Could therapy help you lose weight? The psychology of overeating explained

by Sarah Graham
Wednesday 17 December 2014
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Dieting, exercise and weight loss are amongst the most common of all New Year's resolutions. While they can be both unhelpful (if you don't really need to lose weight) and counterproductive (if you don't make long-term changes to your lifestyle), it may be useful this New Year to think about some of the reasons behind your weight gain.

If you are hoping to lose a few pounds for a more healthy lifestyle in 2015, understanding the psychology of successful diet control could help you make long-lasting changes, instead of continuing to yo-yo, or enthusiastically launching into the latest fad diet that you'll have given up by February.

 

Understanding the psychology of overeating

"Some people lose weight and keep it off without any outside help at all, but for others it can be much more of a struggle," says Accredited and Registered Counsellor and Psychotherapist Barbara Kelly. "All those resolutions not to overeat disappear in the face of temptation or, if the weight comes off, it soon goes back on again."

She adds: "If you've tried and tried to lose weight but always end up back at square one, it might well be worth considering therapy. Talking things through with a therapist can help you identify repeating patterns of eating, what function - over and above nutrition - food serves for you, and what you can do to change your relationship with food and eating, so that you can get the weight off and keep it off."

If you've tried and tried to lose weight but always end up back at square one, it might well be worth considering therapy.

Accredited Counsellor and Psychotherapist Jaimie Cahlil explains: "When someone struggles with overeating and we explore this in therapy, what often becomes apparent is that they are replacing their unfilled emotional needs with food. I call this 'mismatching'."

He adds: "Awareness of this mismatching in your impulses may enable you to choose, instead, to MATCH your need." More appropriate ways of comforting yourself, Jaimie suggests, may be to hug a friend or relative, stroke a pet, ring a friend, book a massage, or even simply to stroke your head or chest soothingly.

Overeating develops as a coping mechanism; a way for people to deal with painful and challenging emotions or situations in their lives, or to satisfy fundamental unmet needs.

While these alternative sources of comfort may provide a useful coping strategy, it's also important to tackle those underlying, emotional reasons behind your eating. Registered Psychotherapist Stella Stathi says: "Just like in other forms of disordered eating, overeating develops as a coping mechanism; a way for people to deal with painful and challenging emotions or situations in their lives, or to satisfy fundamental unmet needs."

She adds: "However, even though this behaviour can provide momentary relief and escape from intolerable situations, it also triggers negative, self-deprecating feelings, which lead to further episodes of overeating, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of emotional turmoil."

While you've probably been focusing on the physical aspects of trying to lose weight, these emotional causes of overeating could well play a significant role in your continued inability to shed the pounds. In fact, it may be helpful to approach your binges as a form of disordered eating.

Binge eating is increasingly understood as a discreet behaviour, without the purging that characterises other eating disorders.

Registered Psychotherapist Maxine Altman, who specialises in compulsive overeating, says: "The concept of binge eating is a recently recognised condition. It is one element of anorexia and bulimia, but is increasingly understood as a discreet behaviour, without the purging that characterises other eating disorders."

She believes there is a serious public misunderstanding about the reasons why people become, and remain, overweight. "Popular culture regards obesity, the inevitable outcome of continued binge eating, as a disease borne of greed and lack of control," she says. "The irony is that compulsive eating is all about control - it is an attempt to reclaim the right to eat what and when you choose."

If you eat compulsively, the act of eating is secret and isolating, often shameful and may release angry or punitive feelings.

Maxine explains: "For many adults, children and adolescents, binge eating remains a solitary and shameful activity, performed in secret – unstoppable, desperate and with no rational explanation. If you eat compulsively, the act of eating is secret and isolating, often shameful and may release angry or punitive feelings."

Contrary to common misconceptions, she adds: "Binge eating is not related to physical hunger, although a binge may begin with an empty stomach. It involves eating beyond hunger, mechanically and without the ability to stop. Some experiences are frenzied, others are measured, but all involve large quantities of sugar or fat-laden food. The only thing that matters is the eating, even though, as a compulsive eater, you know that food will never satisfy your desire."

 

How therapy could aid weight loss

So how can therapy help? As Barbara says, talking to a therapist may help you identify the emotional role that eating plays in your life and develop a more healthy relationship with food. However, unlike many popular fad diets, she points out that "therapy won't be a quick fix, but it can bring changes that you can sustain over your lifetime." 

Indeed, Stella stresses, "when the cause of weight problems is emotional, it is critical for healthy weight loss to happen as a by-product of consistent self-care, profound self-acceptance and emotional balance – not as an exclusive goal to be reached at all costs, and certainly not through punishment or deprivation."

It is critical for healthy weight loss to happen as a by-product of consistent self-care, profound self-acceptance and emotional balance.

She adds: "In the context of a non-judgmental, empathetic therapeutic relationship, you can establish a new way of relating to yourself, with much more compassion, acceptance and understanding of the reasons behind your behaviour. From that place, weight loss can happen naturally, as your new coping skills get stronger and the need for the mechanism of overeating gradually subsides."


Finding support


If you are concerned about Binge Eating Disorder (BED) then you may like to read about finding the right therapist for you. If this route is not appropriate for you, your GP can assess you and direct you towards support.

Find a Therapist working with Binge Eating Disorder (BED)

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Updated 17 December 2014