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I Hurt Therefore I Eat – The Truth Behind Emotional Eating
We live in a culture where food is inextricably linked to emotions and situations. 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 a way to express our grief and support – lots of casseroles, cakes and salads.
I’m not saying it’s all bad. While food has its own limitations in satisfying our emotional needs, an emotional connection to 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 smells evoke in you: the feeling of “home” you feel when you smell cinnamon and vanilla; the sense of security that a meatloaf and mashed potato dinner can provide; the craving you get when your sister makes grandma’s famous broccoli casserole for Thanksgiving. On rainy Sundays, a cup of hot cocoa is a great accompaniment to reading the paper, while the ritual of a celebratory cake adds meaning to a birthday.
But too many of us have come to view food as a blanket 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. In doing so, we ignore these internal hard-wired signals of hunger and fullness. And since there is no way food can really affect our emotions, we eat and eat and eat, but we never feel satisfied.
Unfortunately, this is where most of us get stuck. We are aware of the short-term comfort or pleasure we get from food, and without additional self-care skills, we depend on it to make us feel better immediately. Then we get stuck in a downward spiral: Eating to feel better doesn’t help us 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 will overwhelm any emotional support you receive.
Too few of us understand that food does not solve feelings. It may comfort us or distract us from our pain in the short term, but in the long run it will only make our problems worse and prevent us from making meaningful changes that could lead to more fulfilling and healthier lives.
This means that if you feel driven to eat for emotional reasons, you don’t have a problem with eating. No way. You have a babysitting 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 I wanted something, 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 surfaced. And the food suddenly stopped working. 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 forth.
Where did all this come from? From how we were raised.
I remember shortly after my son was born. He cried when he was hungry. He nursed until he was full, then fell asleep, satisfied. It wasn’t until his stomach emptied again—usually in a few hours—that he cried for food again. He was in perfect touch with his hunger/fullness signals.
But as he got older and went on a solid diet, things changed. Not in how he approached food, but in how we (well, my mother, for one) taught him to look at food. I remember one time when Isaac was one year old and my mother fed him pureed carrots. He happily ate a few spoonfuls, then stopped opening his mouth. The message was clear: “Not anymore!”
But my mom ignored the message. “Come on Isaac,” she grunted, “just a few more bites. She held the spoon temptingly in front of his mouth. When that didn’t work, she pressed it to his lips. Still no luck. So she became more creative. “Here comes the plane, to the hangar,” she said, playfully waving her fork at his mouth, trying to capitalize on his fascination with planes. “Open the hangar, Isaac.
He would have none of that. Isaac was full and lost interest in food. He was a smart kid and he knew what he needed. My mom was basically telling him that he wasn’t a trustworthy judge – that she, not him, knew how to manage his food intake. That’s when I understood where it all started for me!
But I don’t blame my mom. My mother wasn’t trying to do this on purpose; she was just unconsciously transmitting eating attitudes rooted 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 eating that usually have nothing to do with our body’s feelings of hunger and satiety. Remember 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 your dinner!” “It’s not time to eat. “Clean your plate, children in India are starving.” “Do you have an A? Let’s bake cookies to celebrate.” “Poor guy, did you fall off your bike? Will some ice cream help make it better?”
These external stimuli then determine our eating for most of our lives. As a result, we stop listening to our internal cues about hunger and satiety. Instead, we eat because we think we should; to stuff feelings we don’t want to have; 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 of someone bedridden. Then when we find ourselves gaining weight, we try to force our own will to eat less through our appetite.
Scientists have a term for this. “Restricted eaters” are people who regulate their eating through external stimuli, often in an attempt to manage their weight. In contrast, “binge eaters” are those who still rely on internal bodily 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. .
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