A Look At Emotional Eating, part 1
by Aubin Parrish
Emotional eating is an experience shared by many. It’s probably safe to say that most people have engaged at some point in what would be considered emotional eating, but there are many degrees of this behavior, and perhaps not many people have closely examined the reasons behind it or the psychological consequences. On one end of the spectrum, eating comfort foods during times of distress is harmless, and in fact can be a useful coping mechanism. However, at the other end of the spectrum, a person may feel very out of control with episodes of eating in reaction to emotional upset, and it may happen frequently enough to negatively affect both mental and physical health.
In examining this topic, I reached out to friends and invited them to share their experiences and opinions, in order to expand my own understanding and with the hope of bringing to light some of the many reasons for and results of emotional eating. I received eloquent and thoughtful responses from these friends, and I’m grateful for their willingness to share, in order to perhaps cast a light on this subject that is difficult for many who experience it to discuss or articulate.
It’s not unusual to use food as an emotional salve. On a primal level, this makes sense. If one is experiencing emotional distress, turning to the comfort that food can provide is natural. Eating, especially highly palatable things, activates the pleasure centers of the brain, and can temporarily dull the ache of emotional upheaval.
We also frequently associate foods with times of joy or contentment, such as holidays, personal celebrations, family gatherings, or being in the home of a loved one. Drawing on foods as a way of trying to invoke the warm feelings that accompany such times can seem logical to the emotional mind. Unfortunately, this method of reconnecting to loving times through food can easily go awry.
My friend Cara sums this up beautifully. She told me, “Food was the biggest connection to the happiness and contentment I felt being with my Nan.” Cara experienced episodes of emotional eating for years, and in the moment, she didn’t make the connection with trying to recreate the loving feelings of being with her grandmother while she was eating in an emotionally-reactive way. It was in hindsight, during the process of coming to have a healthier relationship with food, that she realized she had been seeking to bring that connection to the times in her life that were emotionally upsetting.
Cara grew up in a house with extremely strict and arbitrary food rules, and an emotionally-detached mother. She says, “Growing up with my mother, all food was totally off-limits unless she gave explicit permission. Not just unhealthy snacks, but even apples. She wasn’t the easiest woman to approach, so asking for a bite of anything when I was starving was super scary. Admitting that I was hungry was interpreted as ungrateful for what she’d already provided (which was never much). She would have ‘treats’ in the house, but they were all hers and she’d count the contents of packets to be sure we didn’t steal food from our own damn kitchen.”
Cara’s grandmother’s house was a refuge from that. She and her brother were allowed to eat anything, anytime they wanted when they visited. “…we would raid the cupboards and make ridiculous concoctions like ice cream with crumbled biscuits followed by bags of crisps and doughnuts. We’d keep going until we were stuffed. We’d have no problem eating our main meals too, and as long as that continued, our Nan was happy to let us have the run of the kitchen.”
Cara feels this contrast of extreme restriction at home coupled with the sweet release of freedom and being able to satisfy her needs without reservation at her Nan’s house set up a binge-and-restrict pattern that carried over into adulthood. She found bingeing to be a source of comfort, because it reminded her of the freedom and control she had at her Nan’s house as a child, which at the time brought her great happiness. She says, “My Nan’s home and her loving presence made it my happy place. In my happy place, there was bountiful food. So, when I was down, I’d make the connection to food, taking me back to my happy place. Then would come the feelings of guilt and shame. The guilt because by then, the media had taught me that eating certain foods will make you fat, and fat = greedy and lazy. The shame because I was still waiting for my mum to jump out at me and catch me bingeing, then chastise me for being greedy and ungrateful and disgusting with the amount of food I was consuming.”
Another friend, Cheri, grew up with a single, alcoholic mother who “would often choose her addiction over being a mom. It would stress me out and make me sad/angry/scared as a child, and I would often turn to food for comfort. It was always there, I could depend on it.” They were also poor, and “It would be feast or famine and I would overeat when the house was stocked.”
Catherine also links emotional eating with childhood comfort-seeking. “I couldn’t escape negativity in my life because growing up my parents were always fighting, my dad had untreated anxiety and that manifested in angry rants combined with a lack of empathy and often verbal and sometimes physical abuse.” “My relationship with food was weird to start with because my mom always forced us to eat everything she fed us even if we didn’t like it, and she treated food as an expression of love so we couldn’t refuse it…the only thing that was accessible for me to comfort myself with was food.” “Food was right there, it was easy, it felt good to eat. It was a pattern that established early in my life and I’ve really had to work hard to get past it.”
One more friend, Kristin, experienced emotional eating as an expression of frustrations from other parts of life in a slightly different way. She says, “I actually ate full meals after the kids and husband went to bed. I also hid food I didn’t want to share so I could eat it ‘later’. The more I connected the dots between nighttime eating, and loving feeling alone, and calling that time ‘me time,’ the more I realized that this was not true hunger, or something I could easily stop, but something that had a definite emotional undertone.” She was unhappy in her marriage, and wonders, “…if it was because I had been single for so long (married at 33), being alone late at night reminded me of the life I had left behind and sometimes longed for.”
Tiana tells of yet another path of emotional eating. “I was bulimic so I could lose weight and eat at the same time, as it progressed I binged because I was sad, stressed or angry. I had never been an emotional eater before then.”
We frequently associate food with love and nurturing. It certainly can be those things. Feeding someone we love, or being fed by someone who loves us, is a very powerful experience. It’s a foundational activity in human relationships But it can be easy for the emotions and thoughts associated with food to become disordered and get out of control, in our high-stress world of easily-available food. Outside the paradigm of a loving, interpersonal relationship, trying to recreate that sense of being loved and nurtured simply by eating without physical hunger can be a shallow substitute for the experience of loving human interaction, and may be ultimately counter-productive. It can weaken the emotions that accompany actual acts of love involving food (celebrations, etc.) and cheapen the experience of truly enjoying good food in a rich, full-spectrum manner that engages all the senses.
When we eat to deaden the senses, in an attempt to escape pain or discomfort, we may also deaden the joy that can be associated with food in a healthy interaction. If we use eating as a substitute for human comfort or deep emotional connection, we run the very real risk of weakening the ability to fully experience all our emotions in an honest fashion. The crutch of over-consuming food can cause the ability to process emotions without that crutch to atrophy. Many people who become dependent on emotional eating behaviors for comfort find that they have to essentially re-train themselves to fully feel their emotions, without using food to cover them up or distract from them.
Tiana has this to say about the process of uncovering those emotions. “Getting more in touch with my feelings by identifying exactly how I was feeling, journaling about my feelings, talking with trusted friends, mindful eating, reading Geneen Roth. That all helped. When I finally quit the bingeing, and was relearning how to eat, I no longer ate my feelings.”
Catherine finds, “There are still times that I succumb to emotional eating, but most of the time I can identify that I am emotionally vulnerable and need to address that and do something that will truly improve the emotion.”
In our modern world, the easy availability of high-calorie, low-nutrient foods can make frequent eating in reaction to emotional upset a losing proposition in the long run. To eat mindlessly in an attempt to lessen emotional pain, whether consciously or subconsciously, can in a sense be considered disrespectful of one’s own psyche, trying to shut it up by stuffing it with food, burying or diverting the emotions instead of processing them and moving forward. If the foods being eaten in this manner are low in nutrient value, they may displace higher-nutrient foods and result in nutrient deficiencies. In addition, if emotional eating causes a person to consume excessive calories and therefore gain weight, it may result in directly increasing emotional distress if that person wishes to lose weight instead. Also, in some cases, a perceived over-consumption can cause a person to want to punish themselves, to atone for their indiscretion.
Cara relates, “I would often feel so stuffed it was painful, but that pain was a welcome distraction from the emotional alternative.” “…serious restricting would follow a binge. There was a direct correlation between the length of the binge (weeks at a time sometimes) and how far I took the restriction.” Tiana says she felt “…guilt and shame and just an overall feeling of disgust. Even when I was no longer purging by throwing up, I would punish myself by restricting, making strict food rules, over exercising and calling myself terrible names in an effort to ‘be better’.”
Some people have experienced that a restrictive diet makes it more likely for them to binge when emotionally upset. Aside from the fact that calorie restriction frequently can cause reactive eating as a physical defense mechanism (the body demands more calories when it doesn’t get enough, producing an irresistible urge to eat), the psychological component of habitual restriction can cause a strong urge to indulge excessively when emotional pain is intense. Several of my friends reported a dramatic reduction in their emotional eating episodes after they began to consciously eat closer to their total daily energy expenditure (TDEE), indicating a physical component to the the urge to binge when under emotional duress.
The variety of life experiences that lead to a tendency to eat emotionally is matched by a variety of ways that people have found to recover from this pattern of behavior, to move towards a healthier balance with food and their emotions.
Coming soon, in part 2 of this examination of emotional eating, we’ll explore the connection with eating disorders, such as bulimia or binge eating disorder, with the common but perhaps misguided idea of food ‘addiction’, and consider the idea that sometimes emotional eating can be helpful. We’ll also look at ways to analyze whether a hunger is emotional or physical (or both), and learn about some ways that people have found to help themselves recover from emotional eating behaviors and take steps to heal their relationship with food.
I would like to thank the community of the Facebook group Eating The Food for many thoughtful and enlightening conversations, not only about various facets of emotional eating, but also every other aspect of food and fitness.
About the author: Aubin Parrish is a mom, wife, martial artist and student of the human condition, with a keen interest in the physical and mental health effects of food and exercise, and in the cultural trends that influence our relationships with food, fitness and ourselves.