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Ruled by food? Priory expert on eight ways to break the cycle of over-eating

  • Over-eating can be an addiction – it’s often called ‘food addiction’
  • It’s one of the biggest risks to health
  • It’s often driven by mood, and becomes emotional eating
  • Priory expert Alexia Dempsey sets out her eight top pieces of advice for ‘curbing the craving’ for food
  • Some foods stimulate the brain's secretion of opiate-like, "feel-good" chemicals like Serotonin which drives cravings for them, and understanding this is the key to controlling food intake, she says

Over-eating is one of the biggest risks to health today and can often be an emotional response to negative thoughts.

A comprehensive study of global disease - The Global Burden of Diseases study, published in The Lancet - found that obesity and excess weight are the fastest growing causes of death in the world. And The British Nutrition Foundation recently released new portion-size guidelines to help people eat the right amounts of each food group, and avoid over-eating.

Alexia Dempsey is a specialist eating disorders dietician at the Priory Hospital in Roehampton which has launched a new Adult Eating Disorder Day Care Service. She says over-eating can be dictated by emotions and then become a “regular, daily demon” that fuels low self-worth.

But there are effective strategies for dealing with it.

Alexia says: “Emotional or stress eating is something that affects us all on some level.  

“Daily life can lead to negative emotions like stress, anger, sadness, fear, boredom, and loneliness and, in turn, to emotional eating.  It could be the glass of wine or some chocolate that we have as it’s ‘been a long day’, or the tub of ice-cream after a break-up.

“However, for some, emotional eating can be a regular demon that dictates our day, and self-worth.

“Emotional eating often comes on suddenly and feels like it needs to be satisfied immediately. It happens as a way of supressing or distracting negative thoughts and feelings. It is a form of self-soothing that in the short-term can feel functional but in the long-term can support a cycle of difficult and distressing feelings followed by low self-worth.

“In emotional overeating, an individual will use food as a distraction from the negative. The foods are often things like chocolate, crisps, sweets, foods that are considered to be a ‘treat’ or ‘naughty’.

“People often report carbohydrate-based binges. One reason could be that the ingestion of carbohydrates increases the plasma ratio of tryptophan to other amino acids, leading to increased serotonin. Serotonin is a chemical that has been found to alleviate low mood and anxiety so it makes sense that in times of stress, craving foods that may boost this would happen.

“As these types of food are considered ‘naughty’, the individual can then feel guilty. And these types of food are usually high in calories so if an individual engages in stress eating regularly, their weight can increase and this can impact self-esteem.

Priory’s Alexia Dempsey’s tips on how to control over-eating:

  1. Have a plan: Over-eating can often be a result of ‘passive’ restriction. An individual can be running late so doesn’t have breakfast, and is too busy for lunch. This can lead to having to grab snacks on the go and then feeling so hungry later in the day you binge. Plan your food for the day to ensure you have regular meals.
  2. Have balanced meals: ensure there is adequate balance in your meals, including all food groups, which means carbohydrates, protein, veggies and fats. This will help you feel full and encourage slow gastric emptying and prolonged satiety.
  3. Don’t restrict: restricting can lead to bingeing. This includes restricting food groups as well as missing meals. The moment you decide not to have any chocolate/crisps/carbohydrates, you introduce the idea of these food products to your consciousness.
  4. Avoid distractions when eating: Eating and watching TV/using laptops and phones means that you are not engaging with your food and are likely to miss your initial biological cues that you are satisfied with how much you have eaten.
  5. Change environment: if you feel like bingeing or are worried that you are about to engage in a binge, try and change environment. If you usually binge in your front room, get up and move to a different area or head out for a brisk walk.
  6. Hydrate: Being dehydrated can cause tiredness, sluggishness, poor concentration, irritability. Hunger can also cause this. It’s easy for us to mistake dehydration for hunger. Ensure you are drinking enough during the day. Aim for around 1.5-2l a day of fluid.
  7. Plan how to manage the feeling: sometimes we need to distract ourselves from a feeling of wanting to binge. If your trigger time is straight after work, plan an activity or meet up with friends. If it’s late at night when the kids are in bed or you are alone, have a list of pleasurable activities such as a funny film or box set, or have a bath, paint your nails, call a friend for a chat.
  8. Seek support: overeating or emotional eating can be highly distressing for an individual. If you are worried about your eating, seek support from a registered specialist professional.

Priory’s Roehampton Hospital in south-west London has launched a new eating disorders day care programme. The new facility will cater for people who have anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder or mixed eating disorder symptoms and is led by an experienced team, providing a therapeutic space where people can explore their difficulties and gain control over their eating disorder. A typical treatment programme will be eight weeks long.

About Priory Group

The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.

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