The topic for last week’s BodyRespect support group was Emotional Eating. In our session we talked about how for many of us eating has become our main tool for coping with emotions. I personally believe that some level of emotional eating (eating for comfort, not just for sustenance) is normal and most people engage in it at varying levels. Whether you are someone who cries into a pint of Hagen Daaz on a regular basis, or is occasionally comforted by a bowl of soup made for you when you are sick, or even have had celebratory piece of wedding cake, we all eat food for more reasons that just to give our body energy. Food is the giver of life and that we sometimes derive comfort from taking in nourishment is not a problem, in fact I think it is to be celebrated…food is a wonderful thing!
In my quest for health, I strive to mostly eat (or not eat) in response to hunger cues and honour my body by eating when I am hungry and stopping when I am full. Still, I have no desire to reduce food to the necessary nutrients needed to survive (remember Seven of Nine in the TV Show Voyager?). Along with giving my body energy and nutrients I enjoy eating for the pleasure of the taste, the experiences of the different textures, and yes sometimes to comfort me when I am blue.
However, for many of us food has become one of main, if not only source of comfort. This reliance on food for comfort I believe leads to a disordered relationship with food, which is for many a confusing and dichotomous love/hate relationship. Especially when the amounts of the food that we eat can be an influence on our body size which everybody is under much scrutiny for. For those of us who routinely eat emotionally to the point where it is negatively affecting our self esteem and health we must be willing to spend the time to uncover the emotional root of our upset while at the same time cultivating additional (non food) comforts and coping mechanisms. Unfortunately, many people who regularly overeat due to emotional eating turn to diets or restrictive food plans to try to address their over-eating, and for many people this is a disaster. Why? Because, emotional overeating is, in the majority of cases, not a problem with food! It is a deeper problem that must be addressed on that level. An excellent resource for people who are feeling overwhelmed with emotional eating problems is Eating in the Light of the Moon by Anita Johnston. Ms. Johnston is very clear in her approach that restrictive diet plans are not the answer for emotional eating, and provides a framework for digging into what is really going on when we excessively overeat to soothe our emotions. Chapter 9 of Health at Every Size by Linda Bacon also provides some helpful tips in addressing emotional eating including becoming more mindful in our eating, identifying and sitting with our emotions and cultivating self care.
But What About Good Feelings?
In our group discussion, one of the group members suggested people engage in emotional eating when experiencing happy feelings, not just sad ones. Whoa! A light bulb went off for me…this is so true! With roots in traditional celebrations like eating cake at a birthday, we also have a habit of including eating when we are feeling good! Why? As I indicated earlier, food can be and is celebratory! But I think there is also a shadow side to this ‘celebratory eating’ phenomena. All emotions can feel overwhelming at times…even happy ones. And if we use food as a tool to cope with emotions, I don’t think it is too big of a stretch to think we might engage in emotional eating when we are feeling happy or excited. I shared with the group my habit of having snack when I get home from work. Mostly this has been a habit over the years, but also kind of celebratory ‘yay I ‘m home’ type event. Also, it has been a way for me to transition from my work day to the at home part of my day. So, part habit eating and part emotional eating. Now that I am aware of it, I will be able to more often check in with my hunger when I get home and see if I am truly hungry and need a snack or if I can find another way to celebrate and transition into being home (play with the dogs, listen to music).
What it comes down to is being aware, being aware of what we are feeling and how we are coping with those feelings. And it is a process…we must be willing to walk along side ourselves and be our own cheerleaders. With determination, support and self care we can learn to find that balance of eating to nurture our bodies and our souls without compromising our health.