We live in a culture where food is inextricably linked to emotion and situation. We eat because we are bored, because we are sad, because we are happy. When we want to celebrate, we go out to eat. When we’re grieving a romantic breakup, we drown our feelings in ice cream. When someone is sick or someone dies, food becomes the way we show our pain and support: large amounts of stews, cakes and salads.
I’m not saying all of this is bad. While food has inherent limitations in satisfying our emotional needs, an emotional connection to food is part of a normal and healthy relationship with food. Food can and should bring us pleasure and comfort. Just think of the associations that certain foods and scents evoke in you: the feeling of “home” you get when you smell cinnamon and vanilla; the sense of security that a dinner of meatloaf and mashed potatoes can bring; the longing feeling you get when your sister makes your grandmother’s famous broccoli stew on Thanksgiving. On rainy Sundays, a cup of hot chocolate is a wonderful accompaniment to reading the newspaper, while the ritual of a celebratory cake adds meaning to birthdays.
But many of us have come to see food as a blanket for our emotions, numbing them when we turn to food for the love and comfort we crave. Food is reward, friend, love and support. We don’t eat because we’re hungry, but because we’re sad, guilty, bored, frustrated, lonely, or angry. By doing so, we are ignoring those internal signals of hunger and satiety. And because there is no way that food can really address our emotions, we eat and eat and eat, but never feel satisfied.
Unfortunately, at this point most of us get stuck. We recognize the short-term comfort or pleasure we get from food, and without other skills to take care of ourselves, we come to rely on it to instantly make us feel better. So we get stuck in a downward spiral: eating to feel better doesn’t help us feel better in the long run; instead, it adds guilt and anger about our eating habits and their ramifications on our weight. In fact, studies show that although you may receive immediate emotional comfort from eating, the associated guilt outweighs any emotional support you receive.
What very few of us understand is that food does not fix feelings. It can comfort us in the short term or distract us from our pain, but in the long term it only makes our problems worse and prevents us from making substantive changes that could lead to greater satisfaction and a healthier life.
What this means is that if you feel driven to eat for emotional reasons, you don’t have an eating problem. No. You have a care problem. You are not taking care of yourself properly. I know this to be true because I was once an emotional eater. I ate because there was something I wanted, but that something wasn’t food. Eating kept me from feeling lonely, got me through tough times, and unlike people, it was always there for me.
But then my weight obsession arose. And suddenly the food didn’t work anymore. Instead of long-term comfort, you’d get a short-term fix followed by more intense and lasting guilt. The more weight I gained, the more evidence I saw of my failures. The more I felt like a failure, the more I ate. And so on and so on.
Where did all this thinking come from? Because of the way we were raised.
I remember shortly after my son was born. When he was hungry, he cried. He nursed until he was full, then fell asleep, sated. Only when his stomach emptied again, usually within a couple of hours, did he cry for food again. He was in perfect touch with his hunger/satiation signals.
But as he grew older and switched to solid food, things changed. Not in how he approached food, but in how we (well, my mother, for example) taught him to see food. I remember once when Isaac was a year old and my mother fed him drained carrots. She happily ate a few spoonfuls, then stopped opening her mouth. The message was clear: “No more!”
But my mom ignored the message. “Come on, Isaac,” she crooned, “just a few more bites.” She held the spoon temptingly in front of her mouth. When that didn’t work, she pushed it against her lips. Still no luck. So she became more creative. “Here comes the plane, to the hangar,” she said, playfully waving her fork near her mouth, trying to capitalize on her fascination with planes. “Open the shed, Isaac.”
He wouldn’t have any of that. Isaac was full and he was no longer interested in food. He was a smart boy and he knew what he needed. Basically, my mom was telling him that he was not a reliable judge, that she, not he, knew how to manage his food intake. That’s when I understood where it all started for me!
But I don’t blame my mom. My mother wasn’t trying to do this on purpose; she was simply unconsciously transmitting food attitudes ingrained in our culture. If Isaac (and I) didn’t get them from her, we certainly would get them from somewhere else.
Our culture teaches us that there are appropriate times and places to eat that, in most cases, have nothing to do with feelings of hunger and satiety within our bodies. Think about the messages we get: “I went to so much trouble to cook, and you’re not even going to eat?” “You can’t be hungry. You just had dinner!” “It is not time to eat”. “Clean your plate, children are starving in India.” “Got an A? Let’s bake some cookies to celebrate.” “Poor thing, did you fall off your bike? Will some ice cream help her get better?”
These external cues, then, dictate what we eat for much of our lives. As a result, we stop listening to our internal signals about hunger and satiety. Instead, we eat because we think we should; to fill in feelings that we don’t want to have; to mark important moments in our lives; To fill a void that we can’t even fill.
After years of turning to food for non-physical reasons, our ability to perceive these internal cues has weakened, like the leg muscles of someone bedridden. Then, when we realize that we are gaining weight, we try to impose our own will to eat less on our appetite.
Scientists have a term for this. “Restricted eaters” are people who regulate their eating through external cues, often in an effort to control their weight. By contrast, “binge eaters” are those who still rely on the body’s internal signals to determine when and how much to eat.
Extensive research suggests that restricted eaters are much less sensitive to hunger and satiety than binge eaters.25 In other words, it takes more food deprivation to make them feel hungry and larger amounts of food to make them feel satisfied, compared with the riotous eaters. .