Food covers a large part of our quality of life and well-being, and that is why in recent years society has been paying more attention to the need to take care of itself in this aspect of daily life. However, gaining awareness about the importance of a need does not imply knowing how to take good care of it, and sometimes the remedy is worse than the disease: miraculous diets, excessive help, etc.
In the end, eating does not only involve introducing food into our bodies; it also includes our eating habits and the actions we take when we eat. This is why the concept of emotional eating has emerged to draw attention to the need to eat as the body really needs it.
Interview with Adrián Quevedo: how to understand what emotional eating is
Adrián Quevedo Rico is a General Health Psychologist based in Madrid and trained in sports psychology and conscious eating. In this interview he talks about what is emotional eating from his experience as a professional dedicated to helping people.
How would you define emotional eating?
First of all, I think it is important to emphasize that food and emotions go hand in hand, since food can generate the appearance of emotions and in turn emotions the appearance of hunger, so they are related to each other and many times not being aware of it takes away the possibility of choosing whether to eat a food or not.
I understand emotional eating as a way of feeding oneself to regulate some type of emotion, feeling, unpleasant or pleasant event that the person is experiencing. In the case that it produces relief or avoidance of the discomfort, there is a negative reinforcement of this behavior, while, on the other hand, successes or joys with food can also be positively reinforced.
Authors like Perpiña emphasize the emotional regulation of both pleasant and unpleasant emotions, and in Match research we found a difference between compulsive and emotional eating. In the compulsive form, it’s not so much the type of food that matters, but the amount, while in the emotional form, the type of food also becomes important, especially sweets and high-fat foods.
Now, this hunger or emotional eating has been criticized, judged, rejected and devalued, when apart from its “negative” polarity it has its “positive” or functional polarity. Eating a sweet when we have had a hard day, a piece of chocolate, a hot dish when we feel sad, a dish that comforts us… is also something functional and adaptive if it is done with awareness, not letting ourselves be carried away by automatic behaviour.
Punctually a food can comfort us, and that’s okay; the problem appears when that behavior becomes a pattern, it becomes automated and we lose control over it.
The difference between when we are aware of it and when we are not is whether we eat automatically and compulsively, or consciously. When we realize the food we are eating, perceiving its taste and its textures, we can do it in a relaxed way, choosing the amount we want to eat.
Therefore, emotional eating is neither negative nor positive per se, it simply fulfills a function. The way in which we develop this process in a conscious and voluntary way will depend on whether it benefits or harms us.
In your opinion, does it have to do with the poor ability to correctly identify the emotions that are being felt at each moment?
On the one hand, yes, but not exclusively. It is true that if we look at the scientific literature and clinical practice, we can see how one of the important factors that predispose to an ATT is low or deficient emotional intelligence, among many others.
When people feel an emotion, they feel it in their body, and from it a series of sensations are derived that our mind interprets and contextualizes. To identify an emotion the first step will be to bring our attention to the body and begin to observe and feel the signals it begins to send.
Every emotion is associated with a response pattern in our body, either by biology or by learning, that is, before experiencing the emotion fully, signals appear in our body, such as tension, hot and cold sensation, pressure, stress, distension, activation, deactivation, etc. It is important not to confuse this with value judgments about whether a sensation I like or dislike is pleasant or unpleasant.
These signals are indications of the appearance of an emotion, and to the extent that we know how to identify and interpret them, we can process them in our body, and come to contextualize in our mind what emotion it is, and listen to its message, the need it reflects.
Most of the time this task consists of identifying, digesting that emotion, allowing it to pass through our body, listening to it, accessing the need below… All emotions have a function, and to the extent that we allow them to be fulfilled and do not reject them, they will leave room for a new one, while if we reject them they will become a ball until they explode at the least thoughtful moment, or lead us into damaging patterns of emotional management.
How does emotional eating become a habit in our daily lives?
Eating is a habit that we do every day between 2 and 6 times, whose main function is to obtain the necessary nutrients for the proper functioning of our body and mind. Managing our emotions is another habit or process that we carry out every day, whose main functions are the adaptation to the environment, the communication towards outside and from inside, and to give us the necessary energy to pass to the action.
However, the process of eating also fulfils a hedonic or pleasure function, that is, eating something for the pleasure or reward we feel when eating it, even if it is not particularly nutritious. So it no longer has exclusively that survival value.
Habits give people structure, they fulfill a function, a purpose, and in this case, turning emotional eating into a habit is nothing more than an attempt to establish a structure and feel contained and sustained in our lives, within the discomfort we are experiencing.
The point is that as habits are placed on the neural highways of our brain, the more we repeat them, the more they tend to be activated in our lives automatically. Hence the feeling of not controlling what happens to us.
That is why when it comes to changing habits it is important that we do not just change and that is it, but develop a new perspective or a different way of relating to food.
Is it common for people to discover that they have a significant problem with this psychological phenomenon, and do they tend to go to therapy to solve it?
Today many people believe that they binge or eat emotionally at all times, because of lack of proper information, over-information on this topic, or because they have heard from other people who do not know what they are talking about. This generates guilt and negative judgments that go straight to our self-esteem.
If we look back 15 years, this is the time when food becomes a trend or a fashion. Miracle diets appear, it becomes fashionable to lose weight and that seems, in my opinion, to neuroticize some sectors of our population, identifying themselves totally with those values they transmit and letting themselves be carried away by that trend. They become obsessed with looking at everything they eat, how this affects their image, measuring what they eat, banning food, believing that weight (up to a certain limit) are the only indicators of health… obsessive checks in front of the mirror, the importance of the image of how people are, etc.
Yes, there are more and more people who, upon observing or feeling some discomfort with their relationship with their diet, take the step and go for a consultation. There are people who realize before and get to work to see what happens and others do it through reaching some limit of suffering and that’s when they seek help. In addition, nowadays, with the work of psychologists and nutritionists, all these types of eating processes and ATD can be approached from a broader and more multidisciplinary perspective.
Are there any marketing strategies that favour the generalisation of emotional eating?
Yes, marketing, advertising and the food industry have it well thought out. Firstly, we must separate food advertising towards young children and adults.
Children are more vulnerable than adults, and if we look at the strategies used by food marketing, we can gradually unravel their influence on our relationship with food. Very bright colours, large and striking letters, close and funny dolls, eye-catching packaging, we even see some social idol, sportsman or reference figure for the little ones promoting it too, even though we know that they would not eat it even from a distance.
On the part of the adults, the audience is appealed by different arguments, since it is healthier because it is reduced in the percentage of fat or has 0 added sugars (that, to understand us, means that it does not have more sugar than the food itself has, not that it does not have sugar), slogans like “adult pleasure”, “now with more chocolate/cream”, “ask for your extra for 1 euro more”, “uncover happiness”, indications like “100% integral”. ( and then we look at the ingredients and put whole wheat flour 20%), offers in 2×1 or ridiculous prices on food with nutrients and empty calories.
All this, added to the trends and eating fashions we were talking about before, gives rise to an obesogenic environment that favours this type of behaviour.
From your point of view as a professional, how do you intervene in therapy to help patients suffering from emotional eating?
As we have seen, eating is a complex process, which is related to emotions, pleasure, rewards, avoidance of discomfort, social, physiological, and goes beyond the simple fact of putting food in our mouths. The first thing to do would be to carry out an evaluation of the person’s life and its relationship with his or her food, in order to put it in context and have a starting point.
Generally, many people come to the consultation with a great deal of guilt, so it is essential to contextualize and work with them, to see that these behaviors are forms, ways or attempts to manage a situation that no longer serve them, and prefer to choose another more effective way to manage themselves.
Once we know what situation we are in, it will be important to work on and explore different aspects that may be influencing this process: thought management, emotional management, the perception of our image, the management of the environment and the obesogenic environment, the stimuli that may favour or activate this behaviour, the relationship with food, the learning of this person, strategies, etc.
Each person is a world, so it will be fundamental to work specifically on what that person brings to the consultation; we should not generalize when working with people, since each one has a very different reality.