Emotional eating fuelling Australia's obesity epidemic, psychologists say.

Image: supplied. BSam Ikin.

Emotional eating plays a huge role in Australia’s obesity epidemic with 83 per cent of overweight or obese Australians eating emotionally, according to a recent survey.

The mental health side of obesity is not something that has been given much coverage.

Anti-obesity campaigns have mostly been based on a version of the old mantra “eat less, exercise more”, but is anyone in the country actually not aware of that?

If it is that simple why does the country keep getting fatter?

While the “eat less, exercise more” message is technically true, psychologist Dr Ali Dale points out it is pretty simplistic.

“My hope would be that there’s a greater awareness of the complexity of our relationship with food and that we start to move away from the just ‘eat less, exercise more’ type messages,” she said.

“The same messages just aren’t effective; just telling people to eat less and exercise more, because there’s more to it than that.

“There’s a whole brain science behind what drives people to comfort eat and there’s a psychology to that relationship.

“If it was that simple we wouldn’t have the challenges that we have.”

Australia’s war on obesity has, statistically, been a dramatic failure.

At last count the National Health Survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) found the proportion of Australians classified as overweight or obese continued to increase to 63 per cent. Around 71 per cent of men fall into this category and 53 per cent of women.

In the past two years alone the Federal Government has spent more than $100 million trying to get Australians to eat less and exercise more and address obesity and weight gain from a mental health point of view.


That does not include initiatives of the state and territory governments.

Hormones responsible for ‘vicious cycle’

Dr Dale runs a specialist medical weight management clinic in WA and specialises in the relationship between the brain, emotions and eating.

She has quoted new data that suggests most overweight Australians were comfort or emotional eaters and stress and depression were major triggers.

“Over 90 per cent of Australian women who struggle with their weight comfort eat, we know that over 86 per cent of men again who struggle with their weight, they comfort eat,” she said.

“Even if it’s not a diagnosable mental health condition we know that if you’re overweight then you’re more likely to have certain hormones released into your system and you’re more likely to look for high fat, high sugar foods.

“If you’re eating high fat, high sugar foods you gain more weight.

“We know that society judges you, you don’t move as easily and so therefore you feel worse about yourself but then that releases those same hormones which drives us to comfort eat even more.”

She refers to this process as the “vicious cycle” of obesity.

This research, carried out by Cambridge Weight Plan, was released to coincide with Healthy Weight Week which is being run by the Dieticians Association of Australia (DAA). 

DAA spokeswoman Professor Clare Collins said weight loss and obesity issues were a “national tragedy”.

“It’s a trend we’ve seen for a long time, and that’s why we feel there’s a need to focus on healthy eating to help people get to a healthier weight,” she said.

“We’re up there in the countries that have a very high prevalence of overweight and obesity, this is a national tragedy.”


The DAA has put out some very doable guidelines like cooking more food at home and finding out what your portions sizes were supposed to be.

Obesity ‘most shameful experience’ person can have.

But Dr Dale said emotional eating also needed to be addressed.

“Research says that there’s 221 food related decisions that we make every single day of those we know that less than 20 are made quite consciously,” she said.

“We make most of them out of habit and a lot of them are driven by our emotional state.

“If we can raise awareness of the role of emotions, the role of availability within our own homes of high fat, high sugar foods we can give people some strategies to reduce that.

“Really simple strategies like, reduce the number of food related decisions you have to make every day, look for a structured program that helps you to reduce those food related decisions then we know that people have a much greater likelihood of success.”

Some state and territory government funded health campaigns which have been accused of fat shaming are also unlikely to work Dr Dale said.

“Research is showing that problems with managing your weight, or obesity, is ranked as the most shameful experience you can have in your life,” she said.

“Far above just mental health concerns which traditionally are considered to be surrounded by a heap of shame.

“When people feel shame you engage in more secret eating you gain more weight.

“So whatever we can do to start to remove some of the stigma to accept that actually the majority of Australians are struggling with their weight we might start to have really honest conversations about weight and therefore we might remove the ‘eat less, exercise more’ messages.”

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This post originally appeared on ABC News.