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Emotional Eating

Emotional Eating: fact or fiction?

Medical research has clearly demonstrated that being overweight or obese is generally unhealthy. However, such an unhealthy state has less to do with your total body mass than it has to do with abdominal or visceral obesity. In plain language, it’s how much ‘tummy fat’ you have that actually determines your risk for developing certain chronic diseases.

Tummy fat and inflammation: twin sisters

Visceral obesity is implicated in the production of certain biochemical compounds that promote a form of inflammation that is bad for all of us. If you read my last blog you will have noticed that not all inflammation is bad for us, but any inflammation that leads to the development of chronic disease obviously is bad.

We now know that visceral obesity is associated with the development of a cluster of serious chronic diseases known as the Metabolic Syndrome. This cluster includes Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, forms of heart disease, blood fat problems, liver disease, poly cystic ovary syndrome, gout and some forms of cancer. In other words, visceral obesity is not something to be taken lightly.

Cortisol: the stress hormone

Research has revealed that chronic psychological stress may contribute to the development of visceral obesity through the repeated stimulation of what is known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (‘HPA’) which is a major neuroendocrine system (i.e. interacting brain-gland system) that amongst other things controls our reaction to stress and influences  our mood and emotions.  The repeated activation of the HPA axis leads to the over secretion of the hormone cortisol, which plays an important role in psychological stress.

Cortisol binds onto special receptors called glucocorticoid receptors which are found in far greater abundance in visceral fat cells than in other fat cells. Increased levels of cortisol combined with increased levels of insulin mobilises subcutaneous fat and moves it into the abdomen. This may go some way in providing an explanation as to why some women, as they lose weight, will say things like, ‘My bra fits better – I know that I’ve lost weight there, but my tummy fat just does not want to budge!’ It seems possible that high and sustained levels of cortisol caused by psychological stress could be the reason why some battle to lose tummy fat.

Chronic stress, just like sugar and other refined carbohydrate, is obviously not good for us. Not only does it promote the development of visceral obesity via hypersecretion of cortisol due to the repeated and prolonged activation of the HPA axis, but stress can also trigger the  consumption of high carbohydrate foods and snacks. Research shows that people who claim that they are ‘emotional eaters’ often gain abdominal weight during periods of stress.

Emotional eating: a fact of life for some

Emotional eating is exacerbated by a lack of understanding of what happens physiologically in such instances. People who identify themselves in this way often find it difficult to distinguish between real hunger cues and emotional arousal that results in the consumption of food and snacks.

Unfortunately most weightloss programmes pay scant attention to the impact of psychological stress on eating behaviour. Such ‘oversight’ may be one of the reasons why many people find it very difficult to sustain weightloss in the long run, even though they may have initially been successful in shedding unwanted kilos.

The lesson for those of us interested in addressing obesity, is that we should not simply focus our attention the scale, i.e. on weightloss, without paying close attention to abdominal fat. This means we should always consider the possibly that emotional eating may be lurking in the shadows hidden from view.

If you would like to know more about the emotional eating, which is fact and not fiction, and which may be the ‘elephant in the room’ for you, then please email my colleague Lona at We will be happy to work with you to find a solution to this very real eating disorder.

I’m Dr Peter Hill for UpForIt.