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I Hurt Therefore I Eat – The Truth Behind Emotional Eating
We live in a culture where food has become inextricably linked with emotion and situation. We eat because we are bored, because we are sad, because we are happy. If we want to celebrate, we go out to eat. When we grieve over a romantic breakup, we drown our feelings in ice. When someone is sick or someone dies, food becomes the way we show and support our grief – copious amounts 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 to food is part of a normal and healthy relationship with food. Food can and should bring us joy and comfort. Just think of the associations that certain foods and aromas evoke for you: the feeling of “home” you feel when you smell cinnamon and vanilla; the feeling of security a meatloaf and mashed potatoes can provide; the feeling of longing you get when your sister makes your grandmother’s famous broccoli casserole on Thanksgiving. On rainy Sundays, a cup of hot cocoa is a wonderful accompaniment to reading the paper, while the ritual of a celebratory cake gives meaning to birthdays.
But too many of us have come to see food as a blanket for our emotions, destroying them when we turn to food to provide the love and comfort we seek. Food is reward, friend, love and support. We don’t eat because we are hungry, but because we are sad, guilty, bored, frustrated, lonely or angry. In doing so, we ignore those internal hard-wired hunger and fullness signals. And because there is no way that food can really address our emotions, we eat and eat and eat but never feel satisfied.
Unfortunately, most of us get stuck at this point. We recognize the short-term comfort or pleasure we get from food, and without other skills to take care of ourselves, we come to depend on it for an instant feel-better fix. Then we get stuck in a downward spiral: Eating to feel better doesn’t help us feel better in the long run; instead, it adds guilt and anger about our eating habits and their effects 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 term it only makes our problems worse and keeps us from making meaningful changes that can 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 problem. No. You have a care problem. You don’t take good care of 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 wasn’t food. Food kept me from feeling lonely, got me through hard times, and, unlike people, was always there for me.
But then my obsession with weight took off. And suddenly the food stopped working. Instead of long-term comfort, I would get a short-term fix, followed by an intense and long-lasting guilt. The more weight I gained, the more evidence I saw of my failures. The more I failed, the more I ate. And so on and so on.
Where did all this thinking come from? From the way we were raised.
I remember soon after my son was born. When he was hungry, he cried. He drank until he was full, then fell asleep, satisfied. Only when his stomach was empty again – typically in a few hours – did he call for food again. He was in perfect touch with his hunger/satiety signals.
But when he got older and moved to solid food, things changed. Not in how he approaches food, but in how we (well, my mom, for one) taught him to see 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 his mouth open. The message was clear: “No more!”
But my mother ignored the message. “Come on, Isaac,” she cooed, “a few more bites.” She held the spoon seductively to 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, in the hangar,” she said, playfully waving the fork at his mouth, trying to take advantage of 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 mother essentially told him that he was not a reliable judge – that she, not he, knew how to manage his food intake. It was then that I understood where it all started for me!
But I don’t blame my mother. My mother was not trying to do this on purpose; she was just unconsciously transferring food attitudes entrenched in our culture. If Isaac (and I) didn’t get them from them, we certainly got them somewhere else.
Our culture teaches us that there are appropriate times and places for eating that, 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 all this trouble to cook, and you won’t even eat?” “You can’t be hungry. You just ate dinner!” “It’s not time to eat.” “Clean your plate, children starving in India.” “You got an A? Let’s bake some cookies to celebrate.” “Poor thing, you fell off your bike? Will some ice help make it better?”
These external cues then dictate our eating for a large part of our lives. As a result, we stop listening to our internal cues about hunger and fullness. Instead, we eat because we think we should; to stop feelings we don’t want to have; to mark important moments in our lives; to fill a void we cannot even clarify.
After years of turning to food for non-physical reasons, our ability to perceive those internal signals has weakened, like the leg muscles in someone lying in bed. Then, when we find that we are gaining weight, we try to impose our own will to eat less over our appetite.
Scientists have a term for that. “Restrained eaters” are people who regulate their eating by external cues, often in an effort to manage their weight. Conversely, “unbridled eaters” are those who still rely on internal body signals to determine when and how much to eat.
Extensive research suggests that restrained eaters are much less sensitive to hunger and satiety than unrestrained eaters.25 In other words, it takes more food intake to get hungry and larger amounts of food to feel full, compared to unrestrained eaters.
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