Poll: Is obesity a lifestyle choice like Katie Hopkins claims or is over-eating a disorder as dangerous as anorexia and bulimia?

Yvonne Green has started a group for emotional over eating.Yvonne Green and Beat project officer Rac

Yvonne Green has started a group for emotional over eating.Yvonne Green and Beat project officer Rachel Morris. - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

Ex-Apprentice contestant Katie Hopkins’ rant that overweight people should ‘stop blaming everyone else for problems they can control’ isn’t the kind of thing sufferers of an eating disorder need to hear. Sheena Grant reports.

Colin Howey

Colin Howey - Credit: Archant � 2013

For Sarah and others like her, eating too much isn’t a choice. It’s a compulsion.

The 44-year-old suffers from emotional over-eating, a distressing but little understood condition that experts say is every bit an eating disorder as bulimia or anorexia.

Emotional over-eating is comfort eating taken to extremes. It’s a way of coping with stress or negative feelings that can descend into binge-eating ? taking over lives, leading to obesity, feelings of guilt and self-loathing.

Yet, according to sufferers, it’s often dismissed as gluttony or a lack of self-control, even by some in the medical profession.


- Credit: Getty Images

That’s something the Norfolk-based eating disorders charity Beat is trying to change. It has launched self-help groups in Bury St Edmunds and Ipswich where those affected can share their experiences and perhaps find strategies to help address their behaviour around food.

The charity, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, has also conducted a survey of the experiences of people affected by emotional over-eating. It’s revealed a litany of misunderstanding, lack of help and stigma.

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Sarah was one of those who responded. She detailed how a succession of GPs over 16-17 years had told her a range of unhelpful things, from “just go for a jog” to “all you need is a bit of discipline”.

But Sarah and others know it’s not nearly as simple as that.

“This is a devastating condition which affects every aspect of a person’s life,” she says. “I am not a stupid person ? I know what I should be doing ? but am totally overwhelmed by my inability to process any excess of emotion other than through food.

“Anorexia and bulimia are recognised illnesses, whereas over-eating is seen as gluttony. I am overwhelmed with guilt and self-loathing for large periods of time, which impact on my relationships with others. As an emotional binge-eater, my depression shows in my waistline, which only serves to boost the feelings of worthlessness, failure and self-loathing.” Colin Howey understands. He began attending an emotional over-eating self-help group in Norwich about six months ago, after his family begged him to take action about his eating habits, which he describes as being like slow suicide. “I have been a big eater most of my life,” he says. “I’ve eaten for comfort without realising it. It was hidden when I was younger, because I was more physically active, but as I’ve got older the pattern has deepened.

“Things go wrong, you get stressed or bored, and before you know it you are munching. I began to think ‘why am I doing this? I am not eating to satisfy hunger. I am eating for something else’.

“I’ve tried to stop and I’ve tried diets, but nothing works. They are the things I am working on in the group. I’ve got quite extreme insomnia because of a medical condition and I will graze without even knowing it. I used to smoke when I was younger and it is a similar addiction to that. I have to eat. It is like hearing a demon in your head. You can’t stop. You can’t just have a biscuit. You want the whole packet. My family love me and don’t want me eating myself to death. It feels like a form of slow suicide. You do it and then you feel guilty. It goes in cycles.” Colin, who works as a community development officer for adult education, had post traumatic stress disorder as a child, brought on by a range of issues, including the death of his father when he was eight and step father when he was 11. Strategies he has learned from the group include delaying tactics – having a piece of toast or an apple and waiting 20 minutes to see if what he is feeling is physical hunger or emotional hunger.

“It is about unravelling a whole lifetime of habits and triggers,” he says. “It’s about liking yourself more and feeling you are valued and worth something. The facilitators in the group make it a safe place to share things ? stress, anxiety, and in some cases despair.”

Yvonne Green, facilitator of the Bury group, says emotional overeating is a complex issue affecting an increasing number of people from every walk of life. “I am a therapist and counsellor but the group is not about counselling,” she says. “It is about peer support, a self-help support group for people to share their issues with others who may understand in a relaxed environment.

“There are probably more women who are affected but there are a lot of men with eating issues too. Sometimes people don’t recognise it as emotional eating – there is eating when we are hungry and eating for other reasons: comfort eating. It is self-medication because it triggers those lovely endorphins. It makes us feel good, at least temporarily. We are eating to reward ourselves, celebrate or to make us feel better. But unlike cigarettes or alcohol, people can’t give up eating completely. We have to have some sort of relationship with food.”

Yvonne sees dieting, particularly fad or extreme dieting where people tend to cut out whole food groups, as unhelpful and says it can actually cause weight gain over time as constant dieting sends the body into “starvation mode”, making weight loss more difficult. “I strongly believe that education is the key,” she says. “We need to think about healthy eating instead of dieting. We need to tell people about nutrition and challenge what is offered in supermarkets and adverts, looking at the body image culture and asking: is it suitable for us? It’s a big subject.”

She adds: “People have sometimes said to me they have a toxic relationship with food. When you’re in an emotionally vulnerable place it is easy to eat a whole bar of chocolate. We all do it occasionally. If it’s every day, it’s a problem. It’s about having an awareness of what we are doing and why.

“Often, emotional over-eating is a big problem within the family as a whole. People get caught up in the same pattern of behaviour. Food is so readily available these days. We can have what we want when we want. We don’t have to prepare it or cook it; we’ve gone away from growing our own veg. It’s too easy to go into a supermarket and be confronted with a display of fizzy drinks that will give us an instant hit. It comes back to education. Our goal is for people to help themselves.”

Emotional over-eating - the facts

Emotional eating is often thought to be caused by an inability to distinguish physical hunger from unpleasant emotional states.

There are a number of recognised differences between emotional and physical hunger. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly rather than gradually, is experienced as an inescapable craving rather than a hunger pang in the stomach, and feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly. It causes cravings of foods high in fat and sugar and is not satisfied once the person is full, leading to overeating to the point of discomfort. Emotional eating triggers feelings of guilt and shame which do not normally follow eating to satisfy physical hunger.

Emotional over-eating is a way of coping with or silencing a range of negative emotions. However, the feelings of guilt and shame which follow an episode of emotional over-eating usually leave the person feeling worse rather than better.

As over-eating can cause weight gain, over time emotional over-eating can lead to further difficulties such as greater dissatisfaction with body image and diminished self-esteem. Recent research suggests around 45% of people who are obese use food as a means of managing their emotions.

The Bury support group meets on the fourth Tuesday of the month, from 6.30pm, at Moreton Hall Community Centre, and the Ipswich one on the fourth Wednesday, from 7pm, at The Library, Quaker Meeting House, 39 Fonnereau Road. For information, email eosg@b-eat.co.uk or call project officers Rachel Morris or Lawrence Brown on 01603 753315 or 753307