It is an open secret that all of us live to eat. Eating has become an essential part of our lives. Without food, our bodies lack the necessary nutrients needed to undergo the repair and recovery processes.

In many cultures, eating is often seen as a blessing. If you can eat, it means you are hale and hearty. In Asian cultures especially, being round is often associated as a positive sign of prosperity. Armed with this belief, sometimes we can go overboard with our eating habits. For example, in Singapore, we are surrounded by food courts, hawker centres, restaurants and convenience kiosks. Some of these eating places are even open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

What does this mean? Any time we are hungry, we don’t have to worry about not finding anything to eat. In fact, our problem is deciding what and where to eat!

Going overboard with our eating patterns often results in a problem at hand which I term ‘emotional eating’.

The truth is we are not really hungry at all. For those of you who still stick to the three square meals per day theory, you have had your breakfast, lunch and dinner. But you are still craving for that bowl of dessert in the form of ice kachang or peanut paste soup. Walk pass a convenience kiosk and you are again tempted by the aroma of freshly baked cookies or donuts calling out to you. On such common occasions, it is your emotions that have taken over control.

The problem of emotional eating may end with the scale but it begins in the mind.  Living in an increasingly demanding world where everything is done in double-quick time, stress inevitably takes its toll on your life. When your defences are compromised, your health takes a hit and so do your emotions.

Everyone has good days and bad days. How we deal with the bad ones brings emotional eating into play. Just like how some women enjoy retail therapy as a form of outlet for stress, so do you too look for comfort to compensate for your lousy day.

People who turn to food for comfort find a coping mechanism that won’t judge, hurt nor criticise them. This coping mechanism will also not tell them ‘no’. Interestingly, to complicate the issue, eating pleasurable foods can stimulate the release of endorphins (just like how exercise does). So, after you eat, you feel better.

Emotional eaters use food to relieve stress. They hide behind the food instead of seeking solutions to the problems. This is not uncommon when the stressor is something horrible such as physical abuse or a death. But even minor stressors such as a failed relationship or family problems can lead to emotional eating as emotional eaters need to divert their attention elsewhere to make themselves feel better.

But, how do you know you are using food in this way?  The first sign is obvious.  You will gain weight if you eat too much. In light of the weight gain, examine other areas of your life:

· Have you been under stress lately at work or at home?
· Has anything traumatic happened in the last year?
· Are you dealing with a problem but haven’t found a solution?

Answering “yes” to any of these questions could mean that you are an emotional eater. You eat but you are not necessarily hungry at the time.  The foods that you choose are what I term “comfort foods”:

· High fat foods like french fries, fried foods
· High carb foods like macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes
· Sugary foods like ice cream, donuts, cookies, cake

There is help for emotional eaters. The first step is recognizing that you have a problem. You’ll experience feelings of helplessness and guilt. The guilt can potentially ruin your health and the helplessness lies in the fact that you don’t see a way out. Recognition of the fact that you have a problem at hand is the most important step forward.

Secondly, seek help. There are many nutritionists who can offer you professional advice. He or she can help you be aware of the foods you are eating, assist you in making healthy food choices and recommend exercises for you. Proper diet and exercise increases immunity, blood flow and positive thinking. Emotional eating has nothing to do with dieting or changing your eating habits but gaining control over your emotions. You will also learn to see food as nutrition for the body and not an emotional crutch.

Thirdly, enlist your family members’ support. Very often, family support is vital in combating emotional eating. Your family can learn your triggers for stress and be on the lookout for changes in your eating habits.

Finding new ways to solve your problems and dealing with stress will eliminate food out of the equation. You’ll feel good about finding solutions which will replace the dependence on food.  Remember, you are what you eat.