Just to prime your mind a bit, let me ask you this: who ate your happiness?
Emotional eating is utterly misunderstood and unnecessarily demonized. Emotional eating isn’t the problem, it’s emotional overeating and mindless emotional eating are the problem. Furthermore, emotional eating is simply inevitable. I propose: we learn to use it in moderation.
Emotional Eating is Inevitable
Whether we eat or overeat, whether we eat when hungry or when mindlessly triggered (by any number of environmental stimuli that are designed to pull the strings of our appetite), whether we eat mindfully or mindlessly, one thing is clear: we only eat what we like. In other words, we all eat for taste. Indeed, when we shop we buy only what we like and want to eat. Even the most health-conscious are guiding their food selections on the basis of taste. How something tastes is a hedonic consideration, i.e. a fundamentally emotional consideration.
Let’s face it: your body doesn’t give a hoot whether you eat what tastes good or not so good, as long as food isn’t rotten. Taste is mind-business. Whatever we eat, however mindlessly or mindfully we eat it, we only eat it if it tastes good, i.e. gives us a good feeling, a feeling of pleasure. Even zero-calorie mud-cakes of the third world countries are flavored with butter for taste as you enjoy the illusion of fullness. Bottom-line: all of us, mindful-eating writers, mindful-eating readers, foodies, you name it, all of us are eating for pleasure. Emotional eating is inevitable.
Now, if we hit a period of true starvation, sure we might switch to boiling leather belts and shoe-laces, but, if you have an internet connection to be reading this, chances are that everything that you eat, you mentally pre-screen for taste. So, let us once and for all bury this behaviorally unrealistic goal of entirely eliminating emotional eating. You have been eating for pleasure and you will continue to eat for pleasure, i.e. for emotional reasons (think dessert, for example), unless, of course, you are into moralizing, stoic, self-punishment, in which case you can righteously eat last week’s borsch for dessert.
I repeat: the problem isn’t emotional eating, the problem is mindless emotional eating which leads to emotional over-eating.
Emotional Eating Is Coping
Aside from normally-hedonistic emotional eating that we all engage in, day in and day out, some of us also eat to cope, i.e. not just for emotional pleasure but to reduce emotional distress. Eating for pleasure or eating to reduce distress are two sides of the same coin but our dichotomous minds (not without some help from self-help authors) divide this indivisible coin in half. This, of course, creates the twilight of hypocrisy. On one hand, we are encouraged to slow down and savor the food we eat – i.e. to enjoy it (which is mind-business). On the other hand, we are told to never eat for emotional reasons. If this sounds like nonsense, it’s because it is. Any pursuit of well-being is simultaneously a reduction of distress and vice versa.
But at any rate, it is this form of emotional eating that came to be demonized in self-help literature. Emotional eating with the explicit goal of alleviating emotional distress – motivationally – is a form of self-care and, as such, it needs to be celebrated and welcomed.
Say you feel depressed, so you sit down to eat. This is a step towards self-care and just because someone other than you or even you at a different point in time could cope via, say, exercise or meditation or support, it doesn’t mean that right this very moment you can. If you could have more resources at this very moment, if you could be right now psychologically-healthier than you are, you wouldn’t be you, but you are you, not some theoretical you or abstract you, not the you the way you used to be, not the you you would like to be, but this here-and-now/real-time you, doing your best with what you got.
I don’t know about you, but I am willing to celebrate any coping, self-care moment, however theoretically imperfect it might be. I know you are doing your best (yes, without knowing you!), which is good enough for me, and I hope it can eventually feel like it’s good enough for you too. To sum up, before we continue, emotional eating isn’t about self-destruction but about self-care (which is good news) and emotional eating, as a form of coping, can be fine-tuned (which is even better news).
Emotional Eating Works!
Before we talk about how to fine-tune emotional eating, let’s pause to appreciate why it’s so appealing as a coping strategy.
PACIFIER = ORAL COPING: From day one, feeding has been a default parenting intervention and the pacifier has been our first coping tool.
FEEDING = CARING: Many cultures explicitly equate feeding with caring. So then, why is it that it is okay to show your care for others by feeding them, but self-feeding is not an acceptable form of self-care?! If food is love, of course, food is self-love…
MEAL-TIME = SUPPORT-TIME: We have been conditioning ourselves to see eating as a family ritual, as a time of togetherness, as an opportunity for social relating and belonging, as a means to emotional well-being.
EATING = GROUNDING: Eating is a ritual, and as such it’s comforting in its predictability. Also eating is a sensation-rich, unambiguously physical activity. As such, eating is an effective reality check at a time of uncertainty or confusion, a behavior that grounds and centers a suffering mind.
EATING = RELAXING: From the physiological perspective, a choice to eat can be seen as an attempt to directly manipulate the nervous system, by switching on the part of our wiring that is associated with relaxation and rest. Autonomic nervous system (ANS) of your body consists of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) which is activated during stress and prepares the body for flight or fight, and of the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) that is responsible for conservation of energy, rest and relaxation. Did you know, for example, that the mere fact of touching your lips can stimulate the PNS (the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of your body that is responsible for relaxation)? Rick Hanson, Ph.D. & Richard Mendius, M.D., in their book “Buddha’s Brain,” note that merely “touching your lips can also bring up soothing associations of eating or even breastfeeding when you were a baby” (2008, p. 82).
Mindful Emotional Eating: Leveraging More Coping Per Calorie
All coping can be viewed as a cost-to-benefit ratio: you give something up (say, time when you sit down to meditate) in order to get something (say, peace of mind). Same with emotional eating as a coping strategy: you reduce distress at a possible weight gain, a change of mind at a possible expense to body. The idea behind mindful emotional eating is to leverage more coping per calorie, i.e. to make emotional eating more effective. How? By making it more mindful. How? The short of this can be expressed as the following set of five principles:
Now, this is just a map, not a turn-by-turn MapQuest itinerary for change. Simply reading through this, of course, isn’t going to change anything: mindless reading about mindful eating is pointless. Building of a new habit involves a process – in this case, a series of mindful emotional eating precedents – which, in a manner of speaking, lay down the habit-tracks for your future coping behavior to run on. So, you’ll have to research the experiential nuts and bolts of this on your own. My goal – at this point – is to merely help you re-think emotional eating, and, most importantly, to de-pathologize it.
Non-Objection: “Emotional Eating is Mind-Gain at Body-Cost.” What Isn’t It?!
When presented with the reframe that emotional eating is a form of self-care, I frequently hear this objection: “emotional eating is kind of self-care that takes care of the mind at the cost to the body.” Of course, it does! And, come to think of it, what doesn’t? Most of us are constantly taking care of our minds at the expense of the body. Take any extreme sport for example: you go skiing or rock-climbing – for mind’s fun – at the possible expense of paralysis. Or, you decide to run a marathon just to feel good about yourself, to feel accomplished, while knowing all along that it is probably not all that healthy for your knees. Right? Right. Forget the extreme sports and take the example of something less extreme. Sex – on a physiological level – is a pretty violent process. Heart rate goes up and all that somatic arousal jazz. Right? Right. So, what are we supposed to do? Get a permission from a cardiologist every time?
If these examples of putting mind over body didn’t do it for you, ponder the mind-over-body priorities that come with everything we consider heroic: soldier/policeperson/fireperson putting body in jeopardy to make a difference for the mind (e.g. in pursuit of freedom, duty, etc.).
Let’s face it: from long hours at work to long hours in the gym, we are constantly paying with body for mind’s gains. And, as far as I am concerned, that’s existentially and psychologically healthy. A mind that is doing the opposite – sacrificing mental wellbeing for physical wellbeing – is either mindless or vain. On the other hand, a mind that is taking care of itself and paying for its psychological wellbeing with body, knows itself from what it isn’t.
Sure, emotional eating is just oral coping, just an adult version of thumb-sucking, but who are we, after all, the consciousness that tries to change its distressed mind with the help of hand-to-mouth self-feeding or the thumb we metaphorically suck? Who are we: the Psyche or the Achilles’ heel? (There I go, once again, with rhetorical questions. But, just as a heads-up, we aren’t past the last one of them in this essay). Of course, we aren’t the thumbs we suck, we aren’t our bodies, which is why we can gain and lose weight up and down and left and right and still feel the same way about ourselves. Body is mind’s money and that’s why mind is throwing it around. But it doesn’t have to, which is the point of this writing. You can learn to both take care of your mind with emotional eating and not overpay with your body. How? Once again: by making your emotional eating more mindful, i.e. by leveraging more coping per calorie.
There’s a good chance that all of this radically contradicts just about everything you’ve read about emotional eating and that’s okay. In inviting you to shift this paradigm, I would like to also remind you that the idea of moderation is as old as the world. Remember the story of historical Buddha: he went from a life of indulgence to a life of anorexic-ascetic to a final realization of the importance of Middle Way and staying away from extremes. Never eating to cope – as I see it – is an unrealistic extreme. Eating to cope mindfully is Middle-Way. Remember Aristotle? He too talked about the “golden mean” and the importance of balance and non-excess. Self-restriction of eating, in general, or of eating to cope, in particular, is a set up for overeating and emotional overeating, respectively.
Steady Your Coping Paradigm
Of course, you don’t have to cope by eating. If you can cope without eating, then, of course, do. But if you can’t, consider optimizing your emotional eating coping. Or run the risk of self-denial that, as you have probably figured out, is an extreme that boomerangs with emotional over-eating. Your coping is only as steady as the coping paradigm you stand on. For years, you’ve been hearing from self-help authors and your therapists to stay away from such absolutizing words as “always” or “never.” Time to take self-help extremism out of self-help. Next time you hear or read something along the lines that you should never, ever eat to cope, that you should always avoid emotional eating, think Middle-Way.
Golden Age of Moderation
It might not be immediately obvious but the pulse of Western self-help literature is beginning to shift from all-or-nothing, black-and-white, unnecessarily-Stoic extremes of self-improvement towards Middle-Way psychology of self-acceptance and moderation. In closing, let me highlight the work of a fellow psychologist, Dr. Linda Craighead, the only self-help author on the topic of overeating who, to my knowledge, is too shifting the paradigm of emotional eating towards a position of balanced moderation. Here’s a sample of her provocative clarity about what she herself calls Effective Emotional Eating:
¨ “You don’t need to completely eliminate emotional eating. You can learn to use food more effectively to feel better occasionally without relying on it to fix all your feelings. Deciding to have a treat may be the most viable option you have in certain situations”
¨ “Eating for emotional reasons is viewed as an acceptable coping strategy provided that you are able to stop at moderate fullness and that you don’t’ use this strategy all the time.”
¨ “When nonfood alternatives are not easily available or are not working for you, you are encouraged to make a conscious decision to allow yourself self-soothing eating.”
I emphatically concur. The golden age of non-perfectionistic self-care, in general, and non-judgmental attitudes about emotional eating, in particular, is upon us.
I started this essay with a rhetorical question and I’ll close it with a rhetorical question: will you, overeater, be a part of this new mindful-and-effective emotional eating paradigm or will you keep beating yourself up for trying to take care of yourself?
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Shalona Anuj, PhD (March 23, 2010)
Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2011