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Emotional Overeating Part 1: The Most Overlooked Reason for Why We Overeat

Many people today are writing about the problems which result from a sedentary lifestyle and calorie-rich, poor quality food. What I want to focus on is the way our childhood difficulties and adult unhappiness come together to create the perfect circumstances in which compulsive eating and obesity are the only logical response.
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This is the first in an exclusive three-part series of excerpts from the author's book Emotional Overeating: Know the Triggers, Heal Your Mind and Never Diet Again.

It seems as though we've become a society of addicts. Everywhere we turn, we're confronted with evidence of our rampant addictions. TV shows like Celebrity Rehab and Intervention have become commonplace; gambling is available online and at the corner grocery store; pornography is the number one item downloaded on computers and surgical centres specializing in lap band and bariatric procedures are more and more commonplace.

In particular, we've become a nation of compulsive overeaters, hyper-focused on everything having to do with food and eating. An epidemic of obesity is upon us with far-reaching implications to our health, economy and culture, but how did we get here? Is this a new phenomenon or part of a cycle of behaviour that reflects our basic human nature?

According to the most recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just over one third of the adults in the United States are obese. In Canada, the rate is closer to one quarter but it's increasing steadily. Currently, in the US, there isn't one state in which less than 15 per cent of the population is obese.

Obesity-related medical costs in the United States in 2008 topped $140 million and third party payers spent more than $1,400 dollars more for obese individuals than they did for normal weight people that same year. The rate of Type II diabetes, (an illness directly correlated with being overweight) has significantly increased in prevalence over the past 18 years. According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 1 billion overweight adults on the planet today, of which at least 300 million are obese.

It's clear that the rates of obesity and obesity-related illness are skyrocketing, but how do we make sense of this data? We need to look at the many factors that have come together to create our current epidemic.

I think that the North American obesity problem today is a result of the combination of three main factors: 1) greater access to inexpensive food that is densely packed with poor quality calories; 2) a more sedentary lifestyle where people drive instead of walking and spend hours in front of the TV set or the computer screen; 3) a pervasive state of unhappiness arising from an excess of neglect, abuse and trauma in childhood as well as a general lack of meaning, purpose and interpersonal connectedness in adult life.

Eating is a complex behaviour. It's driven not only by hunger but by the interplay of numerous biological, psychological, emotional, nutritional, social and economic factors. The craving for a cookie, for example, doesn't just come from the urge to eat something sweet. It is meaningful in that it reflects not just the person's desire for the treat but their yearning for love, comfort, belonging, emotional numbing and even social status.

Food has always been of the utmost importance, but today it's become so overvalued that we can't stop thinking about it, let alone consuming it. We've become obsessed with food and with eating, as well as with our body shape and size. We're compulsive in our eating behaviours, whether this means binge eating, restricting, purging, or a combination of all these. Our behaviour with regard to food is contradictory, often with the same person bouncing between compulsive overeating and compulsive dieting, all the while maintaining an obsessive preoccupation with what's being consumed.

Many people today are writing about the problems which result from a sedentary lifestyle and calorie rich, poor quality food. I'll leave it up to them to explain why high fructose corn syrup and hours spent in front of a computer screen are conducive to an expanding waistline. What I want to focus on is the way our childhood difficulties and adult unhappiness come together to create the perfect circumstances in which compulsive eating and obesity are the only logical response.

Addiction has become so prevalent today and is such a difficult to treat problem that theorists have proclaimed it to be a disease, akin to cancer or hypothyroidism. I have always found this idea to be facile and unhelpful. Some researchers even talk about an "addictive personality" whereby the individual is intelligent, creative, charismatic and visionary; seeks thrills and novelty, is driven to succeed, is innovative, challenges the status quo and takes risks.

While it's true that some individuals are more prone to addiction due to a case of "faulty wiring" in their brain where they more actively seek out pleasurable sensations due to an inadequate response to pleasurable activities, this alone doesn't account for why so many of us engage in so many different addictions. In fact, according to David J. Linden, a Johns Hopkins-based professor of neuroscience, genetic factors only account for 40 to 60 per cent of the risk of addiction.

Rather than seeing addiction as a disease, and overeating and obesity as problems which are beyond the control of the affected individual, I look at overeating, obesity and addiction in general as a way of dealing with two fundamental aspects of unhappiness: childhood hurts -- losses and unmet needs -- and adult suffering, whether conscious or unconscious.

I think that we engage in addictions as a way to compensate both for the hurts and losses of our early years and for what's missing in our adult lives today. As I'll discuss in further detail in the book, these two problems are at the root of addiction and are the key to the treatment of every addiction, including overeating and obesity.

If it were up to me I'd recommend that we throw out all our old ideas of how to treat not just overeating and obesity but all addictions, because it's clear that the current approaches aren't effective. In my work with women who overeat, the focus has never been on the weight or the diet but on the real underlying reasons why a person is driven to eat compulsively and to carry extra weight.

In the following chapter, I'll talk about what I think true happiness is, how we lost track of it and how we can find it again. I'll discuss how we engage in overeating as a way to compensate for our inner sense of emptiness and alienation and how we can heal this condition without resorting to food.