Emotional eating is misunderstood and often unnecessarily demonized. However, emotional eating — that is, eating to feel good, often termed “compulsive eating” — isn’t the problem. It’s emotional overeating and mindless emotional eating that can be both psychologically and physically unhealthy. Emotional eating works as a coping strategy and stress reliever if approached with mindfulness and moderation.
Emotional Eating Is Inevitable
Whether you eat or overeat, whether you eat mindfully or mindlessly, one thing is clear: people only eat what they like to eat. How a particular food tastes is a fundamentally emotional consideration. Let’s face it: your body doesn’t give a hoot whether you eat something that tastes good or not so good, as long as the food isn’t rotten. Taste is the business of the mind — a matter of pleasure. Bottom line: Everyone eats for pleasure, so emotional eating is inevitable.
Emotional Eating Is Coping
Aside from emotional eating to feel good, some of us also eat to cope — that is, to reduce emotional distress. Eating for pleasure or eating to reduce daily stresses are two sides of the same coin but our all-or-nothing minds divide this indivisible coin in half. On one hand, we are encouraged to slow down and enjoy the food we eat. On the other hand, we are told by popular culture to never eat for emotional reasons. If this sounds like hypocrisy, it is. Any pursuit of well-being is simultaneously a reduction of distress.
Why Emotional Eating Works
There are several good reasons why emotional eating is so appealing as a coping strategy.
“The root is the mouth of the tree: pour water there at the bottom and, look, it sprouts green at the top.”
Animals – humans included – are, in essence, trees on legs, we are mobile plant-life. So, our root is on top, where the mouth is. Pour in water up there, stuff that mouth up there with food, and, look, body sprouts at the bottom.
Mouth is the root, the root of all your bodymind growth. You literally sprout from these very lips that kiss reality with every bite, from these two rows of teeth that mill the matter of reality into the consciousness that reads this sentence. Get rooted in the mouth.
Realize: this reality you are about to process and digest is the very ground you sprout from!
Adapted from Reinventing the Meal (Pavel Somov, 2012)
With this in mind, ask yourself who eats. Asking yourself, “Who is eating?” is really just a way of asking, “Who am I?”
Indeed, who are you, Composite Creature? Are you one? Or are you many? Or is this plurality that you are just a form of universal oneness?
Chew on this mystery of eating as “you” eat. Transcend your narrow stereotypes of yourself.
Adapted from Reinventing the Meal (P. Somov, New Harbinger Publications, 2012)
When I am mindless, almonds taste like powdery woody cardboard.
When I am mindful, I notice a teasing hint of sweetness in the taste of this tear-drop shaped nut.
When I am mindless, dandelion root tea tastes bitter and uninteresting.
When I am mindful, I notice a shadow of something cozy and roasted in the flavor of the tea.
Same foodstuffs, different experiences.
Conclusion: mindlessness and mindfulness have a different taste.
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I’m sure you’ve heard about “yo-yo dieting” – the body changes (changes in weight) as a result of dieting and going off the diet. This post is about something slightly different. For years I’ve used the concept of “bodymind yo-yo.” Let me explain what I mean.
You see, we are not just what we eat; we are also how we eat. If we eat mindlessly, to the extent to which mindless eating leads to overeating, our bodies expand and our minds shrink—experientially, of course, not literally. When we eat mindlessly, we miss out on the experience of that eating moment of life as it passes by.
If, however, we eat mindfully, to the extent to which mindful eating curbs overeating and assists weight loss, our bodies shrink and our minds expand. We don’t go up a hat size, but our conscious event horizon widens and our view becomes more spacious and inclusive. We grow existentially and feel enriched experientially.
In sum, when we eat mindlessly, body grows, mind shrinks. When we eat mindfully, body shrinks, mind expands. And this is what I call “bodymind yo-yo.” So, the question then is: which way is your bodymind moving?
Adapted from Reinvening the Meal: How Mindfulness Can Help You Slow Down, Savor the Moment and Reconnect with the Ritual of Eating (Pavel Somov, 2012). Pavel Somov is also the author of Eating the Moment (New Harbinger, 2008).
Filling the body and filling the mind when you eat are two different things. You know how to fill the body. But do you know how to fill the mind? Furthermore, do you know how to fill both, mind and body, at once?! Buddhist practice of oryoki is a way to do both. The word oryoki is composed of three symbols: ō, the receiver’s attitude of acceptance in response to whatever food is offered; ryō, a measure, or an amount, to be received; and ki, the bowl. Together, these three syllables add up to just enough satisfaction. Indeed, what does a body need to be fed? It needs food that the mind accepts—that the mind doesn’t mind, if you will; a certain amount of it—a meal or measure of it (indeed, the word “meal” stems from the Latin word for “measure”); and a way to hold the food—a bowl or other container. Now ask yourself, “What does a mind need to feel fed?” Mull this over when you have a moment.
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Adapted from Reinventing the Meal (Somov, 2012)
Evolutionary biologist and Pulitzer Prize winner Edward O. Wilson once wrote, “Other species are our kin” (1993, 39). Indeed, all of us— from an ant to a sequoia and from a carnivorous plant to a vegetarian human—have evolved from a population of single-celled organisms that lived almost two billion years ago. How do we know this? “All this distant kinship is stamped by a common genetic code and elementary features of cell structure” (Wilson 1993, 39). What this means is that each and every time we sit down to a meal, we are eating our kin— eating our own Earth family. This is neither good nor bad; it simply is. Nature is beyond morality.
This is what I call one of “the inconvenient truths” of conscious eating. Jains (the ancient Indian school of thought that came up with the ahimsa doctrine of non-violence) understood this long, long time ago. We habitually defend ourselves from this “inconvenient truth” by using such euphemisms as pork, bacon, and ham (for pig, one of the smartest, most trainable animals), beef (for cow), veal (for baby cow) and sea food (for fish, lobster, etc). We are playing word-games and name-games to keep this basic fact (that we have to kill our kin to eat) out of our collective awareness. Mindful, conscious eating isn’t just about savoring and slowing down. It’s also about facing the truth(s) of eating. So, are you ready to begin to regularly acknowledge this? Ready or not, Conscious Eater, ponder this “inconvenient truth” at your next meal.
Adapted from Reinventing the Meal (Somov, 2012)
image source [here]
Many of my readers and clients have come to feel that their eating is out of control. Here’s a perspective that I sometimes share, a perspective that allows you to begin to see the act of eating as a quintessential moment of self-determination, self-control and freedom.
As philosopher Gregory Sams astutely notes, “We cannot stop our heartbeat or our breathing but we can choose to stop eating and die, as many protest-fasters have demonstrated” (2009, 208). This is a fascinating point. If you were to try to hold your breath to kill yourself, you would faint and your body would take over the steering wheel of your existence, overriding your intention in a kind of body-over-mind coup d’état. But if you decide to stop eating, your body is out of luck. Sure, it will torment you with pangs of hunger, but without the assistance of your volition, it cannot move your hand to put food in its mouth. The behavior of eating is not only within your control, it is also the reins with which you steer this chariot of body.
If you choose not to fuel this vehicle of life, it dies. Ponder this the next time you sit down to a meal. Allow yourself to fully appreciate the significance of the moment when you begin to eat. The choice to eat is not the beginning of loss of control; rather, it’s the very proclamation of self-control. You are in charge of this hapless mass of matter that is your body. You animate it, you keep it alive with your decision to eat. So, allow yourself to experience the moment before eating as a proclamation of autonomy—a moment of psychosomatic sovereignty and an assertion of self.
Adapted from Reinventing the Meal (Somov, 2012)
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Ever thought about how many precedents of change it takes to change a habit? Indeed, how many precedents did it take you to quit the last habit you quit and to develop the last habit you developed? Something to ponder…
Consider this: you have invested literally a lifetime into mindless eating. It’s going to take you a little while to override your mindless eating reflex with a habit of mindful eating. The shift from a habit of mindless eating to a habit of mindful eating is a process, not a one-time decision to stop being mindless.
I suggest a simple goal: set one mindful eating precedent at each meal. Most of us eat at least 3 times a day. If you have a mindful eating exercise to try at each meal, that’s about 1,000 mindful eating precedents (just rounding up 365 days worth of 3 mindful eating precedents per day). Imagine how far a 1,000 precedents of change will get you!
Both of my books on mindful eating, “Eating the Moment” (2008) and “Reinventing the Meal” (2012), offer an extensive experiential curriculum. Each book features well over 100 exercises, meditations, and mindful practices. This allows a reader (interested in systematic, methodical, non-impulsive change) to have a mindful-eating practice/exercise to try at each and every meal.
Why am I sharing all this math, these writing notes of a self-help author? To highlight the importance of experiential homework. Both as a writer, reader, clinician and a do-it-yourself self-changer myself, I cannot emphasize enough the absolute necessity of experiential homework. Sure, epiphanies happen. Sure, people do, now and then, have a 180-degree turnaround on a dime. But that’s rare. More often than not, change is built 1 precedent at a time.
So, here’s the staging itinerary of this change journey, if you are working on mindful eating (and not just mindlessly reading about it):
Phase 1: Informational Awareness: “I know about mindful eating. I tried it…” — learn about the nuts and bolts of mindful eating, about its endless nuances and subtleties.
Phase 2: Experiential Awareness: “I experienced mindful eating, …
A Nutritional Calorie is a unit of energy. The job of a Nutritional Calorie is to fuel your Body. An Experiential Calorie – to coin a term — is a unit of awareness, a unit of conscious presence, a unit of meaning. The job of an Experiential Calorie is to enrich your Mind. Take a moment to count the latter…
What are the Meditational Calories of this moment? Indeed, as you eat, pause to consider the interdependence of people, places and events that converged into one seamless process in time to finally reach your lips. Of course, the Sun didn’t shine for you and the grapes didn’t grow for you and the farmer didn’t collect the grapes for you and the canner didn’t can the grape jelly for you in particular… And yet, somehow, as you are spreading grape jelly on your toast, you are now the beneficiary of this endless process of transmutation. Or, as you focus on the automaticity of your hand-to-mouth motions, on this smooth machinery of your habits, perhaps, you will awaken the eating zombie for just a moment, to both marvel and fear this ease of mindlessness with which our lives run. Or, perhaps, as you watch this food and this moment come and go, you will consider the impermanence and transience of things, and of yourself.
What are the Spiritual and Ethical Calories of this moment? How am I expressing my life values in this moment? Are my eating choices an accurate reflection of what I stand for — ethically and spiritually? Is my eating kind? Is my eating graceful? Is my eating meaningful? Is my eating grateful?
What are the Aesthetic and Hedonic Calories of this moment? Am I enjoying this eating moment, this moment of living? Am I allowing myself to notice the humble, unpretentious beauty of what I am about to eat? Am I sensing, tasting, savoring or just shoveling that which a moment ago I so carefully and meticulously selected …