Stress of Immigration Can Also Cause Emotional Eating

By Lachelle Arevalo

What is emotional eating? Simply put, emotional eating satisfies emotional hunger, instead of physical hunger. Negative or overwhelming feelings, such as depression, anxiety, boredom, fatigue or emptiness, can trigger this eating disorder.

Manila-born Rochelle Potato is all-too-familiar with the consequences. “I immigrated to Canada for a job opportunity, but I had to leave my two young children back in the Philippines. It was one of the most difficult periods in my life,” she says. “I worried day-in and day-out, and had countless sleepless nights. To compensate for my lack of energy and to ward off my inner anguish, I would stuff myself with sugary foods, like ice cream, cake and chocolate.”

Not surprisingly, the constant binge-eating and unhealthy food choices caused her to gain weight in no time. “I gained around 20 pounds in just under three months upon arriving in Toronto. The clothes I brought from Manila couldn’t fit me anymore, and I got depressed. Worse, because I was depressed, I got stressed out and started eating so much more junk food,” she says.

Eating because depressed? 

According to Dr Octavian Boureanu, staff psychiatrist at Lakeshore General Hospital in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, “there seems to be an inverse relationship [between depression and obesity], where obese people have a 55 per cent increased tendency to develop depression. The mechanism is not entirely known; it could be because of the inflammatory cascade triggered by the obesity.”

When asked if stress does indeed cause weight gain, the Romanian-born doctor explained: “Depression is a chronic stress for the body. There are probably many mechanisms [as to how stress can cause weight gain]. One of them, likely an important one, would be through the HPA (hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal) axis, which basically co-ordinates the body’s response to stress, mood and emotions. Chronic stress leads to the hyperactivity of this axis, which results in an increased cortisol level, and then eventually to obesity.” In layman’s terms, depression can lead to overeating and weight gain; obesity can lead to depression. Without a doubt, emotional eating can activate a tragic cycle that could lead to obesity-related complications, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart ailments and gastric ulcers, among others.

Stop emotional eating 

Fortunately, there is hope yet for emotional-eaters. Here are some self-therapy strategies from Dr. Boureanu:

Be aware: Before eating, measure hunger between 1 to 10. If the level is below 6, the hunger is likely emotional, rather than physical. Another way is to ask: “Am I really hungry, or just bored?”

Keep a journal: Record eating schedules and food choices. The notes would provide a clear indication if food is perceived as sustenance, or as an emotion-blocker.

Make healthy food choices: Snacking is different from emotional eating. Preparing in-between meals or bringing a brown-bag lunch to work or school can ensure healthier food choices.

Be active: An idle mind is more susceptible to emotional eating. Schedule physical or social activities, such as going for a walk or visiting friends or family, before the first indications of weariness or sadness set in.

Find inner peace: This is easier said than done, and might take years of practice. There are several exercises that promote inner peace; popular ones include yoga, meditation, listening to relaxing music, and deep breathing.

Lose weight and keep it off

Like Rochelle and many other immigrants, this author also suffered from emotional eating. Upon diagnosis of early onset of Type 2 diabetes, she immediately decided to turn her life around and started on her weight-loss program. After adopting a new way of eating and following an active lifestyle, she eventually lost more than 35 pounds, kept it off, and founded an online community that helps other people in weight management. Here are her top three, fail-safe ways to lose weight:

* Follow a low-carbohydrate, protein-rich, high-fiber diet. Stop eating sugary, starch-laden, and processed foods. Choose lean meats and green leafy vegetables for meals; raw seeds and nuts or aged cheeses for snacks; fibrous fruits for desserts.

* Exercise at least 30 minutes to 1 hour daily. Regular physical activities, such as low or high-intensity exercises and strength-training sessions, dramatically increase metabolism and complement weight loss.

* Create or join a support group: Shifting to a healthy lifestyle is difficult without support and encouragement. Get your friends and family involved or find like-minded individuals online and offline that would promote mutual understanding. This would ensure that goals are achieved, while a responsive, health-conscious community is established.

Finally, it must be noted that food by itself does not cause weight gain, habits do. Habitual emotional eating, as well as making constant bad food choices, can lead to irreparable consequences. This destructive path can be avoided by empowering oneself to create an environment where there is a regular dose of activities and positive human interaction.

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