Rise of the scoffaholics
Are you one of the millions who gorge on too much food? Find out with our experts’ guide to the five types of overeater. Be warned: if you tick three boxes in any category, you might need help.
THE SECRET BINGER
* You are always on a diet but can never stick to it.
* When you let yourself go, you eat until you are full – and then continue.
* Binges usually take place in secret because you feel guilty, and they can last for days or even weeks.
* You might be a normal weight – but you dislike your body.
“Usually there is a desire to be in control at the root of this kind of compulsive eating,” says Dr Helena Fox, a British psychiatrist who specialises in eating disorders.
“They usually hold rigid attitudes towards food – what they ‘can’ and ‘can’t’ eat – which creates a cycle of binge and starvation. Self-imposed, strict diet plans are at the core of why this behaviour develops.”
A support group such as Overeaters Anonymous (OA), which is modelled on Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12-Step programme, has been shown to be successful. “Those who binge find OA helpful because their overeating is usually clandestine,” says an OA spokesman.
Overeaters are given the opportunity to share their experiences as well as listen to the problems of others.
Of those who attend 12 Steps groups for more than a year, 40 percent remain abstinent from their addiction, rising to 90 percent of those attending for five years or more.
“Our philosophy is that it takes an addict to help an addict,” adds the spokesman.
THE HAPPY EATER
* Food is one of life’s biggest pleasures – cooking it, eating it, watching television programmes about it, and going to dinner.
* You’re overweight, but you don’t consider it a pressing problem.
* Cooking makes you happy, but you rarely take into account how healthy the food is.
* Your family life is stable and you have no emotional troubles.
“For these people, eating is an enormous source of happiness,” says Julia Buckroyd, Emeritus Professor at the University of Hertfordshire, who specialises in eating disorders and emotional eating. “Eating in this situation often reinforces how happy a person feels or brings back pleasant memories. This is fine in some cases, but many individuals can’t stop feeding that feeling with food.”
“Hypnotherapy is useful for those who do not have an underlying emotional problem,” says London hypnotherapist Martina McKeough. Treatment involves a patient being put in a trance-like state. The therapist then uses suggestive language to encourage the overeater to change their eating habits.
If this doesn’t work, regressive hypnotherapy, which tries to pinpoint where food became associated with feelings of happiness, can be used. McKeough says: “These people have often created a link between happiness and food as a child and so subconsciously feel compelled to eat.”
THE COMFORT SEEKER
* You eat when you are unhappy, even if you are not hungry.
* You crave sweet and fatty foods.
* Controlling your weight is difficult, which makes you even more unhappy.
* Going without food worries you.
“Overeating for any emotional reason is an unhealthy coping mechanism,” says Dr Fox. A depressive overeater will usually eat high-fat, sugar-dense foods because they trigger the release of chemicals in the brain that bring on a feeling of warmth and happiness.
“Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) encourages a patient to understand and cope with the uncomfortable feelings they have been avoiding,” says therapist Anna Albright. “Sessions look at incidents where a person has eaten too much and then unravel the thoughts and beliefs underpinning their behaviour.”
After the patient has identified the triggers, the therapist will set homework that puts the patient in an uncomfortable emotional situation. They will attempt to resist the urge to eat and then discuss what they felt during the exercise. Gradually, the patient’s resilience increases, as does their desire to eat healthily.
THE PANIC SNACKER
* You eat too much in stressful situations, such as when a work deadline looms.
* You find yourself visiting the vending machine or keep a stash of treats in your desk drawer.
* Pressure tends to make you panic but eating makes you feel safe.
* You eat your food very quickly without chewing properly or savouring the flavour.
“Stress is caused by anything from working long hours to money troubles,” says Dr Fox. “Similarly to those who eat for depressive reasons, junk food that contains lots of sugar and fat provides a hit of mood-boosting chemicals.”
Stress also causes the body to secrete the hormone ghrelin, which prevents a person becoming anxious under pressure. However, this chemical also induces hunger.
“Psychodynamic therapy (PDT) teaches that stress and the behaviour that follows it emanate from unresolved inner conflict,” says Dr Andrew Reeves, a PDT therapist at the University of Liverpool. “Understanding why you overeat when you get stressed empowers you to stop doing it.”
Sessions involve the therapist discussing and analysing a patient’s past and how it directly affects their present lifestyle.
THE FRIDGE MAGNET
* You head for the fridge for a nibble when you have nothing to do.
* You spend a considerable portion of your day at home.
* You often eat a proper meal, but rarely feel hungry.
* Food is more functional than a pleasure.
“Boredom is a common reason for overeating because food is an easy way to temporarily fill the void,” says Professor Buckroyd. “A variety of people fall into this category, including stay-at-home moms and freelance workers. Pecking throughout the day and night rather than eating meals means it’s easy to overlook how much is actually being eaten. Long-term boredom eating is usually a sign of dissatisfaction with your life, which can lead to depressive eating.”
Mindfulness therapy helps an overeater tell the difference between real hunger and eating to alleviate boredom. Psychotherapist Belinda Freeman recommends six sessions that involve analysing a person’s eating behaviour.
“Sometimes I accompany a client to a restaurant,” adds Belinda. “I teach them how important it is to make a ritual of sitting down to enjoy food – taking in the sights, smells and sounds surrounding the occasion. Many clients lose weight yet feel more satisfied because they are finally enjoying food.” – Mail on Sunday