We live in a culture in which food has become inextricably bound up with emotion and situation. We eat because we’re bored, because we’re sad, because we’re happy. When we want to celebrate, we go out to eat. When we’re grieving over a romantic breakup, we drown our feelings in ice cream. When someone is sick or someone dies, food becomes the way in which we show our sorrow and support-great amounts of casseroles and cakes and salads.
I’m not saying this is all bad. While food has inherent limitations in meeting our emotional needs, an emotional connection with 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 certain foods and aromas stir up for you: the sense of “home” you feel when you smell cinnamon and vanilla; the sense of safety a meatloaf and mashed potato dinner can provide; the sense of longing you get when your sister makes your grandmother’s famous broccoli casserole at Thanksgiving. On rainy Sundays, a cup of hot cocoa is a wonderful accompaniment to reading the paper, while the ritual of a celebratory cake adds meaning to birthdays.
But too many of us have come to view food as a blanket for our emotions, numbing them as we turn to food to provide the love and comfort we crave. Food is reward, friend, love, and support. We eat not because we’re hungry, but because we’re sad, guilty, bored, frustrated, lonely, or angry. In doing so, we’re ignoring those internal hard-wired hunger and fullness signals. And because there’s 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 depend on it for an instant feel-better fix. Then 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 might receive immediate emotional comfort from eating, the associated guilt overpowers any emotional support you receive.
What too few of us understand is that food doesn’t fix feelings. It may comfort us in the short term, or distract us from our pain, but in the long term it only makes our problems worse and keeps us from making substantive changes that could lead to greater fulfillment 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. Nope. You have a caretaking problem. You’re not taking proper care of yourself. 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, was always there for me.
But then my obsession with weight surfaced. And suddenly food didn’t do the trick anymore. Instead of long-term comfort, I would get a short-term fix followed by a more intense and longer lasting guilt. The more weight I gained, the more evidence I saw of my failings. The more I felt like a failure, the more I ate. And so on and so on.
Where did this thinking all come from? From the way we were raised.
I remember soon after my son was born. When he was hungry, he cried. He nursed until he was full, then dropped off to sleep, sated. Only when his stomach emptied again-typically in a couple of hours-did he cry again for food. He was in perfect touch with his hunger/satiety signals.
But as he got older and moved on to solid food, things changed. Not in how he approached food, but in how we (well, my mother, for one) taught him to view food. I remember one time when Isaac was a year old and my mother was feeding him strained carrots. He happily ate a few spoonfuls, then stopped opening his 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 his mouth. When that didn’t work, she pushed it against his lips. Still no luck. So she got more creative. “Here comes the airplane, into the hangar,” she said, playfully waving the fork near his mouth, attempting to capitalize on his fascination with planes. “Open the hangar, Isaac.”
He would have none of it. Isaac was full and no longer interested in food. He was a smart kid and knew what he needed. My mom was essentially telling him that he wasn’t a trustworthy judge-that she, not he, knew how to manage his food intake. It was then that I understood where it all began for me!
But I don’t blame my mom. My mother wasn’t trying to do this on purpose; she was just unconsciously transmitting eating attitudes entrenched in our culture. If Isaac (and I) didn’t get them from her, we’d certainly get them from somewhere else.
Our culture teaches us that there are appropriate times and places for food that, more often than not, have nothing to do with feelings of hunger and satiety within our body. Think of the messages we get: “I went to all that trouble to cook, and you’re not even going to eat?” “You can’t be hungry. You just ate dinner!” “It’s not time to eat.” “Clean your plate, children are starving in India.” “You got an A? Let’s bake some cookies to celebrate.” “Poor thing, you fell off your bike? Will some ice cream help make it better?”
These external cues, then, dictate our eating for much of our lives. As a result, we stop listening to our internal cues about hunger and fullness. Instead, we eat because we think we should; to stuff feelings we don’t want to have; to mark important moments in our lives; to fill a void we can’t even clarify.
After years of turning to food for nonphysical reasons, our ability to perceive those internal signals has weakened, like the leg muscles in someone bedridden. Then, when we find we’re gaining weight, we try to impose our own will to eat less over our appetite.
Scientists have a term for this. “Restrained eaters” are people who regulate their eating through external cues, often in an effort to manage their weight. Conversely, “unrestrained eaters” are those who still rely on internal body cues to determine when and how much to eat.
Extensive research suggests that restrained eaters are much less sensitive to hunger and satiety than unrestrained eaters.25 In other words, it takes more food deprivation to get them to feel hungry and greater quantities of food to get them to feel full, compared to unrestrained eaters.