Vanessa Kredler is a self-described "food addict" who has lived with disordered eating tendencies for as long as she can remember.
The 40-year-old Sydney-sider believes her family's history of addiction, and the emotional trauma she experienced as a child, have contributed to her behaviour.
“I have been struggling with addictive eating... from an early age," she said.
"When I became a teenager I started binge eating and starving myself. It got progressively worse until I sought help [around] the age of 30,"
Addictive eating - or emotional eating - is a response to stress that occurs in 20 per cent of people. Generally they can’t recognise or distinguish between internal hunger signals and other bodily states. This results in binge eating, restrictive eating or a combination of both.
“People talk about being purely addicted to foods but we usually find out in the counselling and coaching process that there are underlying emotional components," Ms Kredler adds.
One approach to treating emotional eating is "mindfulness therapy".
A recent Dutch study found depressive symptoms and emotional eating can be mediated by certain techniques, such as “acting with awareness”.
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam researcher Professor Laura Winkens, said mindful eating and being aware of the body’s hunger, is important.
Mindful eating involves using all the senses to experience the food, while acknowledging hunger in the process.
“Our study suggests that especially increasing attention to the present moment is important in relation to emotional eating”, Professor Winkens said.
Sydney Psychologist Dr Sherisse Cohen, has experienced success with mindfulness-based approaches.
“Part of the therapy is learning how to be present with food, tasting it using your senses...learning to recognise an urge, not ignore it - and also learn to sit with it and ride the wave using the breath and awareness,” Dr Cohen said.
Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) was developed by American professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, and is based on Buddhist principles.
It doesn't stop pain or urges, but changes our relationship with food - psychologically. Since its development in the 1970s, MBSR has been used as a treatment for symptoms related to eating disorders, mental health issues, cancer and other chronic illnesses.
Many studies about emotional eating focus on obesity and weight gain.
However, a 2013 study by the American Psychiatric Association found that binge eating disorder - a sign of emotional eating - is distinct from obesity.
Sydney nutritionist Susan Williams, says that while mindfulness therapy can help with emotional eating, individuals need to be aware that weight loss should not be the ultimate goal.
“Mindfulness, and especially mindful eating, has sort of been co-opted by weight loss, but it’s not a weight loss tool," she said. "Coming into it with the expectation of weight loss can make it feel like you aren’t doing it right."
Emotional eating is also a learned message and does not necessarily stem from mental illness.
“For example, if someone didn’t have reliable access to food, they might learn to get it when they can. This can form a binge eating mentality."
Dr Cohen agrees that everyone eats emotionally at times. It is only when it becomes a primary coping mechanism, that problems arise.
“[Emotional eating] is not completely abnormal until people dissociate. When they're bingeing or eating compulsively, they do it to escape. So, it is to almost lose contact with the 'here and now'. That’s when they need help,” she said.
Despite using mindfulness therapy with her clients, she adds it is not designed for all disordered eating.
I don't think mindfulness is the right approach for an individual who is still very stuck in anorexia.
On their path from recovery, yes, but during [treatment] there are so many other issues that need to be dealt with beforehand."
It was during her recovery, that Ms Kredler founded the coaching program, Food Freedom Coaches, to help others overcome addictive eating.
“I use typical techniques or philosophies related to addiction counselling as well [as mindfulness]. So, for example, I have recovered [by following] the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. But it ultimately depends on the client," she said.
“I'm noticing more and more... that talking alone doesn't always work. There are so many approaches with mindfulness like mindfulness meditation, breathing, talking, journalling - all kinds of techniques. I would encourage you to really try and promote the idea of mindfulness.”
Despite the progress in understanding mindfulness techniques, more research is needed to prove they are successful tools. Professor Winkens found results are often inconsistent and based mostly on studies of women, the obese, and students.