Today I have a special guest post by fellow Toronto Nutritionist and friend, Kelly Boaz. Kelly specializes in eating disorders and is a wealth of knowledge. I love reading her blog and learning from her, especially when it comes to eating disorders and food freedom. Kelly, take it away!
Nearly every article I come across on emotional eating is titled something like “X Ways to Stop Emotional Eating FOR GOOD!” I mean, why wouldn’t it be? Emotional eating is a problem, isn’t it? That’s what I was always taught. I’m gonna guess you were taught much the same thing. But what if emotional eating isn’t a problem? What if it’s actually a tool we can use to our benefit? If you’re giving me side eye right now, stay with me. Let’s take it back to the beginning.
Where Emotional Eating Comes From
For every one of us, emotional eating begins at birth. Think about it: you’re born, you cry, and somebody sticks a boob or a bottle in your mouth. We’re immediately taught that expression of emotion gets our needs met, whether that be a diaper change, cuddles, or food.
As we grow up, we’re indoctrinated into a society where food is a part of everything we do. It’s a treat we get when we’re good, it’s the centre of all our holiday celebrations, it brings family together and, yes, it comforts us when we’re sad.
It’s not til we’re older that we begin to question this. As we become aware of how food can affect our bodies, we begin to fear it. It’s no coincidence that the mantra of dieters is, “FOOD IS JUST FUEL”. This (completely incorrect) statement immediately cuts us off – from social events, from family, and from our own needs. It goes against our very nature – to seek connection, to be a part of “the tribe”. And, not surprisingly, that isolation creates some pretty strong emotions in us – emotions we were taught from birth to soothe with food.
Where Does That Leave Us?
So now we’re adults, desperately seeking control over our eating habits. We restrict all day, following a joyless meal plan, which makes us feel isolated and uninspired. Then, we spot something flashy in the cupboard – a brightly coloured package containing a food we’ve loved since childhood. The first bite takes us back to a time where we felt loved, safe, included, everything we’ve been denying ourselves. We learn to associate that food with all those emotions.
But then, we start to shame ourselves. (Yes shame, not guilt – guilt is for when you’ve done something wrong. Murder is something to feel guilty for, not food.) How could we have done that? We ate FOR PLEASURE!! How could we be so gluttonous? We vow to go back to chicken breasts and broccoli tomorrow, and the cycle repeats.
Only now, whenever we’re sad, or lonely, or feeling unloved, we reach for the bright and shiny food. Oh no. We’ve become the dreaded EMOTIONAL EATER!
And That’s Not A Bad Thing
Food was meant to be enjoyed. We associate it with all those wonderful feelings, and that’s not bad. The problem occurs when food is our ONLY source of joy. It’s the same with anything: if alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or food becomes our only way to comfort ourselves, then we have a problem. But, it’s a problem that can be fixed. The solution lies in getting comfortable with our emotional eating.
If we can learn to recognize the difference between physical and emotional hunger, we’ve got a powerful tool in our hands. For example:
You get home from a long day at work. Rather than start cooking dinner, you grab a bright, shiny bag of cookies. As you take that first bite, you feel the stress melt away. You pause: you’re feeling stressed, a little lonely, and very tired. You finish your cookie and you put the bag away. Your stress will only multiply if you have to cook tonight, so you order in a proper meal. You’re lonely because you’ve been buried in work, with no time for friends. You pick up the phone and chat with a friend, then tuck in for an early night in bed.
Now, not all emotions that come up will be so clearly identifiable and fixable, but the template remains the same: recognize the trigger, EAT THE DAMNED COOKIE (just not ALL the cookies), identify the emotions, and find ways to deal with them that don’t involve food.
Embracing emotional eating is an important step to healing our relationship with food. I know – it’s counterintuitive to everything we’ve been taught, but it’s true. So go out, actually enjoy your food, and rejoin your tribe. Your emotional AND your physical self will thank you.
After winning her 17-year battle with anorexia, Kelly Boaz turned her life’s focus to helping others do the same. Kelly is a Toronto-based Holistic Nutritionist (CNP), specializing in eating disorder recovery and food freedom. She is also a writer and speaker (TEDx, TDSB), raising eating disorder awareness, and helping people heal their relationship with food and their bodies. You can find out more about Kelly, or get in touch via her website, kellyboaz.com.