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Turning to food as a coping mechanism

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Sile Seoige. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Sile Seoige. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Sile Seoige. Photo: Colin O'Riordan

Radio presenter Sile Seoige recently admitted that during stressful times she turns to food as a coping mechanism. Most of us comfort eat at certain stages in life but what happens when feeding your feelings becomes an addiction, and is it possible for you to change this behaviour?

To the wider world, Sile Seoige was gliding through life just as she always had done. Yet her inner circle knew the truth; that last year, she was battling cancer away from the glare of the spotlight. It was only afterwards that Seoige shed light on this difficult time, noting that hurtful jibes about her weight further compounded her ordeal. And, as many women do in their darkest hour, she turned to food as a coping mechanism.

"I'm human and I'm a woman – most of us have gone through a bad patch with weight," she reflected.

"My head was in a different space because I wasn't well and I was dealing with a lot of things. I lost my thyroid gland, so the weight gain was part of that, and I was emotional eating.

"People cope in different ways and I find food a huge source of comfort. We need to be aware of the lots of different reasons people could be putting weight on." Needless to say, most of us can relate. "I'm a total comfort eater" is a common refrain among women; me included.

I've lost count of the number of times I've been food shopping and justified buying biscuits, cakes or treats with all manner of excuses: it's been a tough day. I deserve a treat. Ach, who cares if I have biscuits, I'm answerable to nobody.

Whether out of boredom, stress, anxiety, habit or even loneliness, I'll chow down food until I feel the gentle, alluring lull of a 'carb coma'.

Digesting lots of sugary food tires out the body, leading to that blissful feeling of relaxation (in truth, it's your system working overtime to process the onslaught of calories). Add the dopamine high that many sugary foods deliver, and it's a double-whammy that few can resist.

It's hard to pinpoint the reasons I do this, though I have tried. Often, it's a skewed take on self-care.

After a tough time, it's all too easy to justify an evening with face in fridge.

Something along the lines of, 'I've been denied something in life, so why deny myself now?'. Other times, it's just easier to give in to temptation.

 

Trance

 

But then, the full feeling gives way to something much less savoury; a creeping feeling that you might be doing more harm than good to yourself.

And, like many addictions, it takes more and more food to get the same hit after a while. Many's the time I've put my hand into a biscuit packet, rummaged around and felt nothing, wondered 'who the heck has finished off this packet?' before realising it was me, just there in one sitting, that snaffled the lot.

In her essay I Know Why The Fat Lady Sings, writer Caitlin Moran pinpoints some of the reasons that women are particularly susceptible to emotional eating. "In this trance-like state, you can find a welcome, temporary relief from thinking for 10, 20 minutes at a time, until finally a new set of sensations – physical discomfort and immense regret – make you stop, in the same way you finally pass out on whiskey or dope," she writes. "Overeating, or comfort eating, is the cheap, meek option for self-satisfaction, and self-obliteration.

"In a nutshell, then, by choosing food as your drug –sugar highs, or the deep, soporific calm of carbs – you can still make the packed lunches, do the school run, look after the baby, stop in on your parents and then stay up all night with an ill five-year-old – something that is not an option if you're regularly climbing into the cupboard under the stairs and knocking back quarts of scotch.

"Overeating is the addiction of choice of carers and that's why it's come to be regarded as the lowest-ranking of all the addictions. It's a way of screwing yourself up while still remaining fully functional, because you have to.

"Fat people aren't indulging in the 'luxury' of their addiction, making them useless, chaotic or a burden. Instead, they are slowly self-destructing in a way that doesn't inconvenience anyone. And that is why it's so often a woman's addiction of choice."

Colman Noctor, psychologist at St Patrick's Hospital, Kilmainham, admits that we are all to some extent emotional eaters. Yet there are subtly different shades of comfort eating; when it begins to affect one's life, problems can and will arise. So when does comfort eating become more like an addiction to food?

"It's the extent to which it affects your life that you need to look at," he explains. "It's normal to feel that after a busy or stressful day, you deserve that. Or, if you didn't manage to go out on that walk, you will deny yourself a pizza on Saturday night. It's all very amenable within these constraints, but you then need to weigh up your eating habits with your emotional state.

"If it affects your life, your relationships, your work performance or your happiness, and your eating has enduring effects, it's time to address it." And yet, while many people eat to feel better, Noctor contends that some people eat more to feel worse about themselves.

"You eat to regulate emotion, and that means making yourself feel better or worse," he observes. "Some people feel they don't deserve things when they do well, and they have inability to tolerate that, hence binge eating."

Naturally, in a society where food is bountiful, food addiction can be hard to pinpoint. After all; if you want to tackle an addiction to drugs or alcohol, you steer clear completely of them. For obvious reasons, this isn't easy to do with food. And from childhood onwards, food and feelings have been inextricably linked in our society.

"From the time we're very, very small, we got Buttons or desserts as a treat, or were given a biscuit when we were upset," observes Noctor.

"Between birthdays and celebrations, good feelings have long been related to food. Whether we overeat or under eat, there is often a subjective element to it. Some people don't eat before an exam or job interview because of nerves, but others will go the opposite way."

Very simply, we do this because we are internalising the emotional. Culturally, we are not taught to deal particularly well with bad feelings; instead of riding out a bad time, we seek to banish negative feelings promptly. And so eating becomes a short-term fix to a long-term issue.

People rarely get to the heart of the problem when they tackle emotional eating. Most people seek to address the situation by dieting or joining a gym. The only way, in reality, that you will get yourself out of the comfort eating quagmire is to figure out the reasons why you eat, not what you eat.

 

Lonely

"Most people address the effects of comfort eating, without dealing with the symptoms," says Noctor. "For example if you eat because you are lonely, you need to address the loneliness first, then the food second. The idea would be to develop strategies to help a person to regulate their own emotional space. No amount of dieting will address that."

It's not likely that society's increasingly complex relationship with food will change any time soon, but those who suspect that food is taking over their lives can take action. Mindful eating – being especially aware of everything that goes into their mouths – helps some people feel more in control of themselves. Overeaters Anonymous hold meetings in Dublin (www.oa.org/membersgroups/find-a-meeting/or call 01 278 8106), or emotional support can be sought from a GP or counsellor.

"If you manage the emotions that might make you overeat, your eating patterns will fall into place as a matter of course," advises Noctor. "In the short-term, finding alternative ways of managing that emotion, from exercise, conversation, distraction and activities will help your negative feelings recede into the background."

One Connemara half marathon later, and Sile Seoige seems to have found a way out from the darkness. And, once you realise dopamine highs don't come from the bottom of the Fig Rolls packet, the only way is up.


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