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What’s behind the urge to eat? Unpacking emotional and uncontrolled eating

Documentation2Researchers in Finland have established a connection between feeling burnt out at work, and eating behaviours such as emotional eating and uncontrolled eating.

What is burnout?
Burnout is a psychological term, describing long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work. It is caused by chronic stress, often in response to work demands being greater than the resources available to the person in question.

Burnout generally progresses from mild to more extreme feelings over time. For example, initial stages might present as fatigue or overwhelm (such as statements like “I often sleep poorly because of work”), but later move towards cynicism towards work and colleagues (“I often think about quitting my job”). In more extreme cases of burnout, people may feel that their work has little or no value (“I often feel inadequate”).

And how do people respond to those feelings of being fatigued, overwhelmed or cynical at work? Often, it’s with food. In a recent study, researchers sought to investigate if there was a relationship between burnout, emotional eating, and uncontrolled eating, and if eating behaviour and body weight were affected by occupational burnout.

Emotional eating and uncontrolled eating – what’s the difference?
Emotional eating is described as eating in response to moods such as sadness, loneliness, or concern. A person who eats in this way might agree with the statement, “When I feel down, I often overeat.” In contrast, uncontrolled eating describes an individual feeling out of control in relation to the amount of food eaten, as well as eating in response to external triggers. Someone who experiences uncontrolled eating might be more inclined to agree with the statement, “Sometimes when I start eating, I just can’t seem to stop.”

Eating behaviour and stress
Earlier research has shown that people may respond to stress with emotional eating. Commonly people who eat in response to stress also show an increased preference for sweet or fatty foods, drinks containing sugar, or alcohol – not exactly solutions that will help clients with their physical or mental health!

Study design
This research study was conducted over a twelve-month period, from a sample of 10,900 people aged between 30 and 55. To be included in the trial, participants were required to also be willing to make a change in at least one of the following behaviours:
o Losing weight
o Increasing exercise
o Reducing alcohol consumption
o Improving eating habits
o Quitting smoking, or
o Improving sleeping habits.

Finally, participants were also required to meet at least one of the following increased risk factors: BMI between 27-34; participating in less than 20-30 minutes of physical activity over 5 days in a week, difficulty sleeping, high-risk alcohol consumption, smoking, or unhealthy eating habits such as not eating vegetables every day.

Researchers assessed eating behaviour and burnout using standardised evaluation methods. Weight and percentage body fat was also collected.

Methods
During the study, participants were divided into groups. Two of the three groups received educational group sessions, covering topics such as value analysis, personalised goal setting and problem-solving skills, and were asked to observe and record their own behaviour, if they wished. One group was invited to record these metrics on paper, and the other group was offered mobile phones or web portals to record observations about themselves during the study. The third group was a control. Data recorded by participants as part of this self-observation was not collected for research in this study.

Results
Results were analysed for 230 women, with a mean age of 44.8 years. 33.5% were of normal weight (BMI <25); 33.5% were overweight (BMI 25.0-29.9) and 33% were obese (BMI>30). 22.2% of the women had at least mild burnout. Across all participants, there was no significant change in weight over the twelve-month period of the study, however mean waist circumference and mean percentage body fat decreased significantly during that time.

Emotional eating, uncontrolled eating, burnout and weight
At the start of the study, emotional eating and uncontrolled eating were significantly higher amongst women with burnout.

Following the conclusion of the 12-month study period the eating behaviours of each group were investigated again. It was found that uncontrolled eating decreased significantly amongst those without burnout over the course of the study.

Discussion
This study shows that there is a link between occupational burnout and eating behaviour. Women with burnout were significantly more likely to experience emotional eating or uncontrolled eating compared with those people who did not have burnout either at baseline or the conclusion of the study. It is possible that people who experience burnout may use emotional eating as a coping mechanism and may also be more vulnerable to uncontrolled eating.

For weight loss professionals, this means that recognising and treating burnout is an important first step when supporting obese or overweight clients.

Practical strategies for your weight loss clients
Women who have symptoms of burnout may be more likely to have emotional or uncontrolled eating. Also, burnout may reduce the ability to make changes in eating behaviour. Weight loss professionals can apply this insight by ensuring that feelings of burnout are treated before they introduce other approaches to managing obesity.

Perhaps you could start with an assessment on your client’s level of burnout. If a client has reduced resources for making changes because of burnout, this should be the first thing you focus on. This can be followed with more attention on healthier eating behaviours.

Reference: Nevanpera, N. J., Hopsu, L., Kuosma, E., Ukkola, O., Uitti, J., & Laitinen, J. H. (2012). Occupational burnout, eating behavior, and weight among working women. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 934–943. doi:10.3945/ajcn.111.014191.

Do your clients exhibit symptoms of burnout? How do you help them manage those feelings while they are working to lose weight? Share your top tips in the comments below.

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