Although happiness and boredom are both among the feelings that can prompt overeating, stress and anxiety are rated as two of the major drivers.

Although happiness and boredom are both among the feelings that can prompt overeating, stress and anxiety are rated as two of the major drivers. Photo: Getty

It's the message we hear over and over again: that sticking to a healthy weight boils down to eating the right food and exercising more. What we don't hear so loudly is how we can tackle one of weight management's most common saboteurs - emotional eating.

"With emotional eating dieting is barking up the wrong tree. You need to get to the reason behind the eating," says Louise Adams, a Sydney-based clinical psychologist who specialises in eating disorders and emotional eating.

Although happiness and boredom are both among the feelings that can prompt overeating, Adams rates stress and anxiety as two of the major drivers. And if you're wondering why some of us turn to food for comfort, she believes it's the same reason that others turn to alcohol or other drugs – because we're not taught skills to cope with bad feelings.

"We need to recognise that it's okay to have a strong feeling that makes you feel bad – yet we have this idea in our culture that a negative feeling must be banished straight away. Look how often we distract children with something like a biscuit if they're upset," she says. "We're not taught to ride out the feeling. Instead we learn to numb it with alcohol, eating or drugs.

"Yet if you learn to sit with the feeling, you realise that it's like a wave – it builds in intensity and then it passes. It's very empowering to realise you can handle it. I think that as parents we need to teach kids that negative emotions happen, that we're not happy all the time. If my five year old says she's annoyed because of something her sister did I'll say 'being annoyed is normal.'"

Learning to ride out the feeling then is one part of the solution - the other is using a technique called mindful eating to get reacquainted with hunger signals.

Getting in touch with hunger and fullness signals is more effective than dieting, says  Adams who gets clients to use to use a  zero to seven hunger scale which rates ravenous as zero and stuffed at as seven.

"Do your best  to stop eating when you're satisfied, at four or five, before the stuffed stage and to eat at  slightly hungry, two to three, before you reach the ravenous stage – that's when it becomes too easy to overeat. I get people to think of 'ravenous' as a punch on the arm and moderate hunger as a tap on the shoulder that reminds you to eat," she says.

"It's also about slowing down and engaging with the food rather than eating while you're doing something else  such as working or watching television. If you're not engaged with the food, not only can you miss recognising the fullness signals but you also miss out on the experience of enjoying the food.

"Emotional eaters feel as if they're not in control, but the wonderful thing about mindful eating is that when you've mastered it you feel you are in control – and if you keep practising you'll be in control in all situations, including a buffet."

Is emotional eating an increasing problem?

"We don't know. However we do know that eating disorders are increasing and that emotional eating is a central feature of eating disorders – and although it's always been a problem that  tends to affect women, we're now seeing more men with emotional eating," says Adams who believes that tackling the stigma that goes with being overweight could help reduce disordered eating.

"It's the last bastion of acceptable discrimination. I've lost count of the larger clients I've had who don't eat while they're at work because they're ashamed of being seen eating – and who then go home and overeat because they there were so hungry."

For  a good fact sheet on mindful eating, go to Eating Disorders Victoria  Eating Disorders Victoria also has a helpline available to callers from all States at  1300 550 236 . For help to find a psychologist in your area go to the Australian Psychological Society