We’ve all seen HPB’s (Health Promotion Board's) recent “Trust No Tongue” ad, which features a triad gang. While it catches attention, beneath that comedic sketch lies a serious message: we can’t trust our tongue to determine too much salt in our food.

This idea can similary be extended to another healthy eating concept – we shouldn’t trust our hearts or emotions to determine our eating habits.

According to psychologists Audrey Bay and Sheryne Seah, from Sengkang General Hospital’s (SKH) SWITCH (Sengkang Weight Improvement Therapy and Complete Health) programme, they have noticed a trend that those with difficulty managing their weight, often emotional eat and/or have negative perception of themselves.

“While there is nothing wrong with eating per se, feeling emotional may result in the tendency to consume:

  1. More than usual; and/or

  2. Unhealthy options

Eating can provide temporary relief when we are emotional, but it can be detrimental to one’s health if it becomes a habit,” shared both psychologists.

How emotional eating can lead to overeating

Emotional eating involves alleviating unpleasant emotions (e.g. stress, sadness, disappointment, boredom etc) by indulging in eating.

An example would be a caregiver snacking on fast food every night after putting their child to sleep to “unwind”. They may also perceive that they “deserve” this break after an exhausting day.

Similarly, some may indulge in food when they feel pleasant emotions (e.g. passing a test, getting a promotion, etc). In such a scenario, the individual may think, “I should treat myself,” after winning an award and subsequently consume an entire tub of ice-cream.

Having a negative perception of oneself is associated with higher likelihood of overeating

For those who struggle with low self-esteem and/or body image issues. Having a negative perception of themselves can make it challenging for them to effect positive changes to their overall health.

For instance, an individual concerned about being viewed negatively by others in public may feel ashamed to exercise in a gym or even go for a walk around the block, for fear of bumping into a familiar face who may make undesirable comments about their weight and shape.

When taken further, this fear can even extend to avoiding social gatherings with family and friends.

In extreme cases, this can lead to the individual feeling resigned and helpless, bringing about further overeating – causing a downward spiral.

4 Ways to help curb emotional eating and overeating

There are simple steps you can take to start having a healthier relationship with food. These are:

1. Identify the trigger and problem solve it

Take the time to think if there are unreasonable expectations that you place on yourself, which worsens your stress and learn to put those aside.

Start by looking for ways to reduce your stress and increase self-care. These can include learning to prioritise better, practising relaxation strategies, or simply taking a break.

If difficulties regulating your emotions are what causes you to overeat, pick up some alternative coping strategies (e.g., journaling, talking through your emotions with a close friend etc). 

Sometimes a distracting activity can also help you to feel better in the moment, instead of turning to food as a source of satisfaction.

2. Change the way you think so that it benefits you!

Here are some examples of how you can switch from thinking in a way that is unhelpful to you to a way that actually benefits you.

Thinking that is unhelpful for me

​Thinking that benefits me

​ I’m stressed. Eating what I like will make me feel better.

​Eating isn't the only way. I can go for a short walk to de-stress. 

Stress eating does not make my problem go away but reprioritising might help. I’m just adding to my problems if I gain weight too!

​I want to lose this awful feeling. 

​I accept that negative emotions are part of being human. These negative emotions come in waves, but they eventually subside. 

I don’t have to be afraid of my feelings or use food as a means of escape.

​It’s a tradition to celebrate good news with a good meal. I deserve a treat!

I can create my own traditions. Exploring a new place with good company makes me happy and supports my health goals. 

It also counts as exercise and can help me get more active!

3. Change the way you grocery shop

Sometimes our environment can make it hard for us to be mindful with our food consumption. So, make it a point to consciously put together a shopping list and consider the health value of the items on your shopping list.  

This helps prevent impulse buying at the supermarket and limits the amount of unhealthy junk food that wind up in your basket. And when such items are no longer in your home, it’ll be a case of “out of sight, out of mind”.

4. Don’t hesitate to seek help from loved ones

Supportive family members, friends, or colleagues can make your weight loss mission simpler and more enjoyable by joining you on your healthier journey (e.g. going for evening walks together, eating healthier etc.) Tell them that doing it together benefits them too!

Time to change the way we think about obesity

Dr Marvin Chua, Consultant from the Department of Endocrinology at SKH, who has been a member of the SWITCH programme team since 2018, firmly believes it is time to change the way we think about obesity.

Dr Chua strives to debunk the widespread myth that obesity arises due to poor lifestyle choices by emphasising the importance of recognising obesity as a chronic disease, for which regular treatment and follow up are essential.

“This is because the etiology of obesity is complex and multifactorial – broadly put, it includes a combination of genetic, metabolic, behavioural and cultural factors which lead to dysregulation of energy homeostasis and ultimately obesity,” he explained.

Obesity is known to be associated with more than 200 diseases affecting almost every organ system in the human body, from head to toe.

​To learn about safe and effective treatments to beat obesity, check out this SKOOP article!

This includes potentially life-threatening conditions such as:

However, obesity is also associated with other less well-known conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) and fatty liver disease

Obesity can lead to an adverse impact on psychological health, resulting in conditions such as depression and eating disorders.

Obesity, a growing problem globally and locally!

Obesity is a huge problem not just globally but also in Singapore. Based on the National Population Health Survey (NPHS), the prevalence of obesity among Singapore residents increased progressively from 8.6% in 2017 to 10.5% in 2019 – 2020 and to 11.6% in 2021 – 2022. Alarming as these figures appear, these were based on a BMI cutoff of 30 kg/m2.

“To compound this problem, Asians including Singaporeans have higher body fat and are at an increased risk of weight-related complications including diabetes and heart disease, as compared to our Caucasian counterparts.

Therefore, the BMI cut off for Asians is lowered by 2.5 kg/m2, with a BMI of ≥ 27.5 kg/m2 denoting a high-risk BMI for weight-related complications,” Dr Chua shared. 

Going back to the NPHS, the prevalence of high-risk BMI among Singapore residents was actually significantly higher at 18.7% in 2017, 20.7% in 2019 – 2020 and 22.3% in 2021 – 2022 – translating to approximately one in five Singapore residents

Indeed, this may be a more accurate representation of the magnitude of the problem of obesity in our society.

Dr Chua explained that the progressive increase in the prevalence of obesity is largely  contributed to by an increasingly sedentary lifestyle with a lack of exercise and the easy availability of energy-dense food - a problem significantly exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. 

His personal observations and reflections prompted him to author a journal article entitled “Obesity and COVID-19: The clash of two pandemics” in 2020. 

“The main objective for treating obesity is to reduce the impact of weight-related complications, and ultimately improve health, rather than for cosmetic or other reasons. Therefore, people who already have weight-related complications as well as those with more severe degrees of obesity should consider seeking medical attention early,” advised Dr Chua.

Ref: H24

Check out other weight loss articles:

Our Ultimate Guide to Healthy Weight Loss

10 Golden Rules for Safe and Effective Weight Loss

Eating Disorders: 3 Common Types and Coping Tips

Boost Your Metabolism to Lose Fat: What to Eat and Do

Intermittent Fasting: How To Do It Safely

Keto Diet: Is It Good for You?

Exercising Right: Effective Exercises for Losing Weight

Making Sense of Nutrition Facts in Foods