What you eat rarely has anything to do with the food. What if I told you that even the type of food you eat when you are stressed, upset, overwhelmed or even the opposite – happy, content, celebratory also has absolutely nothing to do with the food? You would probably think that what you eat has to do with food, how could it not? You eat because you are hungry, because it tastes good, it fills you up and it is pleasurable. But there are a few distinct reasons why we eat but knowing the differences between them can help you to understand what the right reasons are.
Are you always hungry when you eat? I bet you have answered no to that. I’m not talking about accepting food that is offered to you when you are a guest, or other occasions when you have to politely accept food that is offered to you. Or deciding to have a slice of cake or pizza on your birthday. I am not talking about a wilful choice to eat something that is on your usual “no” list. I am talking about the food you eat when you want to relax, when you want to stop feeling sad or lonely or bored. I am talking about the food that you use for emotional eating. When the food stops having a purpose beyond numbing you and helping you chase away whatever emotions or experiences you don’t want.
The food you eat when you’re not hungry can help you work out those times when you are using food. This emotional eating food is the food that you don’t really want to want. The food you don’t want to crave. The food that you know will make you feel guilt, shame and embarrassment as soon as you are done eating it. Sometimes while you are still eating it. This is the food that you barely taste beyond the first mouthful. You eat it in secret, hide the wrappers, eat in the car, throw away the receipt. The food that makes you zone out and puts you in a trance as you eat it. It’s the food that you find yourself eating before you even realise that you’re eating it.
Sometimes it’s not just one food. It can be a combination of foods. For me, the combination of salty and sweet puts me into that kind of food trance. So eating popcorn and chocolate at the same time. I used to pour my maltesers into my popcorn at the cinema. Salted caramel is dangerous for me, the combination triggers that zombie reaction and I can eat far too much of it without noticing. This is why low carb options are mostly off limits for me too. It’s not about the fact that they are low carb, they are high in calories and fat and I will eat too much of it because whilst carbs are addictive, so are the low carb alternatives. High fat and sweet tastes is enough to trigger my addictive response.
Why do we do this? Why do we overeat, eat when we are not hungry and eat things that we know aren’t good for us. That’s the million dollar question isn’t it? Why do we use food like this, why do we continue to perpetuate the cycle of eating, feeling guilt or shame, berating ourselves and when we finally get back on even footing we do the same thing all over again? For most of us it comes down to not having any tools to manage our emotions. Emotional education is sorely lacking and down to parents to teach their children. If they got good emotional education you might have done better than those of us whose parents, being of a certain generation, were told to “buck up”, “Boys don’t cry” or the one that I heard “Girls should be seen and not heard”. These were commonly said to young children although now, hopefully, many people know better. Maybe not enough to have a significant impact on new generations but I have hope.
Girls and young women especially have trouble managing emotions. We not only have the lack of emotional education, we also have the societal pressures of fitting in with “what a woman is supposed to act like” and the double standards are staggering. Call a man ambitious and he will seem confident, sure of himself and hard working. Call a woman ambitious and she will seem cold, calculating and basically a bitch. The same for anger. If a man gets angry he’s called passionate, if a woman gets angry she’s called hysterical, emotional or even worse (not to mention insultingly dismissive) “that time of the month”. The disparity of the language immediately puts women on a harder path.
We are given The Woman Blueprint at a very young age. This teaches us what is expected of us, as women, throughout our lives. We are expected to be quiet, to smile (has that ever been shouted at you in the street?), to play nice, to fit in, not to have strong opinions, not to have emotions. We are expected to dress a certain way, to have our hair a certain way, to enjoy wife work like cleaning and cooking, we are expected to want to have children after all being a mother is the pinnacle of womanhood right? I don’t know any woman that fits into this blueprint that society has given us. Those who clearly don’t fit in are often left feeling out of place, questioning their feelings and constantly wondering if they are valid.
Even the dictionary tells women their place. The Oxford English dictionary has this gem to demonstrate the use of the word Woman in a sentence “I told you to be home when I get home, little woman” and “don’t be daft, woman!”. Woman is used in a derogatory way in many languages. Learning French and Italian was an eye opener for me. Both are based on latin which is a sexed language. Inanimate objects are either male or female. If you watched the amazing Emily in Paris on Netflix you’ll know that the vagina in French is masculine le vagin (le is the masculine, la is feminine). She tweets “le vagin n’est pas masculin! The vagina isn’t masculine. But even worse than sexed objects, when you speak about a group of people you sex the group based on whether there is a male included or not. Yes 100,000 women and one man become a male sexed group. Although younger people are starting to use the majority so in that case the group would be sexed using female language because there are more women than men. This is not grammatically correct but it gives hope that languages based on misogyny will evolve.
You can see how, as a woman, you are given standards and aspirations that you have no choice about. In her book Come As You Are, author Emily Nagoski equates it to having a garden and as a child, things are planted in our garden that we wouldn’t necessarily choose for ourselves. During our childhood this garden is tended to by the adults that are in our lives and have influence over us. But as adults we have the tools to be able to clear out all of the unwanted plants in that garden and sow new seeds. I think it is a fabulous analogy and it rings true for me. The reasons for emotional eating might have been planted in your garden as a child, or given to you as part of the blueprint and because you don’t necessarily fit comfortably into any of the pigeon holes set out for you, you feel off balance, always lacking in something or on the periphery of your own life.
As you become more and more overwhelmed your ability to deal with it all shrinks. It might manifest as feeling stressed or anxious. I’ve given a few reasons why you might have this underlying feeling of not fitting in permeating everything you do. The key to breaking the cycle of emotional eating as an avoiding tactic is to try to understand when you are eating emotionally rather than out of hunger or other reasons . The sinister thing about emotional eating this way is that more often than not you’re either already eating or have eaten something that you otherwise would not before you realise that what you have done is driven by emotion rather than hunger. Beware also that thirst can masquerade as hunger so if you think you are really feeling hunger, have a glass of water and wait 15 minutes. If you still feel hungry then eat. Emotional eating isn’t really physical. You might feel a gnawing in your stomach or chest and mistake it for hunger but it’s not really. It’s a physical manifestation of feelings or the drive to avoid feelings.
Emotional Eating is not the same thing as eating to elicit an emotion. I call this Reminiscent Eating. Eating something that brings back good feelings and memories of people, places or experiences. For example you might treat yourself to an apple pie just like your grandma used to make. When you eat it, you feel all of the lovely warm feelings that you felt being with grandma. You might eat a dish that you discovered on holiday and eating it reminds you of sun, fun and relaxation. This is not the same thing. Emotional Eating is eating to avoid feelings, Reminiscent Eating is eating to feel something that makes you feel good.
You will know emotional eating because it will never make you feel good.It will temporarily, for like a millisecond, you might even be still chewing the food when the guilt, shame or embarrassment set in and then you start in with the negative self talk about how you just knew you couldn’t trust yourself etc. etc. I speak from experience. The second I give in to emotional eating I feel really bad about myself. Well I used to before I started to do this work on myself. It’s no magic pill, I still have episodes of emotional eating but they are less and less, I have a better ability to handle stress and upset and if I do happen to emotionally eat, I don’t give myself a hard time over it anymore. I no longer try to “balance out” the bad and the good by doing some extra exercise or by fasting a bit longer than normal.
If you don’t take the time to look at the reasons for emotional eating then this cycle will continue. You will continue to use food as a celebration and as a commiseration. Again, I’m not saying that willfully deciding to have something as a celebration is wrong, but if the decision to have the food comes from an emotional place where you don’t feel fully in control, don’t really want to but feel compelled to or pretty much hate yourself afterwards then it’s time to take a look at the emotions that are driving you to eat.