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I Hurt Therefore I Eat – The Truth Behind Emotional Eating
We live in a culture in which food has become inextricably linked with emotion and situation. We eat because we are bored, because we are sad, because we are happy. When we want to celebrate, we go out to eat. When we grieve a romantic breakup, we drown our feelings in ice cream. When someone is sick or someone dies, food becomes the way we show our grief and support—large quantities of casseroles and cakes and salads.
I’m not saying this is all bad. While food has inherent limitations in meeting our emotional needs, an emotional connection with food is part of a normal and healthy relationship with food. Food can and should bring us pleasure and comfort. Just think of the associations that certain foods and aromas evoke for you: the sense of “home” you feel when you smell cinnamon and vanilla; the sense of security can provide a meat and potatoes dinner; the feeling of longing you get when your sister makes your grandmother’s famous broccoli casserole at Thanksgiving. On rainy Sundays, a cup of hot cocoa is a wonderful accompaniment to reading the paper, while the ritual of a celebratory cake adds meaning to birthdays.
But too many of us have looked to food as a cover for our emotions, numbing them as we turn to food to provide the love and comfort we crave. Food is a reward, a friend, love and support. We eat not because we are hungry, but because we are sad, guilty, bored, frustrated, lonely or angry. By doing this, we ignore those internal hard signals of hunger and fullness. And because there is no way that food can really handle our emotions, we eat and eat and eat, but never feel full.
Unfortunately, at this point most of us get stuck. We recognize the short-term comfort or pleasure we get from food, and with no other skills to take care of ourselves, we depend on it for an instant better fix. Then we get stuck in a downward spiral: Eating to feel better doesn’t help us get better in the long run; instead it adds guilt and anger about our eating habits and their consequences on our weight. In fact, studies show that while you may get immediate emotional comfort from eating, the associated guilt overwhelms any emotional support you receive.
What too few of us understand is that food does not fix feelings. It may comfort us in the short term, or distract us from our pain, but in the long run it only makes our problems worse and prevents us from making substantive changes that could lead to greater fulfillment and a healthier life.
What this means is that if you feel driven to eat for emotional reasons, you do not have an eating disorder. No. You have a worrying problem. You are not good about yourself. I know this to be true because I was once an emotional eater. I ate because there was something I wanted, but that something was not food. Eating kept me from feeling lonely, got me through hard times, and, unlike people, was always there for me.
But then my weight obsession kicked in. And suddenly food didn’t do the trick anymore. Instead of long-term comfort, I would get a short-term fix followed by more intense and longer-lasting guilt. The more weight I gained, the more evidence I saw of my failures. The more I felt like a failure, the more I ate. And so on and so on.
Where did this thought all come from? From the way we were brought up.
I remember shortly after my son was born. When he was hungry, he cried. He nursed until full, then slept, sated. Only when his stomach was empty again – usually after a few hours – did he cry for food again. He was in perfect touch with his hunger/fullness signals.
But as he got older and transitioned to solid food, things changed. Not in how he approached food, but in how we (well, my mother, for example) taught him to look at food. I remember one time when Isaac was a year old and my mother fed him strained carrots. He happily ate a few spoonfuls, then stopped opening his mouth. The message was clear: “No more!”
But my mom ignored the message. “Come on, Isaac,” she cried, “just a few more bites.” She tentatively held the spoon in front of his mouth. When that didn’t work, she pushed it against his lips. Still no luck. So she became more creative. “Here comes the plane, into the hangar,” she said, playfully waving the fork near his mouth, trying to capitalize on his fascination with planes. “Open the hangar, Isaac.”
He would have none of it. Isaac was full and no longer interested in food. He was a smart kid and knew what he needed. My mom basically told him that he was not a reliable judge, that she, not him, knew how to manage his food. It was then that I realized where it all started for me!
But I don’t blame my mom. My mother didn’t try to do that on purpose; she was just unconsciously passing on food attitudes ingrained in our culture. If Isaac (and I) didn’t get them from her, we would definitely get them from somewhere else.
Our culture teaches us that there are appropriate times and places for food, which, more often than not, have nothing to do with feelings of hunger and satiety in our body. Think of the messages we get: “I went to so much trouble to cook, and you won’t even eat?” “You can’t be hungry. You just had dinner!” “It’s not time to eat.” “Clean your plate, children are starving in India.” “You got an A? Let’s bake some cookies to celebrate.” “Poor guy, you fell off your bike? Will some ice cream make it better?”
These external cues, then, dictate our eating for much of our lives. As a result, we stop listening to our internal signals about hunger and fullness. Instead, we eat because we think we should; stuffing feelings we don’t want to have; to mark important moments in our lives; to fill a void we can’t even explain.
After years of turning to food for non-physical reasons, our ability to perceive these internal signals has weakened, like the leg muscles in someone bedridden. Then, when we find that we are gaining weight, we try to force our own will to eat less over our appetite.
Scientists have a term for this. “Restrained eaters” are people who regulate their eating with external cues, often to manage their weight. Conversely, “binge eaters” are those who still rely on internal body cues to determine when and how much to eat.
Extensive research suggests that restrained eaters are much less sensitive to hunger and satiety than binge eaters.25 In other words, it takes more food deprivation to get hungry and larger amounts of food to feel full, compared to binge eaters. .
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