beatMisunderstanding, lack of help and stigma is affecting people with emotional overeating issues, a new survey has revealed.

The survey, by eating disorder charity Beat, found that 88% said their problems with food were related to emotional distress. In response, the charity has called for greater understanding of the link between emotional issues around food and the need for improved psychological support.

More than 1,000 people across the UK responded Beat’s survey. Some of the headline findings included: 

73% who visited their GP said their emotional health wasn’t investigated

92% said they’d like to lose weight

76% felt their self-esteem was low

85% had a negative body image of themselves

79% felt under pressure from society to lose weight

53% suffered from depression.

Dr Andrew Hill, professor of medical psychology at Leeds University, said: “Emotions, mainly negative emotions, play a major role in unwanted and uncontrolled eating. Unhelpful relationships between food, eating, and mood can be longstanding and very difficult to change. They are also very difficult to talk to others about. For some people, recognizing the interplay between food and feelings is an important first step. Others require more specialist psychological support. Lifting the stigma of mental health is one of the challenges for our time. Understanding the role of food and eating in emotional health is part of this challenge, as is making opportunities for access to the varieties of helpful support available.”

Beat’s chief executive, Susan Ringwood, added: “We need to raise greater awareness that people with emotional issues around food need psychological support. We know from the daily contact our Helpline staff have talking to people in emotional distress they can’t necessarily tell whether the person on the line is underweight or overweight because the way they talk about their emotions are so similar. They talk about the way they feel rather than their size.

“There is a significant proportion of those people who are overweight and who have an emotionally unhealthy relationship with food. They may need skilled psychological and emotional support to help them achieve and maintain a healthy weight and shape. It is this skilled support that is lacking. Being told to eat less and exercise more isn’t an adequate answer. This survey demonstrates only too clearly that people struggling to overcome their overweight need better help and understanding – both from healthcare professionals and society in general.”

Dr Maureen Baker, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said: “GPs are the health professionals most trusted by patients. We have a unique relationship with our patients and are trained to help them open up and discuss difficult issues, but this can take time and can often only be achieved after many consultations.

“Overeating remains a taboo subject for most people and the reasons for this are varied and complex. It is vital that mental health achieves the same attention as physical health and we need greater access to talking therapies so that patients can feel more confident and comfortable about discussing difficult issues affecting their lives.”