Facets of Emotional Eating

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When considering the obesity epidemic, more and more people are making the mind/body connection. David M. Dunkley, assistant professor in the Psychiatry department at McGill University, is also a clinician and researcher at the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal. While following 170 patients with binge eating disorder, Dunkley and his colleagues have discovered that:

… [T]he severity of the condition — reflected by greater body dissatisfaction and depressive symptoms — appears to be linked to very specific histories of childhood sexual or emotional abuse, which in turn lead to self-criticism.

An estimated four million Americans, mostly women, suffer from binge eating disorder, and these researchers are confirming what many healthcare professionals have always known anecdotally. Often, when childhood obesity is present, it’s not just a condition, it’s a symptom — there’s a lot more going on.

In his recent Seattle Times interview with reporter Mark Rahner Dr. Pretlow remarked,

It’s counterintuitive that a parent would allow their child to become obese, which would impact so negatively on their social standing, their self-esteem as well as their health.

Precisely! That’s how we know it’s a mental-health issue, because in a healthy relationship, no parent would wish such problems upon a child. When the relationship becomes unhealthy, there are instances in which, say, the mom is encouraging her teenage daughter to blimp up because of an unconscious urge to protect her from teenage pregnancy. Deep inside, mom holds a belief that “fat girl = dateless girl.”

The fat is a kind of insurance policy or, to put it bluntly, an organic chastity belt, although a hefty girl can get in trouble just as easily as a slender one. Even more distressing is the possibility that a kid might pack on the pounds in an attempt to turn off an overly affectionate family member.

This is why subconscious beliefs and motives need to be identified and dragged out into the light. Each family has its own unique dynamic and its own historical and emotional baggage. Did you know there’s a German word for obesity caused by the death of a loved one, or other traumatic loss? The word is “Kummerspeck,” or, literally, “grief-bacon.” Consumption of food to compensate for a personal loss can happen at any age. Bereavement comes from a death in the family, or the death of the family, a.k.a. divorce.

One shudders to think about how many parents, either cohabiting or with shared custody, use a child’s food intake as just another battleground — one of them trying to keep a child sane, while the other says, “Relax! As long as the kid’s happy, that’s all that counts,” and stocks the kitchen with dangerous treats. Life provides plenty of fodder for the subconscious rationales by which parents can sabotage their own children’s efforts to maintain normal weight.

How to bring the blessings of mental and emotional health to every family in America? That’s a tough question, and a big assignment for our society to take on. It is so much easier to hand out refrigerator magnets embellished with food pyramids, but we need to think in terms of how to help kids handle the emotional reasons for overeating. How about grief counseling, anger management classes, assertiveness training, parenting classes, and so on? Something a little more difficult to arrange than a nutrition class, but with more likelihood of creating a space for lasting change.

Dr. Pretlow and an increasing number of other healthcare professionals now see that it is worth doing the homework to investigate emotional eating, because so many kids pinpoint it as the root of their problems. The information that comes to him through the Weigh2Rock polls suggests that what American kids need is not instruction on healthy choices, but family therapy, which, of course, is not available to everyone.

Alongside counseling or without it, Dr. Pretlow does have a solid recommendation to offer: Stop grazing. When a person eats constantly, the body never has the chance to know how genuine hunger feels, and its circuitry gets all boggled. Switch to three portion-controlled meals, with the smallest and most infrequent snacks in between, and let them consist of fruit. No junk food or fast food! It’s really a shame that other family members sometimes thwart kids in their heroic efforts, but a firm intention to stick to this plan can really help.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Severity of binge eating disorder linked to childhood sexual or emotional abuse: JGH researchers,” McGill University News, 05/12/10
Source: “Q&A with author of ‘Overweight: What Kids Say’,” Seattle Times, 05/02/10
Image by d.billy, used under its Creative Commons license.

11 Responses

  1. Wow! You’re drawing some challenging conclusions there. I have no anecdotal evidence that you’re wrong. But then, can we just conclude that all any overweight person needs is therapy? And is there any evidence that that has worked at all?

    1. catfc,

      A future post is planned, looking at some of the messages Dr. Pretlow has received from kids, to examine the question of whether therapy helps.

      Speaking for myself, I think it would be a generalization to say that all any overweight person needs is therapy. Any generalization is suspect.

      But it is undeniable that many people have been helped with many different kinds of problems, thanks to many different kinds of therapy. That’s the kind of generalization I’m comfortable with.

  2. One conclusion to draw from this (it’s a leap, I admit) is that we all need therapy. We are all less “healthy” that we could be. Kids who manifest obesity are leading indicators of a fundamental social dysfunction. More subtle indicators of this dysfunction can be seen in the casual conversations that communicate nothing of substance and which comprise the majority of one’s interactions in the course of a typical day. So, do we all need therapy? Maybe not so farfetched.

    1. Communities of Health:

      It does seem that most people could benefit from therapy of some kind, if therapy is defined as something that heals. It’s a rare human being who couldn’t benefit from healing of some kind or other. The world leaves wounds and scars on all of us.

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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