Grapefruit is a comfort food for me. And that falls into emotional eating.
In order for me to get comfort from it, it has to be prepared in one of two ways: cut like the photo with each segment being separated, or cut up into a fruit salad.
When I eat grapefruit in this way, I’m transported back in time to my Grandparents Florida home. I can remember the details of the house, the layout, the smells, the colours and sounds. I can see my Grandma in the kitchen and my Grandad in his recliner.
The memories flood in if I stay present with the grapefruit. I remember the pool, the way the whole community would light their driveways with candles for the Christmas tour, riding our bikes to the tennis courts, running our buts off on the tennis courts, taking the canoe out and having my brother scare the crap out of me by hitting the side and telling me it was a gator…
Food has the ability to transport us. It is that powerful.
Emotional eating has a bad rap. It evokes feelings of guilt. One study showed that half of adults admitted to feeling guilty after eating food they enjoy.
Diet industry has tried to steal the emotional-feel-good side of food away from us. As most things in the diet mentally, it’s either good OR bad. This black-or-white thinking is not healthy.
What if it’s not that simple?
This is a visual representation of what’s in the Intuitive Eating book to depict the range of emotional eating.
Sensory gratification is a normal part of a healthy relationship with food. It’s the cornerstone of satisfaction. Craving something warm and gooey won’t be satisfied by eating a cold crisp salad. Warm and gooey could be sweet or savoury. It could be a risotto or mac-n-cheese or warm cabbage salad with goat cheese and pecans. It could just as easily be warm caramel sauce or toffee pudding. So the point it simply this – when we match our desire to our intake we leave the experience feeling satiated and done. When we don’t, we leave the eating experience feeling like something’s missing or deprived.
Eating for comfort can also be a very healthy part of your relationship with food. Like my grapefruit story, using food to create a sense of peace, safety or calm is perfectly fine.
Both of these kinds of emotional eating could be problematic as well. If you’re regularly eating outside of hunger cues for the emotional comfort, it could lead to some disordered eating behaviours.
Distracting oneself with food can be both helpful and harmful. Sometimes we don’t have other tools to cope with our emotions. So food can be a tool to get us through. It’s like self-medicating. And just like medication, it has it’s place. Hopefully you’ll be working on the underlying issues while you’re using it.
Using food to numb is the sedation stage. When food is being used this way, it’s not bad, but it is a clear indication that deeper issues are at play. The same is true when food being used as punishment. These disordered eating behaviours may be the best you’ve got right now. I hope that you can also find the strength, courage, and resources to work with a professional to get to the underlying issues.
Where do you land on the continuum?
Most people will relate to at least the first three forms of emotioanl eating.
Sensory gratification where your meal just ‘hit the spot’; comfort eating where that food just left you feeling so good; using food to distract from the boredom or the fatigue that happens at the end of the day.
It’s important for you to know that you are under no moral or legal obligation to address disordered eating. If it’s not important to you, that’s okay and valid.
If you’re concerned about how often you’re using food emotionally, then I invite you to consider asking yourself a series of questions when you’re thinking about reaching for food.
Am I Hungry Flowchart
The most obvious and yet often overlooked question is “Am I hungry?”. We’re so conditioned to eat for external reasons that we rarely consider our internal barometer. If the answer is ‘yes’, then proceed down the pink side.
You’ll notice that the questions to choose what to eat consider sensory gratification and comfort as they are a normal part of a healthy relationship with food.
If the answer is ‘no’ then proceed down the blue side.
“What do I need?” is a powerful question. Answers can include:
- physical feelngs (restless, tired) would need physical solutions (movement, rest/sleep)
- emotional feelings (bored, angry, sad) would need an emotional solution (call a friend, journalling, feeling the feels)
- spiritual feelings (lack of purpose, missing connection) would need a spiritual solution (meditation, journalling, prayer, nature)
The next question is “Can I meet that need?”. If you can, then go do that. If you still want to eat afterwards, that’s cool. You absolutely can.
If you cannot meet the need then you have to decide if you’re willing and able to sit with the discomfort.
For something like boredom you may be willing to sit with it for a bit. Some emotional and spiritual discomfort can be a healing experience.
Other times, you’re not going to be able to address the need. For instance, past trauma surfacing or setting boundaries and not having the tools.
In this case, you will need to find support and distraction. Sometimes this will be food. That’s okay. You’ll use the tools that you have until you’ve learned how to use new ones.
Putting tools into your toolbox
There’s a lot of self-help out there. Explore and play with different strategies. If you’re in a place where you can access qualified support, amazing. We are built for connection, love and belonging. Talking to someone about what brings you shame can be a very healing experience. As long as you’re met with empathy and compassion, then you can start to work on what’s underneath the unwanted behaviours.
Please understand that this takes time. Just like every other new thing that you’ve tried, you won’t start out as a pro. You’ll try a new tool and it’ll feel weird and unnatural. That’s expected. After some time of trying it you may decide not to keep this tool. That’s okay too. Try another. And another.
For many of us food will remain a coping strategy. That’s actually a cool gift. When I find myself using food more often than what’s comfortable I see it as a cry for help now instead of evidence of my failures. It’s the ‘check engine’ light coming on. Time to see the mechanic – this is more than I can handle on my own.
I can help you with a lot of this work. If it turns out you need more that what I offer, I have met many great social workers, psychotherapists and psychologists who are intuitive eating trained. It would be my pleasure to introduce you to one of them.
Dedicated to helping you find peace and power with your body,
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