Have you ever heard the expression “eating your emotions”? Emotional eating isn’t simply about what you’re consuming. In fact, it’s more about the reasons why you’re doing it.
I’ve had chocolate cake three days in a row. And more than one piece per day. But it’s not just any chocolate cake. It’s a heavenly marriage of buttercream frosting laced with crushed Oreo cookies thickly slathered between layers of moist cake. Did I mention that it’s crowned with chocolate ganache?
To be fair, it was my daughter’s birthday. But to be honest, based sheerly on the sugar content alone, I have no defensible reason for eating so much of it.
Do you have a complicated relationship with food?
We have as much an emotional connection to what we consume as we do a physical one. If we didn’t, we’d eat when we’re hungry, and we’d eat to fuel our bodies for maximum performance (and optimal health).
I’ve been doing a terrible job on both fronts.
For me, it’s not about gaining too much weight. I’ve struggled to get to a healthy weight. My autoimmune disease, myositis, is an inflammatory disease characterized by muscle weakness, muscle loss and fatigue. When the disease was really active I couldn’t maintain my weight – much less gain any.
It was exhausting to chew food, and I’d choke on liquids if I drank them too quickly because the muscles in my throat had weakened. Although I’m doing much better physically, I haven’t been successful at regaining all of the weight I lost.
Since many chronic illnesses are inflammatory in nature, and certain foods can be very inflammatory – what we eat makes a difference. For example, the AIP diet, which focuses on anti-inflammatory foods, has helped many people who have autoimmune disorders.
Whereas the right foods can help us heal, the wrong foods can trigger a flare. Sugar, refined grains, red meat, dairy, deep fried and processed foods, and nightshade vegetables are just a few.
What are you eating?
Hmmm…. that list I just shared? Some of those items have been staples in my diet: cheese and other dairy products, tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, rice, and pasta. I eat lots of other foods as well, and am not a picky eater (unless you offer me liver, which I’ll graciously decline).
But I’ve noticed that my relationship with food has changed. Lately (okay, for the last year) I’ve gravitated heavily toward comfort food – pasta, mashed potatoes, Buffalo chicken wings, risotto, anything with butter or cheese, and this past week, cake.
Even if I’m not overeating, I’m definitely not eating enough of the right things.
I know I’m not alone. If you’ve found yourself wide awake at 3 a.m. gazing sleepily into your pantry or refrigerator, you probably know what I mean.
Do I choose a handful of walnuts? Or a mandarin orange? A refreshing glass of water? Nope. I’m most likely enjoying a slice of hard salami and some barbeque potato chips.
What’s eating you?
Which brings me to the question I finally asked myself: why? Why am I making these choices?
“Bad” food choices mean different things to different people. For some, it’s weight gain, for others, gluten triggers a disastrous gastrointestinal response. Diabetic? Too much of that chocolate cake is really bad idea. And many people have found that consuming nightshade vegetables exacerbates joint pain.
What we eat can also affect our energy level, our immune system and our emotional state.
When we fall into a habit of consistently making choices that we know aren’t good for us does it mean that we are deliberately sabotaging our health?
I’d hate to think so, but we’re certainly feeding our emotions. We’re consuming something in order to fill an emotional void, to numb ourselves or simply to distract ourselves from whatever it is that is making us chronically uncomfortable.
That’s why I ask: “What’s eating you?”
I’ve given it a lot of thought. Since the pandemic began, my anxiety has been high. I feel a sense of loss and disconnection. I haven’t seen my coworkers – or my sisters! – in a year. I feel like I’m living in an uncertain world.
I feel a sense of despair when I think about how the world has changed – kids learning remotely; elderly people in nursing homes unable to see their family members; people not being permitted to attend the funeral of friends because of COVID restrictions.
I don’t deal well with anxiety, but you’d never know it. Because I bury it. On the surface I am calm and controlled. But beneath my collected demeanor is a festering emotional storm – which I quell (at least temporarily) with a bowl of fettucine alfredo or some pork rinds.
We feed our emotions with other things we consume, too.
Like too much social media or too much news. Or a nap, even though we’re not that tired. Because emotional eating isn’t just about food. It’s about feeding your emotions with with whatever will fend off the emotions you’re trying to silence.
These are just a few of my downfalls, and I recognize them now. I acknowledge them and I have to own them.
That’s the first step – name what you’re feeling. Write it down. Talk about it with someone you trust. And then be aware of each choice you’re about to make and determine if there’s a better alternative – one that honors your health and emotional well-being.
There are a number of strategies you can use to start breaking the cycle, and these strategies work just as well for other behaviors you’d like to change.
You won’t change a bad habit or undesirable behavior in a day. It’s not about trying to achieve perfection or completely deny yourself the pleasure of food that comforts you, a nap or even some downtime with social media. It’s about making incremental changes that leave you feeling like the better version of yourself.