helping people change how they eat.
What you’ll learn
- some of the root causes of Emotional Eating
- the psychological processes involved in the development of emotional eating
- the meaning of alexithymia and its link with emotional eating
- specific, evidence based techniques you can use to help your clients reduce emotional eating
- how to identify red flags and when to refer on to other colleagues
If you’ve attended any of my training events before, you’ll know that my emphasis is on helping you as a fellow clinician to enhance your professional skills, using the most up-to-date research on the subject.
You’ll learn the key research findings and how you can communicate those to your clients, to help them and to strengthen your working relationship with them.
I’d love you to join us – here, you can sign up for the Masterclass and see what other training events are coming up.
Herle, M (2017) Emotional over- and under-eating in early childhood are learned not inherited. Nature Scientific Reports DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-09519-0
McAtamney, K et al (2021) Emotional eating during COVID-19 in the UK: Exploring the roles of alexithymia and emotion dysregulation. Appetite, 161
Photo by Tun Nie for Unsplash