I was channel surfing the other day and came across an episode of Meet the Browns. In this episode Cora, a plus sized character, wanted to fit into a particular dress so she started power walking and restricting what she ate. After a few days she tried on the dress and found that it was still too small and became infuriated that all of her “hard work was for nothing.” She then proceeded to scarf down an entire box of candy! The portrayal really touched me because it reminded me of the many times I have turned to food to soothe an emotion. I, like millions of others who struggle with their weight, am an emotional eater.
Although we often are not conscious of it, emotional eating is very common. We eat when we are lonely or bored, we eat when we are frustrated, we eat when we are stressed, we eat when we are sad, we eat when we are angry – the list goes on and on. Emotional eating is not just about eating when we are down. We also eat when we are happy or have something to celebrate. By definition, anytime we eat for any reason other than true physiological hunger we are probably eating in response to an emotion.
I have been an emotional eater since childhood. I was a latch key kid who was left alone from the time I got home from school until my Grandmother got home from work at close to midnight. I did not recognize it then, but food became my best friend when I was lonely and bored. I taught myself how to cook and became quite fond of my own cooking. I got into the habit of eating alone and as my weight ballooned I starting eating in secret – one of the most common attributes of the emotional eater. When you give in to getting that candy bar in the grocery checkout line and eat it in the car before you get home – you too might be an emotional eater.
If we are ever to overcome emotional eating, we must seek to understand why we have this love affair with food. It is a love affair with a lover who not only does not love us back but abuses our bodies. There is a reason why certain foods are referred to as comfort foods. Foods high in fat, sugar or salt activate the brain’s reward system. We actually get an increased sense of well being when we eat certain foods. Chocolate, for example, has a strong effect on mood by increasing pleasant feelings and reducing tension. If the food makes us feel better then the next time we have an intense emotion, we are more likely to turn to food again. The reality of course is that the fix is only temporary and that the guilt and the weight gain give us more problems to stress over which leads to more overeating. We need to find ways to break that cycle if we are ever to be in control of our eating in our pursuit of our healthiest selves.
One of the best ways to overcome emotional eating is to get re-acquainted with true physiological hunger and make that the only reason to eat. Observe the average 2 year old. Most of them will let you know when they are hungry and often eat a very small amount and tell you that they are full. We get disconnected from that God given mechanism of hunger and fullness when our well meaning parents demand that we “clean our plates.” Each time that we have the urge to eat we need to pause and ask ourselves if we are truly stomach growling hungry or do we just want to eat for some other reason. If we determine that we are not physically hungry, we need to find other ways to satisfy the urge to use food to handle our emotions. This concept is known as mindful or intuitive eating. When you eat mindfully you only eat when physically hungry and you do not continue to eat once you are physically full. Mindful eating takes practice but over time it can help tremendously in our weight loss efforts. Eating should not be a recreational activity. It should be a means to get fuel for the body.
“Dear friend, I hope all is well with you and that you are as healthy in body as you are strong in spirit.” 3 John 1:2 NLT