“I’m an emotional eater” is probably one of the most common phrases in the weight loss community. I hear it constantly on MFP (My Fitness Pal) and on My 600 lb Life. It’s used as a coping mechanism for stress, depression and anxiety. It’s a celebration when we’re happy. Food basically either makes us feel good or it numbs and covers up whatever negative feelings we’re trying to avoid. I remember having a fight with my mom, hanging up and then found myself staring into the fridge when I was completely not-hungry.
I also learned that I eat out of boredom. For me, it was mainly in the evenings in front of the tv and there was nothing really to occupy my time other than the idiot box, so what do I have to eat? Anything good in the house? Or not good but still edible? Boredom eating was (and still is) one of my biggest challenges.
I thought about it this morning on my way to work. I listen to a rock station and a newer song came on the radio: “Rx (Medicate)” by Theory of a Deadman. The lyrics were pretty much bang on target: “I am so frickin’ bored. Nothing to do today. I think I’ll medicate.” Obviously, it’s more about pills and drugs than it is food, but for most of us ‘emotional eater,’ food is the same obsession as drugs, alcohol or anything else addictive. It lights up the Pleasure Center in the brain just like nicotine, cocaine or beer, so it has the same effect on us. It gives us pleasure, it distracts us from what we’re trying to avoid and when we’re done eating, we want more of the same.
There are a million problems with emotional eating just as there are with any addiction, but probably because food isn’t seen as something dangerous like the cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, we tend to let it slide. ‘Eating our feelings’ is how we cope with things, even though we know we shouldn’t do it- it’s just one time! It’s only until the holidays/ special event is over! I know it’s a crutch, but I just need to get over this XYZ right now. I’m going to be a b*tch: these are all excuses!
One of my favorite episodes of My 600 lb Life is Dottie’s Story. Dottie knew she was an emotional eater and she certainly had plenty of stress in her life (her older son was severely disabled with serious health problems). Her sons were her main reason for wanting to lose weight because she needed to be there to take care of them. As a result of her eating, she weighed nearly 700 lbs, and as Dr. Nowzaradan told her repeatedly, “you can’t take care of your kids if you’re immobile or dead.” After nearly losing her oldest boy, she had gained nearly 40 more pounds, and on one particular night, dinner for her, her husband and her one year old baby was three medium pizzas and a 9×12 pan of brownies. Her sister was trying to bring home the idea that ‘eating her stress’ isn’t going to solve anything; Dottie’s response was that “you have different coping mechanisms than I do,” and I agree with Dottie 100%. We all have different coping mechanisms for the stress in our lives, and while Dottie doesn’t need to adopt her sister’s coping strategy any more than her sister should adopt Dottie’s, the point I think her sister was trying to make is that when one of our coping strategies (cigarettes, alcohol, food, gambling, etc.) becomes more harm than help, we need to change it to something else! Eating our feelings is not a viable long term method for dealing with stress. While most of us aren’t nearly 700 lbs, it is still not a practical or safe method for dealing with whatever is stressing us out. Even though it may not seem ‘dangerous’ to eat a box of brownies or a pint of ice cream when we break up with our significant other or we have a huge fight with our boss, or whatever is going on in our lives (there’s always something!), let’s try substituting something that is obviously unhealthy, like drinking a fifth of vodka or a case of beer or gambling away $100 or more. Those are obviously a little more problematic, since most of us can’t afford to throw away $100 or getting that drunk can kill you or someone else if you’re dumb enough to try driving afterwards. Even if you tell yourself “I only do this when [insert event here] happens!”, does that still make it safe or okay?
The main problems I see with emotional eating are these: 1) what happens when you have a lot of stress/ anxiety on a regular or long term basis?; and 2) there is a cumulative effect. This is why I maintain eating your feelings isn’t a viable strategy for dealing with your stress, anxiety and problems.
When you have a lot of stress all the time or just all at once, are you just going to keep eating your feelings? Like the example I used earlier, if you suddenly started getting drunk or gambling on a regular basis, most of your friends and family would become concerned, but with eating, it’s a little less noticeable until the pounds start showing up. Then a loved one might try to bring it up delicately, but it’s not something ‘serious’ like the drinking or gambling, where they might feel a little more justified in having a heart-to-heart for your benefit.
Except that eating your feelings is something dangerous, because of problem #2: the cumulative effect. Most of us aren’t good at losing weight. For most of us, our weight tends to ratchet upwards with our age. We talk with fondness about how thin and fit we were in high school and ‘wish I was still that thin!’ So the more stress we have as we go through life, the more we eat our feelings, those two or three extra pounds we gained when we broke up with Love of Our Life or when we lost our job or when we had that Family Crisis tend to add up: 3 lbs + 2 lbs + 3 lbs is suddenly 8 lbs. Now imagine if we go up only three pounds a year? If we were 125 lbs when we graduated high school, by the time we are 28 (10 years down the road) that’s 30 lbs! And if we keep to that three lbs/ year, by the time we are forty, it’s 66 lbs! So as we are getting older and our body is starting to feel its age, we are adding to the problems by giving it another 60 lbs to carry around. Even worse, by the time most of us realize that our weight is getting out of control, around the 10 or 20 lbs number, we usually turn to the diet pills and problems that don’t work, throw us on the yo-yo diet track, and then our weight becomes one of those ‘stress triggers’ that cause us to eat our feelings! Yay! Let’s take that campfire and throw some lighter fluid on it to get it really going hot!!
I’m not trying to be an alarmist or blow things out of proportion here, but eating our feelings has somehow attained status as a viable coping mechanism in our culture. There’s the stereotype of crying women with the pint of ice cream watching a love story on tv after a break up. It’s become ‘acceptable’ but that doesn’t make it a real strategy for dealing with stress, anxiety or negative emotions. This is what Dottie’s sister was trying to explain to her: “you can eat your feelings, but it’s not going to help you deal with the underlying problem.” We all need to find a way to deal with those problems and emotions, because we all have them in our lives.
I get it: it sucks! It truly does! It feels so much easier to eat a cookie (or several cookies) than to deal with the real problem, such as your significant other cheating, losing your job, having a fight with a sibling, or a serious health concern in your family. Real problems suck and it sucks dealing with them. Try dealing with them when your weight is also becoming a problem! Now you have the problem plus your own aching knees, incipient diabetes, or a hernia. Remember when you were a kid and your mom wanted to dig out the splinter in your finger or rip off the band-aid on your arm? “No! It’ll hurt!” Yeah, it did- for a few minutes! Then your finger or your arm stopped stinging and the wounds healed and you forgot about them. It’s the same way with your other problems, though not as quick. Finding a way to deal with the problems, either by journaling, seeing a therapist or finding some other method based on who or what you’re dealing with will probably take some time and no doubt some trial and error, but in the long run, learning how to deal with a difficult situation will serve your health- and your confidence- much better than continuing to hide behind a pizza, doughnuts or a bag of chips.