Overeating, dieting, stress-induced craving, guilt, comfort eating, dissatisfaction with body image… these experiences are much more common than one might think. Having little to do with the actual physical appearance or how confident a person might seem to others, disordered eating behaviour – be it binge eating or dietary restrictions – and body image issues affect between 4% and 23% of the population at any given time.
Another thing which has become increasingly common and very much driven by the media is applying strict ‘food rules’ that often cause more stress and negative emotions in our life, and can distort our body image. Just have a look at the headlines in magazines, or articles, videos and adverts about miracle health foods, weight loss products etc. popping up on social media, and you’ll realise how prevalent this obsession with food and body image is in our society.
But the effects of this unhealthy relationship with food and body image distress aren’t restricted to individuals’ personal life – like any other cause of stress, they spill over into all other areas of life, including work.
Binge eating and work performance
The most common type of disordered eating behaviour is binge eating – tendency to lose control and overeat even if not hungry. Considering that propensity to binge eating episodes is associated with negative emotions such as depression, shame and guilt, poor body image or obsessive worries about one’s weight, it is not surprising then that it is also associated with a diminished capacity to discharge one’s day-to-day responsibilities.
In a 2012 study published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, binge eating was linked to higher levels of absenteeism, presenteeism and overall work productivity impairment in employees. This impairment was quite separate from the impairments attributed to stress and depression, which were also more prominent in binge eaters.
And although disordered eating is not something which is commonly given any consideration in workplace contexts, the estimated annual productivity loss due to binge eating in a company of 1,000 employees is $107,965 (approximately £87,000). The cost of obesity is even greater, and binge eating is a known risk factor for obesity. Therefore any efforts to improve the health, productivity and performance of employees cannot be complete unless they include routine screening and interventions for binge eating behaviour.
Over recent years, developments in psychology have brought about a new approach to healthy and balanced eating, which effectively addresses emotional and binge eating behaviour, and assists in weight regulation.
Switching off the autopilot
Our eating behaviour is often automatic, driven by subconscious influences that most of the time we are not even aware of. Mindful eating is a new scientific technique that allows us to observe, understand and gain awareness of our eating behaviour. It is the opposite of mindless eating: automatically eating with no connection with our bodily needs, what we like and we do not like, what we want, what we feel.
This systemic approach to eating works on several levels, tackling family and societal influences, individual’s emotions and habitual pattern of responding to stress, as well as misconceptions and lack of education on nutrition.
One important issue that Mindful Eating focuses on is busting the myth of the ‘bad’ and ‘good’ foods or ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ foods. From the nutritional point of view, all foods are good as long as we eat them in moderation.
So if individual foods are not the problem, then what is?
Research has shown that the application of strict ‘food rules’ leads to disturbed eating as well as a disturbed relationship with oneself. This is where Mindful Eating comes in: by helping us reconnect with our body and understand our eating habits, and underlying emotional triggers, it enables us to break that vicious cycle of overeating (or, in some cases, of not eating enough) and start nurturing ourselves and enjoying food without guilt.
By helping us reconnect with our bodily signals of hunger, thirst and satiety and promoting self-care, Mindful Eating also helps reduce the occurrence of spikes and dips in our blood sugar levels which is one of the most important physiological factors leading to reduced concentration, low energy levels, mood changes and binge eating.
Although, as its name implies, Mindful Eating focuses on our eating behaviour, the most interesting thing about it is that it has knock-on effects on many other aspects of our life. Once we start eating mindfully, we start respecting ourselves more which has a positive impact on all relationships in our life, be they personal or professional.
Dr Jelena Goranovic – Jelena is a psychologist and Programme Director of Sussex wellbeing company. Having worked as a researcher for over 15 years as well as teaching at several universities in Brighton and London, she now works as workplace wellbeing and stress management consultant, helping companies maximise employee performance with tailor-made wellbeing and team development programmes. Mindful Eating is part of the specialised stress management programmes offered to client organisations whose main workplace wellbeing goal is to help improve energy levels and reduce absenteeism due to chronic health conditions among groups of employees identified as being at risk of eating-related problems.