Food. Our friend and sometimes our worst foe. Our comfort, yet for some causes much discomfort. Our security, haven, retreat, and our strength; yet on a subconscious level, the underbelly of our deepest despair and vulnerability. We use it to celebrate our achievements and successes and to punish our mistakes and failures. This unconscious response to food is embedded in us due to conditioning and environmental factors.
Food is often used as a coping mechanism by those with weight problems, particularly when they are sad, anxious, stressed, lonely, bored, frustrated, and in some cases, the need to stay awake.
In many overweight individuals, there appears to be a perpetual cycle of mood disturbance, causing their overeating and weight gain. When they feel distressed, they turn to food to help cope. Though such comfort, eating may result in temporary attenuation of their distressed mood. The weight gain that results may cause a dysphoric mood due to their inability to control their stress. The resulting guilt may reactivate the cycle, leading to a continuous pattern of using food to cope with emotions. This pattern is particularly applicable if there is a genetic predisposition for obesity or a “toxic” environment in which calorie-dense foods are readily available and physical activity is limited. Unfortunately, these circumstances are all too common.
Other factors include problematic eating behaviors, such as mindless eating (frequent snacking on high caloric foods), overeating, and night eating referred to as binge eating (BE). BE is characterized by recurrent episodes of eating during a discrete period of time and eating quantities of food that are larger than most people would eat during a similar amount of time, a sense of lack of control during the episodes, and guilt or distress following the episodes. An important differentiation between BE and bulimia/anorexia is that BE is not associated with any regular compensatory behaviors, such as purging, fasting, or excessive exercise. Consequently, the majority of individuals with BE are overweight.