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Struggling with Overeating Because of Emotional Stressors?

By Lori Butler November 15, 2021 Health and Fitness

Kitty, age 64, carried a shameful secret since retiring early – she had become an overeater. She had worked in Los Angeles as newspaper editor most of her adult life. Her average work weeks were 60-plus hours.

She had a love-hate relationship with her job ever since social media had taken over the news industry, and she no longer could rest on her old fashioned and outdated work skills. Retiring just seemed to be the easy way out that would save face.

Something Was Wrong and Help Was Needed

Despite the fact that she’d been an avid exerciser, prided herself in eating healthy, had a marriage others considered “great,” Kitty was secretly losing control – filling her days with binge eating. Binge eating and watching TV until her spouse, Richard, who was still working at his career, came home each night was now her post retirement norm.

Worse yet, with no reason to go to bed early for work, she often stayed up alone watching even more TV and eating entire packages of snack foods like carb-loaded cookies and crackers.

A once smart journalist, she decided to go see a dietitian to investigate how to get help, but she just couldn’t follow along with the new diet plan she was given. She frequented the local Barnes and Noble and began reading all kinds of books with various diet plans. Yet, she kept returning to being influenced by her “overeating demons.”

How Do We Get to a Food Addiction?

Why is it that so many women, especially women past 60, struggle with food addictions?

One theory focuses on the fact that after decades of serving as caregivers and of putting others first, multi-tasking, and never being able to complete our to do list, women over 60 have simply reached the point where they can’t see a way to go back to their younger days of self-care and self-awareness.

In Kitty’s case:

  • She’s avoided the scale for years.
  • She’s worried about the future and her budget spending, not willing to spend money on healthier food options.
  • She feels drained mentally and emotionally needing to catch up rest.
  • The clothes that used to fit for work are tighter and no longer needed.
  • The exercise classes/workouts are much harder and filled with too many young women.
  • The stress causes yo-yo dieting brought on by events like family weddings, school reunions and more.

Emotional overeating is actually quite common in older women. We’re now grandmas and systematic drinking and recreational drugs are probably not the type of thing we turn to as role models for our kids and grandkids.

We love them, so we bake for them. We cook for them and offer them treats. So why not do the same for ourselves along the way? Food is something everyone needs and is good for you, right? We make the excuses, and we turn to food to help us deal with whatever is going on in our life.

While some skinny women struggle to maintain a healthy weight, there are many of us that have become emotional overeaters. Worse yet, our family members and caregivers tend to not help us balance our physical and emotional needs.

They usually cater to one or the other and not always in the healthiest of ways. My adult kids, for example, like to outdo each other on holidays by seeing who can buy mom the biggest box of her favorite chocolates.

What Causes Our Emotional Overeating?

Let’s examine the obvious first. Our society associates food with pleasurable activities like birthday parties, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, gatherings, special events and even formal ones like fundraisers and banquets. We’re taught from a very young age, mostly by nurturers in our lives like our own grandparents, that food can soothe our hurt feelings and bring us comfort at the same time.

Fast forward a few decades and we’re older, dealing with lots of negative emotions, like stress, frustration, loneliness, and boredom. We soothe ourselves like children – with food – to fill up the emptiness and bury these uncomfortable feelings.

Emotional overeating forces us as seniors to ignore our emotional needs and often prevents us from getting real help – especially if the emphasis is placed by others on our weight or aches and pains and not what is paining our hearts.

Recognize Your Own Emotional Overeating Symptoms

Ask yourself a few honest questions when examining your own relationship with food and your mental health:

  • What do you like to do when you feel stressed or frustrated?
  • What do you like to do when you are bored or lonely?
  • When do you eat the most during the day?
  • Are you eating according to your daily needs?
  • Do you finish the entire container of food in one sitting, completely ignoring the portion and calorie information on the package?
  • Are you constantly looking for snack food, even when you aren’t hungry?
  • What snacks have you had this week? Did they make you feel better or worse?
  • When you snack, are you still hungry for meals?

These kinds of questions can help you gain insights that you can discuss with your doctor or therapist. Our emotional overeating is less about the food and satisfying food cravings and more about using food to fulfill emotional needs and avoid dealing with our own negative feelings.

Practical Things You Can Start Doing Today to Help

#1: Face Your Excess Body Fat Fears

Overeating is closely linked to excess body fat and obesity due to your body being in a calorie surplus. To avoid fat gain, focus on lean proteins and non-starchy vegetables at meals.

#2: Stop Disrupting Your Own Hunger Regulation

Chronic overeating overrides hormones that control fullness and hunger, which makes it difficult for you to determine when your body needs fuel. You can counteract this effect by portioning out certain feel-good foods that satisfy you and eat them at a slower pace to allow your body to register it is feeling full.

#3: Focus Less on Food and More on Your Risk for Disease

Obesity, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above, is a main risk factors for metabolic syndrome. This cluster of conditions raises your chances of having heart disease and other health problems, such as diabetes and stroke.

Your doctor can see indicators of metabolic syndrome most commonly as high levels of fat in your blood, elevated blood pressure, insulin resistance, and inflammation.

#4: Fatten Your Brain, Not Your Body

Over time, overeating may harm brain function which is already at risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s. Given that your brain comprises of approximately 60% fat, eating healthy fats like fatty fish, avocados, nut butters, and olive oil may help prevent mental decline.

#5: Realize Your Eyes Really Are Bigger Than Your Stomach

The adult stomach is about the size of a closed fist and can hold about 2.5 ounces when empty. It can expand to hold around a quart. Once past that amount of food, we often feel the urge to literally get sick. While our “friends” Milk of Magnesia and Pepto Bismol may treat these symptoms, the best thing we can do is eat slower and eat smaller portions to keep us from getting sick in the first place.

#6: Eat That Burrito Calmly and Drink That Soda Slowly

There’s a reason the media and Hollywood often make jokes about seniors being “gassy.” Gas-producing food items like carbonated drinks and beans, along with certain vegetables and whole grains, are generally a problem as our stomach starts to wear out. And, if we are eating them fast as “fast food,” our bloating increases even more.

So, slow down you’re eating and wait until after meals to drink if you want to feel your best.

We all know that overeating or eating a big meal can make you sluggish or tired but what it is actually doing is causing your blood sugar to dip.

Eat smaller, more frequent meals and only nap when you’re truly tired, not when your stomach is full.

There’s Real Help for Emotional Overeating

We most often turn to emotional overeating because we don’t know the right way to deal with new situations, like aging, in life the right way. With the help of others, we can stop allowing food to become our temporary solution to negative emotions and bad feelings.

We can return to or “amp up” healthy things in our lives like interacting with friends, engaging in hobbies and enjoying our independences. These first few steps are likely to chase away many of the negative emotions that can trigger our emotional overeating.

Get healthy meals at your senior center or Meals on Wheels programs. Make a plan to not eat alone whenever possible. We watch what we eat when we’re around others And, if you find sometimes you must eat alone, set a full place setting and flowers. Even these small reminders will help you realize how important you are.

If you still find yourself struggling, reach out to 12-Step Programs like Overeaters Anonymous (OA). Better yet, find a meeting in your area and go check it out.

If you’re overeating and have other addictions like alcohol or other substances, a gender specific residential or outpatient program like the ones offered at New Directions for Women can definitely help give you the support you need to tackle each addiction, one at a time.

Perhaps you’re snacking alone while you are reading this blog. I challenge you to get out the list of 7 things you can do to gain control over your eating addiction and work on just one. You will feel better both physically and emotionally with each step you take. I promise. So do it now and don’t make me eat my words.

What does emotional eating mean to you? What feelings make you reach out for food when you don’t need to eat? Do you think of this as food addiction or is it something else? What tools do you use to curb your need to eat when not hungry?

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The Author

Lori J. Butler, CFRE is the Director of Development for New Direction’s for Women Foundation in Costa Mesa, California. To find out more about this special non-profit recovery center for women see:

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