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Emotional hunger (Emotional Eating) is a concept that increases eating behavior in situations such as stress, anxiety, depression, anger and happiness. Emotional hunger has often been associated with low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and eating disorders. This overeating reaction in the face of emotions is common in obese individuals. In addition, it has been shown that it can occur in individuals with normal weight too. Therefore, it is suggested that emotions affect eating behavior..

Eating has a pleasing and pleasurable effect. It has been observed that these effects are greater in obese individuals than in those with normal weight. Obese individuals tend to consume more fragrant and looking foods. These foods affect the eating behavior of obese individuals. Emotional hunger has been associated with Binge Eating Disorder (BED) and Bulimia Nervosa (BN).

BED is the state of not being able to control eating, that is, not being aware of what one eats and how much. They consume the food that one or more people can consume in a short time. In BN, on the other hand, because they avoid gaining weight after excessive or normal eating, similar to binge eating disorder; They resort to behaviors such as vomiting, use of diuretic drugs or excessive exercise.

BED is more common in obese individuals. It has been shown that approximately half of bariatric surgery patients are diagnosed with BED (Vinai et al. 2015). In the study of Annagür et al. (2012), 22 of 48 individuals admitted to the hospital due to obesity had BED. Studies on the biological processes that lead to the formation of BED suggest that dopamine, opioids, ghrelin and serotonin play a role in the etiology. Changes in the reward-related regions of the brain, dopamine, acetylcholine, or opioid systems, are said to increase BED.  Neural loops between eating and rewarding are linked to many brain regions, such as the thalamus and hypothalamus. Dopamine has a very important role in rewarding and directing nutrition. It is said that impaired serotonin transmission is associated with the development of BED.

An individual’s negative beliefs about himself, his weight, body shape or eating behavior can cause  automatic  negative thoughts and related emotional responses in the person. As a result of distressing emotional responses, both positive and negative thoughts about eating behavior may arise. If a person eats in order to reduce his emotional distress, he may produce new thoughts  that  cannot controll eating , such as “I can’t stop myself” after this behavior. The individual who feels emotionally relieved with BED tends to repeat this behavior and may become a habit. There are behaviors such as eating until feeling satiated at a disturbing level, eating excessive amounts without feeling hungry, eating alone because one is ashamed of how much they have eaten, self-disgust and guilty after eating.

The main goals in treatment are; it is the acquisition of a healthy eating habit, having a stable body weight, and the treatment of obesity-related disorders and mental disorders seen in addition to these. Drug treatments to achieve these goals; Psychotherapy methods such as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Behavioral Weight Loss Therapy, Interpersonal Psychotherapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Motivational Therapy and Bariatric Surgery bring important opportunities.

How Can Emotional and Physical Hunger Be Distinguished?

▪ While physical hunger makes itself felt gradually, emotional hunger appears suddenly.

▪ Physical hunger is more tolerable than emotional hunger. While satisfying physical hunger can be delayed, the need to satisfy emotional hunger creates urgency. The person feels compelled  to eat at that very moment.

▪ If you tend to choose a particular food in response to hunger, you are more likely to feel emotional hunger. Because in the face of physical hunger, people are often open to other alternatives.

▪ When eating in physical hunger, it is easier to stop eating after fullness; Those who eat with emotional hunger may not feel full and continue to eat.

▪ Emotional hunger is often followed by guilt and regret.

How to Deal with Emotional Eating

The first step will be to try to recognize your emotions and review your experiences before you felt that way. Because gaining awareness of how you feel helps you increase the ability to control your behavior.

After this stage, you can create a “to-do list” for yourself to get involved in an activity where you can clear your mind or distract yourself. This activity could be, organizing your wardrobe, looking for someone you enjoy chatting with, breathing exercises or taking a walk. It should be noted that this list will vary from person to person.

If you are sure that you have an emotional eating disorder, it is useful to stay away from packaged, calorie ready foods for precautionary purposes, and not to buy foods outside the shopping list you have previously created in your basket. Do not keep  stocks  of junk foods  in your home. Also, since sleep directly affects the diet, paying attention to your sleep pattern can make it easier for you to create a healthier eating pattern.

If, despite your best efforts, you are unable to achieve lasting behavior change and continue to view eating as a way of relieving emotional tension, be sure to seek support from a mental health professional.

In recent years, studies examining the effects of emotional eating and the results of bariatric surgery have shown that those with more emotional eating lost less weight with the diet program applied after surgery. Emotional eating behavior is a risk for weight loss before or after surgery. For this reason, it is recommended  that individuals with emotional eating disorder receive psychological support during this process.

Dyt. Tuğba Günal & Dyt. Merve Önder