Food for thought
Do you eat to live or live to eat? Do you turn to food when youíre depressed or anxious? If so, you could be jeopardising your mental and physical health, but there is a way out, and itís all about breaking the cycle of dependence.
Comfort eating, or overeating, is an extremely easy habit to form and a difficult one to break. Experts readily compare it to smoking and many of the same techniques are used to helping people to give up.
But while smoking may not be exactly natural, eating to soothe the spirit is something we learn from an early age. Dr Linda Blair, clinical psychologist at the University of Bath and specialist in comfort eating, points out that feeding a baby when it cries is a normal response. As children, we are given sweets to cheer us up or as rewards - is it any wonder then that when in need of relaxation or reassurance many of us turn to food?
Pinpointing the problem
The problem, as Dr Lynn Dunwoody of Ulster University - another comfort eating expert - points out, is that most people don't realise they are doing it.
"It's only when you go through what they eat item by item that it becomes clear that a lot of it is in-between meals," she says. "And it's not out of hunger, it's because they're bored or it's just a habit."
People who are stressed also tend to overeat because it helps them relax. Dr Dunwoody says stress can arise out of boredom, and can affect a variety of people with too much time on their hands, such as mothers whose are left at home after their kids have gone to school.
What makes overeating a problem, however, is that the majority of food consumed is high-calorie - crisps, cakes, chocolate, sweet things - causing people to put on weight. If they combine this with constantly drinking alcohol throughout the day, even in small amounts, they could develop diabetes, Dr Dunwoody says.
However, the main risks tend to be psychological. "When people get obese, they get teased," Dr Blair explains. "This causes a loss of confidence, making them feel vulnerable and so they eat more. You have to break that circle."
But how? Gillian Riley is a former overeater who used her experience to write two books - "Eating Less: Take Control of Overeating" and "Beating Overeating".
In both, she spells out the mind traps that overeaters can get stuck in and how to break free of them. "Focus on cause rather than effect," she advises. "Many people's preoccupation with weight loss means they stay focused on the effect of their problem - being overweight - and not the cause - overeating."
She also points out that viewing food in terms of what you can or can't eat - diets, for example - is ultimately damaging because it creates rules and makes eating a negative activity. This, she argues, will ultimately result in rebellion and the collapse of the entire system. Instead, temptation should be recognised and embraced, making it easier to overcome.
"Any habit can be unlearnt," says Dr Blair. "There are three ways to crack a habit: behaviour, logic or thought, and emotions. We leave the emotions alone. That leaves an outward approach - eliminating the opportunity - and an inward approach, such as building a negative association with certain types of food."
Changing the rules
She tells of the story of a devoted mother who ate sweets all day but was unable to get rid of them because her family objected. Instead, whenever she baked a cake, she would cut it up into pieces and freeze them individually. "Of course, she could still have unfrozen them all, but by introducing a delay, it slows you down and lets your will power take over," Dr Blair notes.
Another common approach is to link a certain food with a negative image, such as imagining chocolate turning into a flabby stomach. It won't stop people eating it but will give them a chance to stop and think.
Dr Dunwoody encourages people to keep a diary of everything they eat and write down why, whether it is because they are fed up or stressed or just hungry. By forcing people to review their eating habits, it becomes much easier to change them.
People trying to break any habit also need to be patient. "Many people expect to notice an effect straight away," Dr Blair continues. "But it takes a minimum of three weeks and more like six weeks before anything is noticeable."
But perhaps the most positive way of all to break a comfort eating habit is to replace it with a different activity. "People overeat when they are anxious. But anxiety is just a negative form of energy. So instead of eating, why not go for a run, or call friends or do some housework?" says Dr Blair.
Whichever way you look at it, continual overeating is going to do more harm than good, and is unlikely to help people come to terms with their anxieties. By breaking that habit, the cause of other problems may also be recognised, leaving the way clear for them to be tackled too.
British Psychological Society - www.bps.org.uk