Hungry? It could be your head, not your stomach

RESEARCHERS have revealed the next big secret to losing weight - counselling.

They say tackling the country's obesity epidemic should not be purely about gym visits and diets. The experts say more focus is needed on addressing issues that can lead to obesity, such as depression, food addictions and emotional eating.

Australian Counselling Association chief executive Philip Armstrong said people with weight issues who attended counselling tended to lose more weight over a longer period.

READ MORE: Bigger bodies in vogue but watch your health

One of Mr Armstrong's obesity and mental health studies showed weight gain could start with trauma, such as a loss of a child, a breakup, a workplace issue or something else.

"Then people opt to eat as a result," he said. "It's the same as drinking. But a lot of people choose eating as opposed to drugs or alcohol."

Mr Armstrong said emotional eating could lead to a food addiction. But he said counselling helped people get back to where they were to begin with.

Queensland University of Technology's Psychology and Counselling Clinic psychology services director Esben Strodl said there were three types of dysfunctional eating.

These included: restraint eating, similar to dieting; disinhibited or impulsive, when people eat whatever is in front of them until it is gone; and emotional eating, where people turn to food as a way of coping with their emotions, sometimes without thinking about it.

Dr Strodl said emotional eaters usually turned to foods high in sugar or fat, which would send an immediate sense of pleasure to the brain.

"If you're feeling a negative emotion and feeling awful about it, then it's very reinforcing to have a quick fix," he said. "It's quite a powerful motivator to eat food as a coping mechanism."

But obesity does not always start with mental health issues.

Mr Armstrong said the relationship between obesity and mental health could be a "chicken and egg" situation.

Take children for example; there are obese children who did not become overweight because of mental health problems but because they had been brought up in a poor eating environment, Mr Armstrong said.

He said it could even start from when a child was in the mother's womb, especially if a mother did not make healthy choices.

Tips to avoid emotional eating

If you feel a negative emotion, instead of turning immediately to food for the pick-me-up, try not eating for 15-30 minutes. Then see if you can last an hour or two. Realise your emotions are transient and cannot harm you.

Be more self-aware and observe your own thoughts and feelings. Many people are on autopilot when they reach for the fridge door.

Be mindful of what you're eating. Dr Strodl said research had shown people who eat in front of the computer or TV tend to snack more. Turn off technology and enjoy the taste and lasting memory of your meal.

Keep a food journal and note what you eat and how you're feeling. Is there a trigger that makes you turn to food?

Get counselling to help find healthier coping mechanisms.

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