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Healthy You

The Emotional Side of Eating

February 13, 2019 12:00 PM with Dr. Dawn Epstein

Join Dr. Dawn Epstein of the NorthShore Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, as she explores the emotional and environmental factors that impact our eating behavior.  She will be answering questions about behavioral weight management, which may include recommendations for addressing common faulty thinking patterns about eating, weight and shape and maladaptive eating behaviors like emotional or binge eating.

Office Woman Overeating

Ben (Moderator) - 11:47 AM:
We will be getting started in about 15 minutes. If you have any questions feel free to submit them now so we have them.

Dawn Epstein (Skokie MOB) - 11:59 AM:
Hello, everyone! I am Dr. Epstein, part of the team here at NorthShore. I am ready to take your questions about emotional eating.

Ben (Moderator) - 12:00 PM:
Welcome to the Emotional Side of Eating chat. The chat is now open and you can submit your questions anytime.

  Aaron (Chicago) - 12:01 PM:
What patterns tell me that I am emotionally eating? What's a healthy eating pattern?
Dawn Epstein
Great question, Aaron! Emotional eating occurs when eating behavior is influenced by our emotions, both positive or negative. It is different than true hunger in that it is not motivated by a physiological need. Oftentimes, we may be craving a specific type of food or eating more rapidly than we would otherwise. It is always good to examine context, thoughts, and emotions that precede an episode of emotional eating to assist with identification of triggers. A healthy eating pattern typically includes 3 meals and 2 snacks a day that are eaten at regular intervals.

  Lily (Zion) - 12:06 PM:
Do people emotionally overeat vegetables, lean protein, et al., or just carbs/fat, and why? Also, any legitimate meds for this?
Dawn Epstein
Excellent question! You can emotionally eat just about anything. People typically select foods that are more energy-dense (e.g., high salt, high fat, high sugar foods), but that is not always the case. It depends on what you're seeking, but people who eat emotionally are often wanting to achieve comfort or calm. Emotional eating might be a symptom of something greater...or simply an indication that additional support is needed. I don't believe there are any medications specifically prescribed for emotional eating, but medications that affect mood may help if this is the underlying issue. There are medications indicated for Binge Eating Disorder (which might also be present), but you would need to be assessed and formally diagnosed by a licensed clinician or physician. I would recommend speaking with a mental health provider, as emotional eating can often be addressed behaviorally and without medication.

  Michelle (Glenview, IL) - 12:15 PM:
Why does fullness not stop us from eating LOTS of what tastes good?
Dawn Epstein
Eating foods we love is incredibly reinforcing and pleasurable, which is why it can be difficult to eat really tasty foods in moderation. Moreover, sometimes we become out of touch with hunger and satiety cues-- the messages our bodies send us to indicate hunger and fullness. You may practice being extra mindful of these messages by rating your hunger before, during and after eating. It can also help to slow down the rate of eating and really pay attention to the act of eating. When we pay attention, we are often more satisfied with our meal and become fuller sooner. You may also consider if you're trying to fill an emotional "hole," and think of alternative ways to achieve a sense of emotional fullness.

  Ivette (Park City, IL) - 12:20 PM:
I’m curious if emotional eating includes eating when you’re bored?
Dawn Epstein
Absolutely! Boredom eating is an issue for a lot of folks, including myself. I would suggest thinking about the function of eating when you're bored-- Is it simply something to do? Does it provide a sense of stimulation?-- and consider alternative behaviors that may serve a similar function. Find something else to fill the time. If you can delay eating for about 20 minutes (when hunger is purely motivated by emotion or boredom), the urge will likely pass.

  Bartholomew (Chicago, IL) - 12:30 PM:
Hello, Dr. Epstein. Thank you for Hosting this very important online forum! What tips can you share so one doesn't overindulge or how one can abstain when treats are brought in the office? Thank you!
Dawn Epstein
Hi, Bartholomew! Thank you for your question!! I am so glad you asked this; it can be such a challenge to avoid office treats, especially around the holidays. The best thing you can do for yourself is plan. You don't necessarily need to abstain completely from the sweets treats (unless medically advised), but be thoughtful about your consumption. Take a look at all of the offerings ahead of time and select which one you want; then be sure to eat it mindfully and honor your choice. No need to beat yourself up. If you're really wanting to avoid the treats though, you can do what you can to minimize exposure, even positioning your body away from the foods. Also, maintaining a regular eating pattern throughout the day will lessen your vulnerability to unplanned eating-- so make sure you eat a satisfying breakfast and lunch, and bring a healthy snack if you're prone to hunger in the afternoon hours. Oh, and stay hydrated!! We often mislabel thirst as hunger.

  Alena (Evanston,IL) - 12:40 PM:
How do you treat someone with an emotional eating problem, or a food addiction problem? What resources are out there for people with this problem?
Dawn Epstein
We first address emotional eating by exploring the underlying issue-- there is usually something else going on. Moreover, awareness is key-- so I have patients track eating patterns throughout the day, paying attention to context (time, place, situation), thoughts and emotions associated with eating. Once we have a good sense of a patient's emotional triggers, we can come up with more adaptive ways to cope (e.g., distress tolerance, mindfulness, cognitive restructuring acceptance and self-compassion). A great self-help resource I tend to recommend (if you want to do some reading on your own) is the book End Emotional Eating: Using DBT Skills to Cope with Difficult Emotions and Develop a Healthier Relationship with Food, by J. Taitz.

  Antoinette (Evanston, Ill) - 12:48 PM:
Does gender, age, socioeconomic level etc. play a role in emotional eating?
Dawn Epstein
Wonderful question, Antoinette. I am honestly not sure-- I would have to consult the literature on this. Anecdotally, emotional eating tends to present in persons who have had less exposure to healthier forms of coping. They may have been rewarded with food or taught to self-soothe with food. Higher stress, less predictable environments might also make one more vulnerable to this form of coping.

Ben (Moderator) - 1:00 PM:
That's all the time we have today for questions. There were a number of questions we could not get to, and I will see if we can get a blog post together to answer the rest of these questions. Thank you, Dr. Epstein for your time and expertise.

Dawn Epstein - 1:03 PM:
Thank you all for your thoughtful questions!!
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