Is food serving a primary role in your life other than fuel for energy? Maybe food is a source of love, comfort, companionship, and/or pleasure, or maybe food is used as a well-deserved treat at the end of a hectic day and coveted ‘me’ time. It is normal to find pleasure in our food, and in fact, it’s essential for having a healthy relationship with food. But if food is the highlight of your day and is the consistent go-to when stressed, it is possible emotional eating has become a primary coping strategy. View this free online assessment tool and for additional resources for support.
What is Emotional Eating?
Emotional eating is eating to self-soothe in response to typically stressful emotions, like loneliness, sadness, or boredom. It’s normal to emotionally eat sometimes, but it’s the frequency with which one emotionally eats that an occasional occurrence may develop into a pattern of emotional overeating. Emotional overeating left unaddressed may lead to binge eating for some people, simply because more food is needed to have the same soothing effect. Binge eating is eating a larger than normal quantity of food, in a short period of time, and usually one feels out of control during the eating episode and guilty or shameful after the binge episode. Binge Eating Disorder (BED) is when binge episodes are occurring at least once per week for a period of three months, so the binge episodes have turned into a pattern of eating behavior.
For some, this pattern of emotional overeating may have started in childhood. Typically, as children, we don’t have access to drugs or alcohol, but food may have been the discovered way to self-soothe. This coping mechanism is quite brilliant actually and is a show of strength and resiliency in an environment that may have felt overwhelming, abusive, stressful, neglectful or traumatizing. The tricky part here is that the act of emotional eating to self-soothe WORKS, albeit temporarily, or food wouldn’t continue to be used to cope.
Healing Emotional Overeating
The dependence on food to self-sooth may continue into adulthood as a reliable go-to when upset if other, healthier coping mechanisms have not been learned. A metaphor I like to refer to in order to describe the role food can serve in people’s lives as a pacifier is eloquently described in the book Eating in the Light of the Moon, by Anita Johnston:
“Imagine yourself standing in the rain on the bank of a raging river. Suddenly, the water-swollen bank gives way. You fall in and find yourself being tossed around in the rapids. Your efforts to keep afloat are futile and you are drowning. By chance, along comes a huge log and you grab it and hold on tight. The log keeps your head above water and saves your life. Clinging to the log you are swept downstream and eventually come to a place where the water is calm.”
In this metaphor, the log represents the fundamental role food is serving to help keep one afloat. Instead of letting go of the log and hoping for the best (which rarely works by the way) I recommend easing the grip on the log while learning how to grab onto other coping strategies for better understanding and managing the underlying factors that are driving one to eat.
In the end, our relationship with food is often a window into our relationship with overall self-care and stress management, so the strategy for better managing our eating patterns is more than just ‘eat this and don’t eat that’. Healing emotional and binge eating patterns is about cultivating a mindful awareness of the nutritional, emotional and habitual hunger that may be contributing to our food choices. For more information and support please join me for the Emotional and Binge Eating Workshops I am facilitating here at Hilton Head Health. Contact us for more information.
It is National Eating Disorders Awareness week and this is dedicated to anyone who is struggling with their relationship with food and those courageously trying to heal what can often feel overpowering, confusing and shameful. View this free online assessment tool and for additional resources for support.