Our eating habits constitute a feature or an expression of mental disorder? What is the role of “emotional logic” on our eating standards?

Nikolaos Ath. Karakatsanis

Psychiatrist-Psychotherapist

Dr. of National & Capodistrian University of Athens

According to international references, there are several psychological factors, such as obsession to perfection, low self-esteem or frustration that play an important role in the appearance of eating disorders. To be more specific, the obsession to perfection is featured by high standards, worrying about potential mistakes, organizational behaviors, parental expectations and judgements. Those people cannot bear any mistakes, feel there is always something to improve and their actions are accompanied be self-judgement and a feeling of inability. On the other hand, self-esteem is affected by two basic factors; public judgement and acceptance and subjective perception of the individual for his own value.

Last but not least, frustration is featured by dominating negative thoughts and fears for future facts. Intensive stressful conditions, such as school exams, include the aforementioned psychological dimensions and are possible to trigger intensive disorders in eating behavior (before the exams or before getting the results). Of course there is the opinion that perfectionism is not necessarily accompanied by intense stress and that perfectionism as well as the wish of ones being thin may appear in neutral non-stressful condition. We cannot say the same for the role of parental expectations, where the desire of being likeable and accepted constitutes a prominent stressful situation that may lead to bulimia nervosa episodes or overeating. Something similar is observed with the effect of deep concerns for the future, which increase even more in stressful conditions and which can lead to overeating episodes, bulimia and to formation of false consolation, that weight and fat can be controlled.

It is worth mentioning that stress can cause different eating behavior depending on the type of consumer. Those who are too strict with their eating choices (restrained eaters) as well as those who consume large quantities of food as an answer to negative situations (emotional eaters), appear  to consume large quantities of fat and energy under stressful conditions and especially under those which constitute  a threat to themselves or are associated with negative judgements. On the contrary, in stressful periods unrestrained and non-emotional eaters appear to consume the same or smaller amounts of food. For the interpretation of this phenomenon many approaches have been proposed, one of which suggests that overeating acts like a mechanism to avoid unpleasant negative situations. It is argued that the individual selectively moves his attention from the negative factor to the direct environmental stimulus, which is food, while the influence of the individual’s basic beliefs on his self-esteem in the deterioration of bulimia is also underlined.

The type of stress factor seems to play a significant role in eating habits. Research has shown that stress factors of psychological nature, which are associated with self-effectiveness of the individual, for instance a public speech, increase the consumption of food, while the same is not observed in case that the individual experiences a stressful condition of organic nature, such as exposure to excessive heat or electric shock.  Other surveys also show that chronic stressful conditions, such as noise, tend to lead to reduced food consumption, while acute and possibly stress sources of average intensity and duration may lead in overeating.

Last but not least, it is worth mentioning that the presence of night eating syndrome, which appears usually in obese individuals during periods of intense stress and it usually constitutes an organic effort to relieve the stressful factor.

According to the aforementioned, it seems that people who experience intense and frequent stressful situations in their daily life, are likely to experience some disorders in their eating behavior. The immediate treatment of the appeared eating disorder becomes more than necessary, as the eating disorders cause important organic and psychological problems. Psychotherapeutic interventions, with cognitive behavioral therapy being the most widely known, as well as nutritional programs can help a lot to this direction.

Obesity and psychological health

Surveys on psychology and lifestyle have shown that smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, lack of physical activity and obesity can negatively affect our mental health.

As far as obesity is concerned, being overweight or obese increases the possibilities of low self-esteem and depression especially among adult females.

Another negative effect of obesity, as far as our mental health is concerned, is the dissatisfaction with our body image, namely we are not being satisfied with the shape of our body as we look in the mirror. Being dissatisfied with the body image is a phenomenon which has begun to increase over the last 50 years, mostly in the female population (in proportion to men) and that may lead to repeated efforts of losing weight and sometimes to eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa  or overeating.

The influence of our emotions on our eating behavior.

As obesity is rising globally, questions arise about the role of feelings in our behavior towards food. Our eating habits can be greatly affected by our sentiments. The choice of meals, the quantity and frequency of meals can be related to our psychology and how we feel beyond our everyday need for food intake (i.e. hunger). Feelings such as anxiety, anger, pleasure, depression can affect our eating behavior.

Research has shown that feeling such as boredom, depression, anger and pleasure lead to higher consumption of food, unlike feelings such as fear and regret that decrease food consumption. As far as anger is concerned, researchers have observed that many people in anger increase the speed of eating without paying attention to the quality of food they consume, while instead people with feelings of pleasure and joy consumed food because they liked its taste or because the food was more part of a healthy diet.

The question arised from all the aforementioned is the following: Are we eating because we are really hungry or because of other reasons beyond our biological need for food?

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