Two Groups of People Experience All Kinds of Stress and Emotional Trouble in Two Distinct Ways
1. “Well-Fed People”
I’ll call the first type “well-fed people.” These are people who eat enough food pretty much whenever they need to eat. They are not dieters. They do not avoid food because they are not afraid of food and they are not worried about getting fat. In fact, they like food. So, they eat and never have much trouble with it.
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When “well-fed people” face any kind of significant stress (even a positive one), they tend to experience a loss of appetite, at least temporarily. This is natural. When their boss calls them in to the office and they know what’s going to happen, they might even feel nauseated, but they definitely aren’t looking forward to lunch! And when a boyfriend, a great boyfriend, says to the “well-fed girl” that he needs “space,” it’s not likely that she’ll go right home and eat a quart of rocky road ice cream This is not because she isn’t having heavy emotions. It’s because she couldn’t eat if you paid her. She’s upset, not hungry. These examples illustrate the normal response to stress: temporary depressed appetite and food avoidance.
Think about it. If your body has to deal with external pressures, changes and challenges that force adaptations, it goes on heightened alert. Eating is, in a way, stressful to bodies because it requires energy and causes the alert, focused aspects of your physical self to slow down. So eating, and especially eating a lot when stressed, is counterproductive. Naturally, “well-fed people” don’t do it.
Unlike “well-fed people” who eat on demand, dieters are ofen under fed: hungry, or over-hungry. Their chronic under-satisfied hunger causes dieters who experience heavy emotions and/or stress to actually have two serious problems: one is the emotional stress and the other is their under-satisfied hunger. This combination sets dieters’ bodies up for an interesting challenge to adapt to both stresses.
Instead of appetite suppression under the influence of an external stress, underfed bodies experience a paradoxical response. The underfed dieter experiences a surge in appetite and often a loss of control over eating as a result of the stress encounter. This makes it appear that the stress caused the overeating, but since “well-fed people” do not overeat under the influence of stress, something else must be involved. That something else is under-satisfied hunger—a stress in itself, which bodies are capable of solving through biochemical influence. That leaves only the remaining emotional stress to cope with.
Remember that non-dieters also experience famines when they eat recklessly and become over-hungry. They are vulnerable to overeating from emotional cues, often just as susceptible as dieters.
In conclusion, so-called emotional overeating is not about the emotions or the stress; it’s about dieting, going hungry and adaptation.
So, there are very real reasons that people overeat under the influence of emotional stress, but it isn’t what we’ve always thought. If it were true that emotions directly cause overeating and bingeing, everyone would do it. There’d be no hope for any of us. Let’s face it, we’re emotional creatures and life will always be fraught with heavy emotions and stress. If there really is a cause/effect relationship between these two experiences, we are all predestined to overeating and consequent weight problems just for being human.
Understanding the true relationship among these experiences—under eating, emotional stress, and overeating—leads to hope and confidence. First of all, dieters can get out from under the fear that stress and emotional struggles doom them to binges and weight gain. And as they change their eating patterns, their response to stress will normalize—they will experience a loss of appetite rather than a surge. This shift is hard for dieters to imagine, dieters who have reacted to emotional upheavals with binges for years. But when it happens, what a relief!
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