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By Susan Kinross, Registered Professional Counsellor

‘Emotional eating’ is a term that applies to any type of disordered eating patterns – including compulsive eating, overeating, dieting then binging, bulimia, anorexia, sneaking or hiding food, &  more.  Emotional eating means eating for emotional reasons rather than for nourishing the body.  There are feelings going on that we may or may not be aware of, that propel us to want to eat.  Examples of these feelings may be loneliness, sadness, fear, anger, guilt, depression, stress or generalized anxiety.  With emotional eating, food is used in order to “stuff down” painful emotions, to “fill up” an emptiness inside, to somehow provide comfort or solace.

Our digestive system is, of course, greatly affected by what we eat, how we eat it, how much we eat and how often we eat.  When we eat for emotional reasons rather than for nourishment, we are usually oblivious to how we are eating.

Let’s use overeating as an example, as it is extremely common and often condoned in our society.  The following are commonly associated with emotional overeating:

1) The food chosen for emotional eating is often sweet & sugary and /or high-fat.

2) With each bite there is  most likely too much food on the fork, spoon or in hand.

3) Eating will probably be too fast, meaning one bite after the other is forced down quickly.

4) With fast eating, chewing is compromised and much of the food will be unchewed and undigested.

5) Eating until full, and often over-full.

All of these habits place extra burdens on the digestive system. Here are a few examples of how emotional eating affects our digestive system.  The high-sugar or high-fat foods are detrimental to our health and make our digestive organs such as the liver and pancreas have to work harder.  Forcing ‘too much’ food at once into the mouth and down the esophagus, plus eating until you are full or over-full, puts extra pressure on the LES (lower esophageal sphincter), the valve at the junction of the esophagus and the stomach, forcing it to open wider than it is meant to and for longer periods of time.  This can lead to acid reflux conditions such as GERD (gastrointestinal esophageal reflux disease), where the LES valve has become so lax that acid from the stomach will make its way upward into the esophagus, which can be damaging to the sensitive tissues of esophagus.  Lack of thorough chewing means that solid food must make its way through the digestive system.  Contrary to what many may think, the stomach cannot break down all solid chunks of food that have not been chewed thoroughly.  By the time the food reaches the small intestine, it is in liquid form and ready to be absorbed.  This liquid,  called chyme, then moves from the small intestine into the colon via the ileo-cecal valve.  This is a one-way valve that is meant to stay closed, and opens only when needed.  If there are solid pieces of unchewed, undigested food entering the colon, then this valve is forced to open wider than usual and/or for longer than usual.  This situation can allow contents of the colon to go back into the small intestine, which is the wrong way through this one-way valve.  The colon contents are too toxic and acidic for the more alkaline and delicate tissues of the small intestine, and ill health can result.  Also, overeating affects the health and function of the colon.  It can lead to spastic areas, distention and prolapse, and lack of muscle tone,  which all contribute to constipation.

It has been said that how we eat and digest our food can be seen as a microcosm of how we ‘digest life’.  Working through and resolving emotional eating issues is not only important for emotional and mental health, but actually very necessary for physical health.  The rewards to be gained of improved health and well-being are well-worth it.

Susan Kinross is a Registered Professional Counsellor at Port Moody Health.  She offers individual counselling & Emotional Eating workshops to help people find freedom from compulsive eating and food addiction.