Lesson four – Emotional eating.

French version of this post here, courtesy Stéphanie Potin-Grevrend.

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A lot of the time, emotional eating is discussed as a somewhat dirty little secret.

Even in the intuitive eating world (see #7), it’s presented as something undesirable, something that indicates you’re emotionally unstable and Not Very Good at Eating, but most of all, something that causes you to get fat. I’ve even heard emotional eating blamed for the Obesity Epidemic ™ (I’m not going to address that here, except to say: I Really Doubt It’s That Simple.)

But, to be honest, eating is inherently emotional. First, in the sense that it provides us pleasure, otherwise we probably wouldn’t take all the time and effort to find food, prepare it, and eat it. Because it is so essential to our survival as a species, it has, of course, become embedded in our brain’s pleasure-pathways as something intensely enjoyable (much like, ahem, other species-propagating activities.)

So whether you think you’re eating for emotional reasons or not, whether you’re doing it intentionally or not, all eating is fundamentally emotional.

On top of that basic biological foundation, we can place the obelisk of culture – all cultures use food as a way of bonding, expressing aesthetic values, celebrating regional flora and fauna, and marking both sad and happy occasions. To attempt to divorce food from this context and view it purely as biological fuel is not only overly simplistic, it is practically impossible.

This is a large reason why strict diets often do not play well with real life – because as primates, we live social lives, and as Homo sapiens, our social lives are organized into culture. We run into it at every turn: going out for coffee or lunch with a friend who needs some quality time; eating as a family on a Wednesday night; popcorn at the movies; holiday dinners; Shrove Tuesday; casserole to a grieving neighbour; cake at a birthday party.

When dieting turns you away from these traditions, or significantly complicates them for you, that is isolating. Sometimes it’s necessary, when it comes to a food allergy or therapeutic diet, or ethical and religious food restrictions, but its impact can be minimized, or it only centres around a limited set of foods to begin with, and the outcome is vital to survival or one’s moral values.

But I cannot help feeling that, when a voluntary weight-loss diet (by cutting out or significantly reducing broad swaths of the diet) imposes such demands on you, it’s destructive. It’s isolation from the larger culture and a way of bonding with others, done through emotional blackmail of the evillest sort: No one will love you unless you’re thin, or at least repenting of your fatness by making a visible, distinctly pleasure-renouncing effort to become thin.

Which makes dieting, itself, a form of “emotional eating” – eating a certain way in an effort to gain love and acceptance.

But, the way that emotional eating is most commonly understood and portrayed is eating directly in response to an acute emotional upset – stress, trauma, anger, sadness, rejection, worry. This type of eating is institutionalized in media through the trope of Sad Girl Eats Ice Cream from Container; or Harried Woman Eats Chocolate with Eyes Closed; and even Woman Laughs Alone with Salad.

(Which brings me to an important pet peeve, that “healthy eating” is never portrayed in images by anything other than FRUITS AND VEGGIES!!! and, most often, a white lady eating/cooking them. However, one cannot live by salad and laughter alone. Not for very long, anyway.)

I find this annoying because it presents emotional eating in a good-food, bad-food light (and images of orgasmic chocolate experiences have become part of that good-food narrative now that chocolate, or specifically, dark chocolate, has been officially approved by the Foodguilt-Industrial Complex), but also in a very gender-stereotyped way.

Women eat when sad. Women orgasm for chocolate. Women eat virtuous salads.

Men eat things like Manly Steaks and Beef Jerky and Dos Equis and Delicious Bacon and Dr. Pepper Ten (and they wash their faces with soap that comes in gunmetal grey packaging, and their shower gels don’t contain moisturizers, they use HYDRATORS, and they don’t even wash, anyway, they DETAIL because their bodies are machines, MANLY EMOTIONLESS MACHINES.) And they do it all between kickin’ ass and takin’ names. Women, meanwhile, eat and moisturize between bouts of laundry and bathroom-scrubbing.

Why yes, I have been drinking many cups of coffee. Emotionally.

Anyhow. The thing with emotional eating is that we, as a society, are in denial about it. Because it’s bad to have and express emotions, somehow, and that leads us all to do this thing that every single person in the world and all of human history has done at some point, in a secretive, guilty, furtive way.

Herein lies the problem.

When you are secretive, guilty, and furtive about your eating, it is not satisfying.

I absolutely agree that eating cannot solve life circumstances or emotional problems, but it can provide pleasure, comfort, a shared experience, and enough distraction to distance you temporarily from the problem at hand – and this is not a bad thing. We all need things like this in our lives – it is a legitimate coping mechanism for when things get a bit overwhelming. And, if anything, food is one of the more benign substances we can use for this purpose.

Used exclusively for escape, no, it is not healthy. But, ironically, forbidding emotional eating may actually cause people to use it this way – forbidden fruit syndrome being what it is. Forbidding it is also going to distract us from doing the thing that can help – using emotional eating as a trigger to investigate our emotions, and to acknowledge what is actually going on that food can’t fix.

Because we will be too busy feeling guilty and trying to hide the evidence to matter-of-factly assess the situation – or even to enjoy the goddamned food in the first place.

So – emotional eating: learn to do it well. Here’s how.

1) Acknowledge that something is going on for you emotionally. Take a moment to name it, if you can. It can help to write this down on a piece of paper – even just one word or phrase, like “sad” or “bored” or “freaking out.”

2) Pick a food that is really, really enjoyable – not just the random thing sitting on the counter, or even the thing that you always go to, out of habit, without asking yourself “What do I really want right now?” Get enough of it, too – you can always save extras for later, by storing them in a convenient but not distracting place (we’ll talk about this next time.)

3) Find a comfy place, without external distractions, to sit. (Put on pajamas or comfy pants too, if practical.) A recliner or couch is awesome. Turn off the TV and the computer, or turn your chair away. Close the book or the magazine or the newspaper. This will only take a few minutes, and then you can go back to what you were doing.

4) Remind yourself that eating is morally neutral – you are not doing something “bad” by eating delicious food. You are simply being human. (And if you have worries about the ethics of food production, you can address those things with more upstream, systemic approaches – beating yourself up at the point of food-on-plate, or depriving yourself of foods that matter a lot to you, won’t fix a problematic food system.)

5) Give yourself full permission to have as much as you want. Say it out loud if you can, or say it internally, sort of like saying grace before a meal.

5) Eat the food. Pay attention to how it looks, smells, and tastes, how it feels in your mouth and throat, and how it settles in your stomach. Give yourself the mental space to just have the physical experience of eating.

6) Pay attention to whether the food reminds you of anything, has family or other associations, brings up familiar feelings and memories.

7) Your mind will wander to random things – let it. Just check in, periodically, with the food and your body.

8) Eat until you are truly, honestly satisfied. Even if that means going back for more.

9) Afterward, assess how you feel again – have you felt comforted? Do you have a little distance? Is everything feeling a little less…intense? What else do you need to take care of yourself? Go and do that, or make a promise to yourself to do it later, when it’s practical. Write it down.

In short, emotional eating can be healthy and useful – if you do it with your eyes open, and short-circuit the shame spiral with permission.

This will take practice – guilt is not something you can unlearn with one try. If you do it consistently, daily or a few times a week, even when you are not in emotional distress, you will be ready for the times when you are.

If you feel like it’s time to commit to eating well, I’ve just opened sign-ups for January groups, or you can do the program one-on-one with me.

But we can also talk about it (for free!), right here on the blog.

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73 Comments

  1. Irena
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for articulating this subject so wonderfully. “Emotional eating” is yet another label used by people who really have no insight into the complexities of obesity – yet as you state, emotional eating is not confined to one group of body types. I’ve even heard emotional eating described as what’s wrong in the world right now – lol. I found that amusing, but certainly not at the expense of millions who do not have enough food.

    • Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      …yeah. Emotional eating is, surely, a larger and more pressing problem than huge swaths of famine and starvation! Yeesh.

  2. Cate
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    With or without the “R.D.,” you are insightful and compassionate, and a much-appreciated resource for sanity. As the mother of a beautiful, brilliant young woman in recovery from anorexia, I applaud your wisdom, grace, and humor. Keep the lessons coming.

    • Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Thank you, and my very best to your daughter and you.

  3. ako
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    This is a good post. Emotional eating is one of those areas where there’s this confusing and contradictory picture of the “right” way to eat (Emotional Eating is treated as automatically a problem, but chocolategasms are expected and even approved of for thin people eating chocolate deemed sufficiently virtuous, and a woman getting a big thrill out of a salad isn’t likely to be judged or criticized), and very few people match it. So people can end up stressing over every bite of ice cream eaten after a hard day, every chip munched on while bored, or every warm cookie enjoyed while in the mood for comfort.

    I think a lot of it ties in with the distrust of pleasure running through large portions of diet culture*. Talking about emotional eating in a really general way, while making it sound universally bad, makes people worry about food that makes them feel good emotionally. It makes it vaguely shameful if the food you eat makes you happy.

    There’s nothing wrong with getting comfort and pleasure from food. If emotional eating turns into something that isn’t comforting or genuinely pleasurable, then it’s a good idea to change the habits (either by yourself or with the aid of someone else, depending on the situation). But there’s nothing inherently wrong with having good feelings about what you eat.

    *There’s a weird contradictory set of cultural messages about food and pleasure. The most obvious ones I can think of are “Eating for pleasure is suspect at best and dangerous at worst”, “Women! Have these small portions of rich indulgences!” “Men! Eat this food to defy everyone who’s telling you to eat healthy!”, “Virtuous people take pleasure in Virtuous foods! Your taste buds are an indicator of your moral alignment!” and “Taking pleasure in food is good, provided you don’t eat what you really want, but instead eat this substitute we’re trying to sell you!” (What’s even weirder than the chocolategasm commercials are the yogurtgasm commercials.)

    • Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      I think a lot of it ties in with the distrust of pleasure running through large portions of diet culture

      Absolutely agree with this. And the parallels between Victorian mistrust of sexual pleasure and contemporary mistrust of eating pleasure are too striking.

      • Regina Evaslin
        Posted October 2, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

        And the parallels between Victorian mistrust of sexual pleasure and contemporary mistrust of eating pleasure are too striking.

        This sentence metaphorically slapped me in the face. Half of my emotional eating (the unhealthy kind) is mainly as a sort of rebellion – as if I am telling the world “Eff you I don’t care what you think.” Yes, it is unhealthy. But yes we live in a society where being fat equates with being criminal.

  4. Vinny
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, this is lovely.

  5. Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    This is very well put. Eating is always emotional and there’s nothing wrong with enjoying food.

    There is no doubt that people out there abuse food and use it as a crutch for their emotional issues, and that is when it becomes a problem. I think you did a job well done in explaining how to find healthy ways to deal with issues instead of using food, in that other post you linked.

  6. Knoll
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Hmmmm, thanks for the post. I’ve never considered dieting as a form of emotional eating. I got a lot out of this post. :)

  7. Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    One more angle– I do a lot of my eating while reading, whether a book or on the screen. I don’t think that the only two good ways to eat are full attention on the food or socializing, even if it’s emotional eating.

    One of the other ways this culture is unkind to human variety is treating introversion as though there’s something wrong with it.

    • Posted December 13, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think there’s a problem with eating while watching TV or reading, or without socializing – but for some people it causes major dysfunction in their eating, because they use the reading/TV/whatever to distract them from major anxiety they’re having around food. Unfortunately, it also distracts them from experiencing and enjoying the food itself.

      If you can eat alone and without distractions comfortably sometimes, and in front of the TV while still being able to check in to what’s happening with the food and your body, then I think that’s a totally normal balance. However, lots of my clients really cannot do the former without feeling super-awkward or even panicky. And they can’t do the latter because the TV (computer/book/etc) is being used as a way to completely shut them off from the experience of eating, as well as their feelings. That’s a problem.

      I agree, though, that we often treat introversion as an inherent problem. I really enjoy spending time alone, and I don’t like it when that is pathologized.

  8. Sophie
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

    I am printing this out and taking it with me to my ANAD group next week. So, so inspiring. We’ve been talking a lot about the distrust of pleasure and this is perfect.

  9. Emerald
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this. It does need to be said: our emotions are tied up with eating because, on a personal and social level, it’s how we bond as humans. We bond with our first caregivers as infants by feeding and being fed; and we bond within social groups by sharing food, and probably have done since before we were even human. Hearing people talk, as they tend to now at this time of year, about the holidays more or less purely in terms of how much they can wreck your diet, gives me an oddly squicky feeling – is that what holidays are about now? (And on a personal level, people out there are now underfeeding their babies, because we can’t have fat babies, and that makes me feel even squickier. These instincts exist for a reason, people!)

    As for the popularly understood idea of emotional eating as a way to deal with emotions, OK, it’s a second best to dealing with them in a more constructive way – but there are many, many less constructive ways to deal with feelings. Something I’ve read a few articles about, but which of course tends to be brushed over by medical people in the field, is that a fair number of people who’ve had weight loss surgery go on to develop addictions of one kind or another, like alcohol or gambling. While the former emotional overeaters are probably a minority of the total number of people who have WLS, it’s clear that where this does happen, restricting food intake without looking at the underlying issues can do way more harm than good.

    ako – ‘Yogurtgasm’ is my new favorite word. :)

    • Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      I totally read a post on some site yesterday in which the person referred to holiday parties as “landmines” and it really struck me – when dieting interferes with your life to the extent that a fun, social celebration involving seasonal food items can be described (even a bit hyperbolically) as a landmine, just ready to destroy your meticulous weight-control strategies (and this was someone who had been doing weight loss maintenance for a good 10 years) then…something ain’t right.

      No holiday party should have to seem like a landmine, for crying out loud. It makes me sad that this is how we frame them, because weight control and eating control are so prioritized over everything else in life.

  10. Posted December 13, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    On Thanksgiving I do my most emotional eating of the year. I make my mother’s patritcian potatoes, which happens to be the one recipe of hers I have, and eat them on the day I most strongly associate with her, the day we ate them every year until she died.

    I’ve spent almost as many years without my mother as I did with her, but on Thanksgiving, she’s sitting at my mental and emotional table. I eat her potatoes and thank the universe for the brief time I had her with me in the flesh.

    Eating those potatoes, I know she’ll be with me every year as long as I’m alive.

    And anyone in the wide world who has a problem with that, has a standing invitation from me to get bent.

    Food is a biological necessity, yes, but it’s also a way of expressing affection, sharing family and ethnic ties, exploring the world around us, and inviting newcomers into a community. Why would I want to divorce myself from the delight of tasting the first strawberries of the season, or the anticipation of smelling the aromas wafting up from the stewpot?

    When I think of how joyless, resentful, and angry meal replacement shakes and counting points and deliberately choosing lo-fat yogurt over a slice of pie made me, I’m entirely pleased that I made the decision to eat with the world again. Now I can just enjoy my food in peace and contentment.

    That’s the kind of emotional eating I want to do. You know, the fun kind.

    • Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      This comment reminds me of that scene from True Blood where Sookie eats the last of her grandma’s pecan pie. I actually cried.

      That is how much I love pie.

      • Posted December 13, 2011 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        I haven’t seen True Blood, but that’s how much I love pie, too.

        If we ever meet in the too, too solid flesh, I will bake us a pie.

    • Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

      I’ve been three Thanksgivings without my dad, and the eating becomes more emotional each time. (Thanksgiving was his holiday.) For me, it’s not the specific menu (though we do stick with at least turkey, a potato dish, and a pie) but is rather more about, “I am in this kitchen, crafting this meal, just like my dad did for so many years with me as his helper.” (And yes, I’m crying as I’m writing this and remembering chopping up giblets for gravy.)

      And for the first time this year, I will be having Christmas away from the city where I grew up — and in a city that apparently has no good source for pierogi. This sufficiently unnerves me that I am looking up recipes to make the entire things by hand myself.

      • Posted December 19, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

        Twistie – that was beautiful! Tears in my eyes – what a wonderful way to remember your mother and feel close to her again.

  11. caseyatthebat02
    Posted December 13, 2011 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    I travel quite a bit for my job, often going to places I’ve never been before, and the first question I invariably ask is, “What do y’all eat here?” (I’m from Texas – the y’all is mandatory).

    Food is one of the easiest ways to learn about a place and the people who live there, because it is emotional. Cold climate vs. warm, small town vs. big city, Toronto vs. Montreal… food reflects these differences in a delicious and emotional way.

    If you were to visit my town, the very first thing I’d do is take you to my favorite margarita and fajita joint, because how would you know you’d been to central / south Texas otherwise?

    • Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

      If you were to visit my town, the very first thing I’d do is take you to my favorite margarita and fajita joint, because how would you know you’d been to central / south Texas otherwise?

      Also too, the first thing I’d do is compare this to the margaritas and fajitas in southern AZ. Not that one way is “right” or “wrong” but because variations like that are so characteristic of different regions.

    • Alice
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      Oh, food is one of the things I love most about traveling.

  12. Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

    I have often thought it odd how people like to speak as if it were humanly possible or even desirable to be unemotional about food, so I enjoyed reading this post very much!

    Also, as a man, you got me down perfectly. I gots me gunmetal grey packaging, and I don’t wash, I BLAST DIRT OFF MY BODY WITH A BUTANE TORCH! Then I yell at the mirror and punch it with my fists, and ask it if it’s talkin’ to me. Because, as a man, no things make me afraid, and I have no emotional complication in relation to anything.

    Then I cry a little, because my body’s in so much pain, but I pretend that I just have wood splinters in my eye because of all the massive trees I’ve been chopping down with my awesome karate chops.

    • ako
      Posted December 13, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Permalink
      • Posted December 16, 2011 at 4:33 am | Permalink

        Oh! Oh! Oh! I had NOT seen that! It’s amazing! Believe it or not, I did once have “DERMAL HAMMERING” where they get a spiked hammer, and bash away at your eczema. It was actually incredibly effective at getting rid of it. As would have been a complete skin-transplant, I suppose.

    • Posted December 13, 2011 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

      I don’t wash, I BLAST DIRT OFF MY BODY WITH A BUTANE TORCH! Then I yell at the mirror and punch it with my fists

      hahahhahahahahhahahahaha

      • Posted December 16, 2011 at 4:36 am | Permalink

        I don’t get it. What’s funny? What? Is that funny? That’s just what I do. Doesn’t everyone do that? Y’know, everyone who’s a real man?

  13. Posted December 13, 2011 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    For people who do want to lose weight (I know that topic is verboten, but some people would prefer to do so) and not regain it, I think this attitude is extremely important. Most people introduce more disordered thinking about food into their lives in an effort to have what they feel is a more “orderly” relationship. The problem is not that food is something we have an emotional relationship with, but that people eat compulsively for psychologically negative reasons. One of the reasons people resist attending to the process of eating in the manner you detail here is that they don’t want to enjoy it but rather use food like a pacifier or drug.

    Engaging mentally with what they are doing takes food out of the compulsive activity category and places it in the more natural context of being something we do for pleasure and sustenance. It’s far more comfortable to replace one distorted and destructive relationship with food (compulsive eating) with another (greatly restrictive eating) than to adopt a healthy relationship with it.

    • ako
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      Problems with emotional eating, like most eating problems, has suffered from an excessive focus on body size. There are definitely unhealthy forms of emotional eating, and depending on the problem, the solution may be anything from an active effort to change the habit to seeking psychological help. But much of the information out there conflates unhealthy forms of emotional eating with being a human who eats, has emotions, and is fatter than some arbitrary ideal.

      That’s bad for thin or medium-sized people who have unhealthy emotional eating habits and are discouraged from recognizing it because they’re not fat. That’s bad for fat people who cope perfectly well with balancing food and emotions and are subjected to “Are you sure something isn’t wrong with you?” anxiety-provoking prods from the larger culture. That’s bad for thin and medium-sized people who have healthy habits and are encouraged to think the occasional “I’m bummed and I want ice cream” day is a problem that will turn them fat. And it’s bad for fat people who have emotional eating problems and are encouraged to judge their success in coping with them by how many pounds they shed, not by how well they learn to cope without compulsive and unhealthy forms of eating.

  14. Posted December 14, 2011 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    I think the mindfulness aspect is so important. I have a thing about oreos. I’m not sure what it is, because I’m not like this with other cookies or really any other food, but every few months my tastebuds will go OREO TIME!! and then I just march my ass down to the nearest store and I buy a box of oreos. They must be regular oreos. No double stuff, no funny flavours, no low fat, no nothing. Regular oreos. And then I get them home. And then I eat them. And I can easily consume an entire box in less than 48 hours. Usually I will eat one row (a third of a box) and that’s when I need to take a break because I’m getting a stomach ache. So I stop, but a few hours later I eat another row.

    Anyway, my point is that for all that I’m happy to give myself permission to eat a few boxes of oreos a year in this manner, I was actually finding it unsatisfying because every time I finished an oreo I would immediately crave another one, even if my tummy hurt from too many oreos, even if the box was empty, and it was kind of frustrating. But during my last oreo binge I hit on something. If, for whatever reason, I want a given oreo to be my last oreo, then I make myself pay attention to the oreo. Instead of reading on my computer or watching tv or doing whatever else with my brain while I eat the cookie, I stop, look at my oreo, thing about how it tastes, how it smells, how the filling melts in a kind of gross-but-awesome way on my tongue… and then when I finish that oreo I don’t feel an immediate need to go get more, because I was actually in the moment, enjoying that cookie. I haven’t had another OREO TIME since I figured this out, but I’m guessing that it will make my next one much more satisfying.

    • MK
      Posted December 14, 2011 at 12:51 am | Permalink

      I am so like that about custard. I make it two, maybe three times a year when it’s time to make custard, and then I eat it all.

  15. Alice
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    I thought it was interesting that the Ellyn Satter link said that people who aren’t restrictive eaters tend to eat less when under stressful conditions, while people who are restrictive eaters tend to eat more. That has definitely been true for me – I have a hard time eating now when I’m stressed and upset.

    I do the “eating because I’m bored”-thing, though. Oh, and of course the eating because I’m celebrating or socializing or because food is delicious. But those seem less controversial.

    Your advice seems really helpful, I’ll definitely try it.

    • Posted December 14, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

      Yes – this is a really interesting phenomenon confirmed in research as “restraint/disinhibition.” Otherwise known as the “What the hell? Effect.” And that’s not to say that eating more is inherently bad, of course, but that when you’re eating past your own comfort level because of some kind of rebellion or fear of not getting enough to eat in the long-term, then…yeah. That’s a problem.

    • Posted December 20, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

      When I’m really anxious I can’t eat. I just have no appetite. And then I lose weight, which sucks for me. Hmph.

      Once, I got down to my lowest adult weight because I was so anxious, and I was tired and shaky all the time, but the thought of food was nauseating. What eventually happened was the source of my stress resolved, and then the next day I realized I was *starving* and I bought Thai takeout and ate it all too fast, and then had chocolate chip cookie dough for dinner. Hah!

      • Posted December 20, 2011 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

        I know this stress response well, and it’s not very much fun!

      • Cora
        Posted December 24, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

        I do this too. I love when I feel this huge hunger after it because I associate it with relief or joy. Depending on the stress source I either loose appetite or I feel like I can’t stop eating. I had never considered myself a restrictive eater but I think I am, now. Reflecting on it, the things I am restrictive about have to do with my mom, like if I relate the pressures of getting the best grades in the class etc. with all the conflicts around food I had (still have) with her. Enlightening.

        As I seldom comment, I want to say now that I love reading your blog, Michelle.

  16. Amy_L
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    This statement really spoke to me: “(And if you have worries about the ethics of food production, you can address those things with more upstream, systemic approaches – beating yourself up at the point of food-on-plate, or depriving yourself of foods that matter a lot to you, won’t fix a problematic food system.)”

    That’s the kind of guilt I’ve really been struggling with lately. I’m surrounded by left-wing “foodies” who eat all organic, locally produced, gourmet kinds of food, and who are very judgmental about it. I share some of the same beliefs: I worry a lot about the environment, the treatment of animals, etc., but I grew up on highly processed, suburbia-type foods, and when I’m feeling stressed there’s nothing I want more than a fast food drive-thru meal (the convenience of the drive-thru is part of the comfort for me). I eat these meals by myself in complete shame and guilt. There’s so much tied up in these food judgments: it’s partly a class issue, and I definitely feel “low-class” compared to my friends; it’s partly a Victorian distaste for self-indulgence; and it’s partly a legitimate moral concern. But at least the moral concern I can deal with in a different way than berating myself while I’m scarfing down my french fries.

    Thank you for this series — it’s really helping me rethink things!

    • Posted December 14, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

      You are very welcome!

      And when ethical concerns about systemic issues become just another way to judge individuals, or to beat yourself up in a way that actually interferes with your ability to get fed on a busy day, then you know it’s become dysfunctional.

      Systemic problems need systemic solutions. Individual efforts can certainly help, and they can feel good to engage in, but they are not in themselves a solution to larger problems. If you have the resources – emotional, financial, and time-wise – to eat according to your convictions, then good on you! It always feels good to be able to act in a way, in the moment, that is consistent with our larger ideals. But it does not make you a better person, somehow.

      We all need to recognize that not everyone, including ourselves, always can do that, and that not everyone even feels the same way about these issues (or are aware of them, or are in a place in life to make them a priority), and that still does not affect their goodness as people. Nor does it affect our own goodness as people.

      Inconsistency with one’s ideals due to practical constraints is not the same as willful hypocrisy, and it does not make us bad people. It makes us human, because humans are imperfect (and contain multitudes.)

    • ako
      Posted December 14, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Permalink

      I know what you mean about the organic stuff. In practical terms, all-organic, all-local, all the time does not work for me. (Among other things, I travel and move around a lot, and what’s available depends a lot on where one is, and socially I’m sometimes in situations where demanding to only be served locally-grown organic vegetarian food would not work. Plus, sometimes I just really want a Cadbury Creme Egg.)

      I know that if I start with the assumption that there’s an absolutely perfect way to eat, I’m obligated to achieve it, and any variation from the rules is a failure, it will drive me up the wall and make me miserable without causing any positive behavior changes. Whereas if I start with the assumption that it’s okay for me to do what I want, eating is basically neutral, and any good thing I do counts as a positive whether I do every possible thing on the list every possible time or not, then I can make some positive changes while feeling good about myself.

      That goes for both eating for health and eating in socially beneficial ways.

    • Fromthefuture
      Posted December 15, 2011 at 2:56 am | Permalink

      I have these same concerns! I try to eat accordingly, but it is super expensive and I am not yet competent enough with my eating to weather any kind of fancy-rule eating without it becoming a fixation. However! Here is how I think of it (and socially I think it makes MORE sense):

      It’s super weird to me that some liberals (and I am really very liberal, btw) get all uppity about how we should be buying certain things over other things when it comes to food. Sure, I believe that, ideally, we should avoid and boycott things that are socially terrible. Of course.

      But the idea of “voting with your purse” is such a conservative idea that I have trouble understanding how so many liberals can demand that we (even those who are poor/not wealthy) vote with our purses when it comes to food. Ideally, I want to. But I don’t have the money. It should be the right of every human to eat food that is safe and produced humanely, both in terms of children and animals and workers, food that is produced sustainably. This food should be affordable.
      It isn’t. Right now, in this country, an affordable “socially responsible” option does not exist.
      It just isn’t possible for most of us to eat this was. And spending tons of money buying the organic/sustainable stuff available won’t do all that much.
      What WOULD do a lot would be protective legislation. Actual laws.
      So let’s fight for that instead of judging others and ourselves.
      And, as an aside, I dislike the fact that caring about our oceans and rain-forests or unfair labor practices require me to buy products that barrage me with words like “pure” and “health” and etc etc all those health-food store words that basically mean weight-loss and, for someone who was orthorexic, even weirder sh*t than that. (“pure” makes me shudder)
      Social consciousness shouldn’t just be for wealthy foodies. And it shouldn’t just be foodie-food.
      In my paradise, there will be laws that will ensure that Little Debbie will be made with fair-trade chocolate produced with fair labor practices, and it will taste exactly the same as it does now.

      • Posted December 15, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

        But the idea of “voting with your purse” is such a conservative idea that I have trouble understanding how so many liberals can demand that we (even those who are poor/not wealthy) vote with our purses when it comes to food.

        I also find this concept really troubling, because it moves us, again, out of the sphere of being citizens into the role of being consumers, and trying primarily to make social change through our consumer behaviour. Not that pressure can’t be exerted that way, but it’s troubling when that becomes the primary, knee-jerk response to systemic problems.

        To me, the primary, knee-jerk response would be more useful if it were to get more involved in local government, federal regulations, and the political process in general to assure that the systems in place (like food inspection agencies, etc.) actually do their fucking jobs in the way we need them to, and that food producers have good oversight and regulation from the government. THE GOVERNMENT IN WHICH WE ALL ACTUALLY HAVE A VOTE, you know? Not just people with enough money to buy the chance to “vote” with their dollars.

        I’d also be reeeeeally really interested to hear about your experience with orthorexia. It is surprising how much of that I run into with people.

      • ako
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

        And, as an aside, I dislike the fact that caring about our oceans and rain-forests or unfair labor practices require me to buy products that barrage me with words like “pure” and “health” and etc etc all those health-food store words that basically mean weight-loss and, for someone who was orthorexic, even weirder sh*t than that. (“pure” makes me shudder)

        I don’t have a history of orthorexia, but I definitely feel torn because the best options for getting sustainable fair-trade food involves buying from companies known for fat hatred and pushing unhealthy orthorexic-sounding ideas. If there is a way to get completely ethically “pure” food that meets all of my needs, I don’t know what it is. In the meantime, I try to remember that I am allowed to eat and buy myself food that lets me eat in a convenient and enjoyable fashion, small and flawed positive actions can still end up doing some good, I’m not going to save the world through strategic shopping, and I get to make whatever trade-offs work for me.

        • JH
          Posted December 18, 2011 at 2:31 am | Permalink

          I respectfully disagree. Consumer pressure, in addition to acting locally and globally have positive impacts. I think we tend to get into an “all or none” attitude, and that type of reasoning is problematic. Certainly, people buy what they afford, if they can’t afford free trade, that’s understandable. If I have a choice, however, between buying some free trade chocolate, I will usually buy the free trade version. Sometimes I will buy some food like a Hershey’s bar, but I try to use my consumer and act politically to effect change. Someone said to me once the American motto was “give me convenience or give me death”. This goes for only using consumer power as a way to change things and going for the Kraft TV dinner because it’s easier. I don’t like the labeling of “clean foods” either, but there are some foods that are more nutritious and I put those in my body because they make my body feel better.

          • ako
            Posted December 18, 2011 at 10:20 am | Permalink

            I’m not sure how much we are disagreeing. I’m not against looking for fair trade or organic when it’s practical. (I assume you meant fair trade instead of free trade?) I think it can have a positive impact. I just think that the impact is sometimes
            overestimated, and the difficulty is sometimes underestimated, particularly by middle-class liberals (for whom spending a bit more at a comfortable middle-class-friendly store is a relatively easy thing), and it shouldn’t be treated as horrifying immorality to recognize one’s limits and make an imperfect trade-0ff (“These
            shoes are vegan and made under fair labor conditions, but they are definitely not locally produced”), or even put one’s personal well-being above the moral purity of one’s shopping habits if they come into conflict.

            And there’s definitely a convenience factor. I buy mostly organic food, I get vegan shoes made by well-paid workers in countries with good labor standards, and I look for fair-trade chocolate. This is all relatively convenient for me, because of class and economic privilege. I don’t think everyone should quit doing those things and
            give up completely because some people have more practical barriers than others. I just think there should be more acknowledgement of the limits of this approach, and a compassionate attitude about humans not being able to do this perfectly.

          • Posted December 18, 2011 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

            This is how I feel, too. I also feel like we need to be careful against judging those who maybe can afford to buy fair trade or organic, but choose not to for personal reasons. Those reasons can range from simply not knowing about or caring about those issues, all the way to finding it triggering to buy things that also tend to have more health claim messages attached to them – this is a real issue for people with a history of disordered eating.

            Sometimes people also find that it is culturally important, for family reasons, for nostalgic reasons, etc. to buy the foods they grew up eating. This applies to Americans and Canadians just as much as people from other countries and cultures – our food, even though we like to denigrate it (and our supposedly ‘nonexistent’ culture) as merely convenience food or quantity over quality, is important to us emotionally and culturally. Rather than assuming it’s easy to give up these things outright (you can pry my Kraft Dinner from my cold, dead hands), maybe it would be better to focus instead on putting pressure to bear on those food manufacturers to make the processing and producing of those foods more ethical.

            I don’t think those who can and want to make ethical purchasing decisions should stop doing so. My problem comes in when it becomes a way to judge other people for not making the same choices as you, or beating yourself up out of a sense of guilt when you can’t or don’t want to make those decisions, and need to get fed anyway.

          • JH
            Posted December 19, 2011 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

            I think both things are important, to purchase ethically AND put pressure on manufacturers and government. And one of the best ways to put pressures on companies is to stop buying their stuff. I know this is not easy to do and not always possible. And I think that our culture, if we are to evolve and survive as a human race, needs to step up and start caring a little more about issues that affect our world and each other and our own bodies for that matter. And I think there is a way to raise awareness about these things and encourage ethical buying without judging, but more of encouraging, because it’s promoting our survival and evolution. There are similarities to the civil rights movement here is the US, for example, where people had to “sacrifice” some of their conveniences to improve the lives of others and to encourage others to do the same and those sacrifices were better for everyone.

  17. JH
    Posted December 14, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    I like this post. Very though provoking! There are somethings that are problematic about “emotional eating” or eating to escape or to soothe. For me personally I’ve found that a lot of times if I eat for emotional soothing, and it’s never enough. If I don’t set some kind of limit and eat as much sweets as I want to sooth, I’ve eaten so much that I feel worse afterward. I’ve binged on food to soothe and it never made me feel good afterward, just like there was something missing, and after I was done the pain was back. I am now able to give my self permission to eat sometimes for emotional reasons or rather to soothe or out of boredome, but not binge, to eat a “serving” of sweets. Sweets or chips are my favorite for soothe food or bored food. I eat when bored too, and there’s that afterward feeling of still being bored after, so there has to be an end point (for me). In a way, I do think it’s okay to limit oneself to a set amount and stop, and there’s nothing unhealthy about that either. I tend to tell my self “no” to using food as a crutch all the time. I also physically don’t like to ruin my appetite for other needed nutrients with a bunch of sugar, and have that nagging “chemical hunger” afterward and the sugar crash. So I tell my self “one piece” if it’s cake for example. So, I do exercise some “deprivation” or rather limit setting, if you will, and I’m not certain this is necessarily a bad thing, because I think that for many folks that love sugar (like me!), don’t want to over do it. And if we give ourselves “permission” some of us may go and go until the bag or 2 bags of chips is all gone and then feel worse after. 2 bags of chips or a a whole tub of ice cream is just too much! Because then there’s no room for other stuff. Interestingly, I think for me, there is also a body component at work telling me “no” because of the feeling afterward, and also a “no” coming from my mind, maybe the body is even telling my mind “no” and then I tell myself “stop”. I think I interpreted your post as saying that if we allow ourselves to eat as much of we want when we feel sad, mad, or glad and pay attention then we will tend not to do this in an unhealthy way. I’m just not convinced that the limit I set for myself is wrong, in fact I think that limits can be healthy. Intuitively, I think that turning to food all the time is not helpful or effective and can make things worse and there’s something more satisfying about eating out of physical need. I think that’s what “intuitive eating” points to if we listen to our bodies. Further, when eating to soothe or out of boredom, rather than hunger, the gut often cannot gauge when to stop (that’s my case), so that’s where the brain says “no” and I put the chips away. So where do we draw the line? There are good things about boundaries and limits, btw, even with respect to food, (IMHO).

    • Posted December 14, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      I do think there’s a difference between bingeing and eating for comfort. And bingeing is negative not because it makes someone a bad, horrible, out-of-control person who deserves to feel shame, but because it hurts you. It hurts, physically, to binge on food, and it hurts emotionally because it so completely distracts from dealing with emotions honestly.

      To me, this is where I draw that line – between behaviours that are truly self-destructive, and those that are merely benign.

      But I really don’t think the problem here is permission. Permission, with practice, can actually help to short-circuit binges. But that is a scary thing to believe and practice. Permission does not mean that you automatically eat enough food to make you feel bad – that belief is reflective of the problematic ways we think about food in this culture: that if you have permission, it automatically means that you should or will go and hurt yourself with food. Quite the contrary – it means you have permission to eat in a way that feels good on all levels. And bingeing, or using food as your only coping mechanism to the point where it displaces actual meals, does not feel good on all levels.

      At first when giving yourself permission, you will probably make mistakes – you might overeat to the point of discomfort, or eat a diet that is so wildly imbalanced that you feel uncomfortable. But these don`t make you a bad person, and you really, really will learn from these mistakes if you let yourself. In fact, it`s crucial that you make these mistakes and learn from them, or else you will be eating to an external set of rules and guidelines for the rest of your life.

      I’m just not convinced that the limit I set for myself is wrong

      If those limits don`t make you feel deprived and resentful then I don­t think so either. But it is really not my place to judge – I am not the food police here.

      Interestingly, I think for me, there is also a body component at work telling me “no” because of the feeling afterward, and also a “no” coming from my mind, maybe the body is even telling my mind “no” and then I tell myself “stop”.

      If I`m understanding you correctly this is sort of how it works for me too. I incorporate my understanding of how food and amounts of food make me feel after eating into my overall valuation of what food I truly want to eat in the first place. (And I learned how to do this through the above-mentioned process of giving myself permission and learning from my mistakes.) As a result, I only infrequently end up eating in a way that makes me feel bad afterward.

      I wrote about this here: http://www.fatnutritionist.com/index.php/food-you-like-is-food-that-feels-good/

      • JH
        Posted December 14, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

        I agree with your meaning of permission. You picked up on something very interesting about how “permission” necessarily meaning we will overindulge. I think that notion is very peculiar, that we need some outside force to control our actions, that we are incapable of internal control. I think the food component is just one aspect of this. I agree that if we listen to our bodies and allow them to be our guides we will usually eat food (if we are fortunate enough to have access to it) that makes us feel good and that we learn to get there by permission to eat and make mistakes and it’s okay to make mistakes. In retrospect, I think the boundaries I set with sugar and other yummy munchies are appropriate, that there is an internal body “no” that steps in and sometimes my mouth wants to keep going and is a little hesitant to stop. There’s no feeling of major deprivation though because I know to keep going would feel yukky even if it tastes good. But there is a desire to continue to eat sugar, not an overwhelming one, but some desire. I think I respond to sugar that way, it takes a lot of it to actually taste bad to me, and by that point I feel really yukky, so I don’t like to get to that point.

      • KellyK
        Posted December 16, 2011 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        When I was working with Michelle (and I would like to be again after the holiday craziness is over!), I did a fun little experiment that involved eating something sweet at every meal. I have always believed that I have a ridiculous sweet tooth and am basically a bottomless pit of desire for cookies, candy, and doughnuts. But once I made a decision to allow myself something sweet all the time, I found the point where I’m “done.” It was interesting to go from thinking I was a total sugar fiend to looking at the remaining half of a doughnut and thinking “Meh, maybe later.”

        It did actually help me to think, “I am allowed to finish this whole box of cookies if I want.” I don’t necessarily want to, because I’m not a fan of feeling sick, but there’s something about reinforcing that I get to decide what’s enough. It’s also good to know that the cookies will be there tomorrow, and there is no global cookie shortage. I think that it takes some time to convince yourself that you really do have access to the food you want when you want it, but as that happens, it actually affects your perception of the pleasure of food.

        I think part of choice is balancing a whole lot of different things, where something might make you feel good in one way but bad in another. There are different approaches to those choices sometimes. Like, if you have nothing that sounds good to snack on, you choose to either eat something not especially tasty or to chance sitting in the car with hunger pangs before you get a chance to have food.

    • ako
      Posted December 16, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      I’ve been applying permission based on Michelle’s explanation of the concept, and here is how it works for me.

      I set myself certain standards on how to eat, based on what works well for me. If I really want to, I am free to violate those standards. They’re not hard rules. However, they tend to work well and I rarely feel any desire to violate them (and when I do, I pay attention to how I feel, so I can work out if it’s a case of “See, there’s a reason you don’t do that” or “No, actually that standard needs changing.”)

      One of my standards is that, if I’m undecided on having something sweet, I give myself a few minutes of “Do I really want that, or is my brain just afraid I won’t be able to get it again if I don’t eat it right now?” before deciding whether to eat it or not. I tried doing the same thing without permission, and it didn’t work. You know why? Without permission, I wasn’t asking myself if I really wanted it, but if I really thought I should have it. The answer was always “No, you’re too fat to be allowed sweets”, and the part of my brain going “Wait, not grabbing the cupcake right away means no cupcakes ever?” got reinforced. And eating with permission but not using the pause just reinforced the “Sweets now works!” part of my brain. Pausing helped me get past the impulse without feeling genuinely deprived.

      With permission, if I really want it for whatever reason, I’m allowed to have it. It took several days, but then my whole brain finally got that there will always be an option on future cupcakes, and that going”No, I’m too full” or “That’s not what I want right now” or “It feels like my body needs more fruit, not pastries right now” will not lead to permanent cupcake denial.

      So permission and standards on how to eat are far from being incompatible. And if you have a rule, a standard, or a limit that helps you feel good in your body and be more in touch with the way that feels good for you, and you don’t let the limit get undue power over you, I think that can be healthy.

  18. Sharon
    Posted December 16, 2011 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    Your post was extremely timely for me (and also hooray Google search for offering it up…) as I had spent 2011 being “good” for the most part with eating and exercising and dropped around 50 pounds of weight (but since the exercising was a mix of strength and aerobic, I figure I have dropped more fat and built up muscle so I mostly ignore what the scale says).

    All of sudden in the last about three weeks, I find myself secretly eating and binge eating. I remember thinking to myself, “this is about the time when I screw things up” when it comes to being healthy. Regardless of what society tells us, when you’ve been obese and big your whole life, a lot of times it’s easier to stay that way. It’s a nice, chubby shield that you can hide behind in so many ways. You drop about fifty pounds and all of a sudden strange men and women are giving you compliments. It can be overwhelming.

    To mirror another comment, I hadn’t even thought about dieting being a different form of emotional eating. I’ve been working with a personal trainer who also competes professionally and have been following her clean eating plan with some variants. Although I have definitely enjoyed the challenge of eating small, balanced meals around six times a day, it is still a strict diet that I find myself either being good or bad with. I mixed things up a bit and declared Friday as a cheat day. Even calling it a cheat day felt guilty so I changed it to Cheeseburger Friday.

    I absolutely love your concept of declaring all eating to be emotional. It takes away the stigma of eating at all. When people ask me if I’m on a diet, I get all nerdy and explain that the word has it’s origins in simply encompassing all the food I eat. Or I get tired of being a smartass and just say it’s similar to what weight lifters follow.

    If I allow myself to enjoy everything I eat, when I want to eat it, for what it is, perhaps I won’t break down in tears when I realize that I like ice cream because I enjoyed it with my Dad when I was a little kid. I think I might have more success just enjoying a taste of my favorite cereals instead of a giant bowl. The trick becomes in many cases for me not getting overly hungry and not compromising on icky food. A big container of macaroni and cheese from the deli may be easy but it’s usually flavorless and unfulfilling just the same as three doughnuts that are tasty.

  19. Freda
    Posted December 20, 2011 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    Copied this from medscape article on obesity. TLDR diets don’t work.

    The results of most weight-loss programs are dismal. On average, participants in the best programs lose approximately 10% of their body weight, but people generally regain two thirds of the weight lost within a year.

    When defined as sustained weight loss over a 5-year follow-up period, the success of even the best medical weight-loss programs is next to nil. Most available data indicate that, irrespective of the method of medical intervention, 90-95% of the weight lost is regained in 5 years.

    Weight-loss goals
    In general, body weight and body fat generally tenaciously regulated. Available data suggest that a loss of approximately 10% of body weight in subjects who are obese (BMI < 40) is associated with virtually maximal benefits regarding obesity-elated comorbidities; therefore, further attempts at weight loss beyond this level are generally spurred by cosmetic considerations that may be not only unrealistic but also potentially dangerous. This possibility is the basis of a shift in paradigms in the medical management of obesity from a goal of massive weight loss to a goal of maintaining the highest weight possible while still eliminating obesity-related comorbidities or reducing them to minimum.

    • Posted December 20, 2011 at 4:48 am | Permalink

      Do you have the name of this paper?

    • ksol
      Posted December 20, 2011 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      And could someone help me out… what does TLDR stand for?

      • Posted December 20, 2011 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        It means “too long; didn’t read” – usually used as a notation for the quick, short version of something.

  20. Emily
    Posted January 4, 2012 at 2:23 am | Permalink

    I’ve been feeling like crap for the last few days. I’m 35 years old, but my dad can still send me into a serious shame spiral leading to depression with one nasty e-mail. Nothing I do has been helping — hot bubble bath, loving fiance, funny stories, cats, etc. I was depressed, and I was worried it was going to last, as it has before.

    Then I read this, and thought, you know, that goat cheese I’m saving for something fancy would be really good right now on some Wheat Thins. So I ate some. I haven’t eaten enough in the past couple days (see: depression), and I was having some chemical hunger which did not exactly help everything else. (I get a weird metallic taste in my throat and mouth, along with a low-grade headache, when I haven’t been eating enough.) The goat cheese on Wheat Thins made me feel better. I’m not hungry any more, I’m not guilty any more, and I’m gonna go wake up my fiance.

  21. Mat
    Posted January 13, 2012 at 5:56 am | Permalink

    okay, I just have to duck by to address something that is totally not the subject of this post.

    I am a guy who eats ice cream out of a container, cheerfully uses mango-scented body wash (and a bright pink loofah scrub) and often uses conditioner with extra moisturizer since I’m kind of mean to my hair. Between my wife and I, she is the one more likely to gravitate towards MEAT because while I love my carbs and chicken and the occasional burger, she has a near constant craving for RED FLESH. I like fruity drinks. I do the laundry. Good chocolate puts me in fits of near-orgasmic bliss. I am addicted to moisturizing because it feels so good. And I enjoy the occasional Salad-and-Laughter.

    …Just, y’know. Speaking as a guy who hates the way people are shoehorned into these oppressive, restrictive, bogus “gender roles”, I did like that little veer away from the point and into the beauty of coffee-induced sarcastic glee of that paragraph.

    THAT SAID, I like this blog immensely and if I hadn’t already said “fuck it” to the idea of giving two shits about what I eat beyond “is it yummy” and “is it actually food” with the occasional “hey, i think it’s a veggie day today”, I would be scrambling to put your advice into practice. As it is, I’m reading and examining my eating habits anyway. Just in case. :)

    • Posted January 13, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Speaking as a guy who hates the way people are shoehorned into these oppressive, restrictive, bogus “gender roles”

      Awesome, glad to have you here! :)

  22. Rachele
    Posted January 14, 2012 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    I love this vision you have of sort of carving out time and space for your comfort eating, so you can do it mindfully. But honestly, it will never happen this way for me. I pretty much never leave the center of the maelstrom. Stay-at-home mom, or housewife, or homemaker, or whatever, I hate all those titles, when there’s kids railing at me for attention constantly, no matter what I do or where I go in the house, that’s the point where I get stressed and overwhelmed and want to comfort eat. But I can’t get any distance. Heck, I often don’t even notice the emotional overwhelm until I’ve just shoved a fistful of cookies into my mouth all at once. I can eat emotionally and without guilt to bond with friends or extended family, or to strut my stuff as a competent cook/baker/gourmand with foodie friends. But when I am neck deep in trying to fix broken stuff/clean up messes/break up fights/impart maternal wisdom/balance the budget/finish the endless laundry, often there is no time or space for me to take. I’m sticking a band-aid made of sugar on a gaping wound. It works for a little while, too, and I usually don’t feel bad about eating in this rapid-fire, emergency first-aid way, but I am more than a little surprised when I catch myself doing it. I know I’m not enjoying the food at these moments. I can’t help thinking there must be a better way of dealing with these shit-hitting-the-fan marathons. I often don’t want to sit and eat when it’s all over. and I sure don’t want to make or go out to buy any food. I just collapse and either zone out on the tv or computer or fall asleep.

    • Posted January 16, 2012 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      I pretty much never leave the center of the maelstrom. Stay-at-home mom, or housewife, or homemaker, or whatever, I hate all those titles, when there’s kids railing at me for attention constantly, no matter what I do or where I go in the house

      This is really hard, I know – I have some clients in this same exact situation and it makes it difficult for them to learn to eat normally.

      You say you can’t get any distance, but I’m afraid it is necessary to make distance in order just to have a speck of mental health, let alone time to eat. Maybe for now it’s impossible for real reasons, but it will get better in the future as your kids get less dependent on you.

      However, if you can call in any favours or take advantage of any resources to help you set some time apart for yourself, please do so.

      In the meantime, it can be possible to eat mindfully in the midst of chaos – I’m preparing to write a blog post on this. I basically rely on what I call “checking in” to get just moments of mindfulness (I’m talking 1-2 seconds at a time here) even while eating with others.

      But, in order for this to happen, you MUST start with structured, sit-down meals with your kids. During the day, especially – and especially if you don’t have much structured activity in general during the day. Institute a regular lunch time, and regular sit-down snack times. Use “forbidden” foods and treats (along with regular meal foods) during these times – especially the things that you would tend to comfort eat.

      Then, after you’ve practiced this for a few weeks or months, and your kids are used to the routine, you can start to take 1-2 seconds while you’re at the table to check in with how the food tastes and how your body is doing.

      • Rachele
        Posted January 19, 2012 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

        Thank you. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past few days and playing with our routine while trying to be mindful of where I am having the most difficulty. We do have regular sit-down meals, even during the day, and this may have been part of my problem… The kids have different body rhythms. They sleep at different times, and they get hungry at different times. They also have allergies and preferences that mean we are eating totally different stuff much of the time . Whether I sit down with them when they are hungry, or make them wait until I am hungry, I wind up getting up to go to the kitchen for condiments, or drink refills, or a towel to clean up a spill. I put my fork down to cut something into pieces or pick up dropped utensils. Interruptions don’t make for enjoyable eating and I wind up frustrated. Anyway, I’ve taken to eating a midmorning snack with them where there is less drama and complexity, feeding them an early-ish lunch, where I can give full attention to meeting their needs without resentment, and then giving them something to keep them busy while I have my sit down lunch in peace. I also realized that I had set up rules around sleep being sacred. You do not disturb someone who is sleeping except in a life or death situation, and the kids honor this rule to the best of the ability for their age. But I hadn’t laid down the same boundaries for eating, even though it is as essential to our well-being. So I talked to them and we are working on what constitutes respect for someone who is trying to eat. Dinner is still a family affair, but I have help handling requests, and we have a system in place now for making those requests. Nobody eats until everyone has what they need. Any forgotten items after the meal starts, you can get for yourself, and you must ask if anyone else needs something when you go to the kitchen. My kids are 3 and 8, FWIW, and I find they can handle this set up pretty well. I also have another one or two children in my care daily in addition to my two, so that is definitely adding to the chaos during the day and is the reason why it takes all my resources and attention to get through their mealtimes. Anyway, I thought my trial and error might be helpful to anyone trying to balance their own needs with those of several kids of different ages on their own.

        • Rachele
          Posted January 19, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

          Just wanted to add that the mini-checkins have been super helpful, too. I am much more conscious of what I am eating and how it makes me feel.

        • Posted January 22, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

          Thanks for coming back and letting us know what’s helping. I’m sure other people will find this helpful.

  23. Posted February 28, 2012 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    I found this blog a couple of weeks ago, and yes, I’m one of the adorable ones who tends to find a blog I LOVE and just spend the next month reading the whole thing. (Yeah, that _does_ mean I love your blog. No, no, thank _you_.)

    I’ve been getting on top of my eating for the last couple of years — through a lot of stress, several moves, and living with a variety of friends (with a variety of eating habits). I lived on my own over the summer and was doing pretty well — despite having to do all my own cooking — but now I’m living with my mom, and wow.

    A friend of mine described my mom as Mrs. Cliche, and I just sat and stared at the screen for an inordinate amount of time with my jaw hanging open, because she is SO RIGHT. Concern shaming, calling the people on The Biggest Loser ‘pathetic’ and ‘disgusting’ before they get driven to lose all the weight and ‘inspirational’ afterwards, and plainly not believing me (or possibly not even _hearing_ me) when I told her that actually, my crappy back is a lot _better_ now than it was when I was skinny.

    And boy, do I love me an entire batch of popcorn when I’m having a bad one.

    I’ve done a lot to deal with the guilt. I’m not gonna say I don’t feel any guilt when I’m doing the ‘emotional eating’ thing, but I don’t feel a _lot_, and I do a pretty good job of listening to my body and enjoying the food and stopping when I’m ready.

    But I have to hide it. Well…I don’t _have_ to. But it’s easier than listening to Mrs. Cliche nag in that only-possible-by-parental-types sort of way about my health and my weight and ‘don’t you know that diabetes runs in the family’ (her father, who could usefully have been described as ‘beanpole’, but that’s not relevant, diabetes is caused by fat!).

    So I keep food in my bedroom and sneak the empty bags and boxes out and…wow, it’s crappy. I’m 40 but you’d think I was 15. So not so much with the guilty, but secretive and furtive…yeah.

    It’s _annoying_.

    • Posted February 29, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for coming and commenting! And for reading in the first place.

      What you describe sounds so familiar to me – I have definitely observed that issues with eating almost always get more intense when an adult goes back to live with a parent for a time. It is so difficult, but setting boundaries is really important. If you need to eat privately in order to feel safe, by all means do so, and remind yourself that you’re an adult taking care of yourself the best way you can in the circumstances, and NOT a little kid who has to hide.

      As much as you can, within your private space, try to be matter-of-fact and open (at least with yourself) about your eating. Keep a separate trash and take out your own garbage if you need to, in order to avoid prying eyes – adults take out their own garbage, so it should not be an issue. Keep your food organized in a place where it’s accessible to you, but still reasonably private – on a shelf in a cupboard or in a storage box. When you eat, you can lock your door, sit down at a desk if you have one, or a comfy chair if you have one, and relax yourself. Try to get away from eating in a “sneaky” manner just because you’re eating in the bedroom – set up a safe place, and then eat openly.

      I don’t know if you’ll ever feel comfortable doing it, but openly telling your mom (repeatedly, over and over and over, as many times as the subject comes up) that you no longer want her to discuss 1) your eating 2) your weight 3) your health or 4) her opinion on the food you are currently eating in front of her, is the only way you’ll be able to take your eating out into the open. It’s hard, and it takes time to get there, but if you’re going to be there for an extended period of time, it might be good to have a little family meeting with her and set some ground rules. “If you say X, I will do Y [walk away, leave the room, tell her to stop, etc.]” And then do Y over and over again, until it sinks in.

      Anyway, whatever you end up doing, I hope the best for your while you’re living with your mom! It ain’t easy, but it sounds like you’ve already made good progress with your eating through the years – I trust that you can make your way through this, too.

      • Posted February 29, 2012 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

        Fortunately my comfy chair is in my bedroom — it’s the chair I usually sit in to eat when I’m living on my own, too, so it’s part of a normal routine. And thanks to my horrible cats, my mom doesn’t often come into my space — not that they’d kill her, but with all the baby gates we had to stack up to keep them away from _her_ cat, she’d have to duck really low to get in here. So I have a fair amount of privacy.

        We’ve sort of hit a point if ‘I won’t bring it up if you won’t’ when it comes to my eating specifically, and she’s stopped watching Biggest Loser when I’m around — yay! — but she still makes comments about other people, or food in general. The best I’m up to as a reply to that is quietly changing the subject — the few times I’ve tried to bring up any evidence to the contrary, she ‘hasn’t heard it’. And, well, I’m crap at anything that smells like confrontation.

        I can still hear her voice in my head, nagging me about my food (and my room, and my job, and and and…) but that’s almost a separate issue. Or a larger issue? Anyway, I’m doing my best to be matter-of-fact about ‘this is what I’m eating now, and it is tasty, and that’s that’ (though there’s a definite edge of mom-defiance going on there, which brings on a lot of the ‘I’m still fifteen’ feelings.)

        Enh. It’ll do, for now. Thank you for your encouragement!

        • Posted March 1, 2012 at 11:05 am | Permalink

          It sounds like you’re doing a good job, given the circumstances. Just keep it up and know you’re doing the right thing, that you’re taking care of yourself like an adult. Sometimes the best you can hope for with a family member who disagrees with you on weight stuff is an uneasy peace.

  24. Alex
    Posted May 28, 2012 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    I found this blog through Manolo for the Big Girl, and wanted to say I absolutely adore it. I think you are brilliant, funny and wise, and I hope very much that what you write here eventually becomes a book, because I think the world is *starving* for your particular brand of kindness and sanity. PS I love that you swear!

    I have already read through the archives twice, and am now going through and reading the comments (to read every bit of it all, like a dog polishing off a plate!).

    I find myself wishing very much that I could know your thoughts on the “intuitive eating” guru who has been most influential for me: Geneen Roth. I discovered “Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating” when I was sixteen, and realized right then and there, standing up in the bookstore leafing through the volume, that my eating obsession had begun when I was twelve and both my parents went through second divorces. Prior to this moment it had never occurred to me that my perception that I was fat coincided perfectly with that event. Nor that my belief that I would be adored if I lost weight, was part of a fantasy whereby I was the one in control of my own happiness/unhappiness, and that the ability to feel loved was within my grasp–as long as I lost weight.

    Yet despite the fact that I had that particular breakthrough, I never succeeded in what Ms. Roth (apparently) achieved–i.e., the ability to never eat in order to distract oneself from horrible emotional pain. This is still my go-to place, when things get really bad. And I do it with complete awareness of what I am doing. I mean, I know the whole drill: I am eating so that I can focus on the food and then on my unhappiness with my body, because I can’t bear to focus on X situation that feels too unbearable to think about at this particular moment.

    Even now, at the age of 40-odd, I can’t say I have ever managed to be someone who has “broken free from compulsive eating” (though I can practice intuitive eating when I’m not going through a horrible patch). And sometimes I wonder if the problem is not just with me.

    Your blog has really helped me to see the “intuitive eating” model from an alternative perspective, but one that is also smart, humane, and personalized, and for that I am so very grateful. It’s made me think a lot about the fact that one of the reasons her particular mode has been seductive to me for so long is that she promises WEIGHT LOSS along with enlightenment–and in fact repeatedly suggests that the two are synonymous. “If you follow the ‘eating guidelines’, your body will reach its natural weight” she says (eating guidelines are eat when you are hungry, stop when you are satisfied, eat mindfully and without distractions). But she doesn’t address the fact that while her body’s “natural weight” appears to be about 105, that is not true for everyone–which could then complicate her assertion that “if you are not losing weight, you are not following the guidelines.”

    Anyway. I have found her tools for dealing with emotional maelstroms–including, most recently, meditation and emotional inquiry–as very powerful. But, I find myself feeling more and more skeptical about some of the rigidities latent in her attitudes about the relationship between emotional eating and weightloss. Just wondered if you had ever read her and if so what you thought. But if you don’t have time to answer this post–what you have already written on, say, the three different types of hunger–or (of course!) in the post above on emotional eating–have already been tremendously helpful and inspiring.

    • Posted May 29, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      You’ve pretty much zeroed in on how I feel about Geneen Roth’s take on eating – the fact that she kind of promotes weight loss as the ultimate outcome makes me uncomfortable. Because, yes, sometimes people gain weight from eating more than they actually want or need due to emotional problems – but, biology being the funny old thing it is, that doesn’t automatically mean that people who stop eating that way or who deal with the underlying emotional problems will always lose weight as a result. Maybe sometimes that does happen, but I am thinking that, like sustained weight loss in general, it is passingly rare.

      You’re bang-on about the “natural weight” thing – the human body Naturally comes in a wide array of sizes and shapes. Some of us are Naturally 300 lbs, and fat (and thin) people have been around since prehistory. So some of us are going to reach a natural weight of Still Really Fat, Thanks. And maybe that’s okay.

      It is great to find tools to deal with emotional stuff, and they can come from many sources, whether or not you agree with everything else that person thinks. I have lots of clients who have found Geneen Roth helpful, even though they don’t (and I don’t) agree with her on the weight thing.

      I haven’t sat down and read any of her books myself, honestly, but I am familiar with her through reading articles about or by her, and talking with clients. She’s kind of “in the air” in the intuitive eating world, and I’m sure her approach is helpful to some people. It’s just not the same thing I promote or practice because I believe in fat and self-acceptance.

      • Alex
        Posted May 29, 2012 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

        Thank you so much for the response, and thank you also for this fabulous blog. I am completely addicted.

        • Amanda
          Posted September 7, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

          Alex, I can completely relate. ‘ Breaking Free’ was the first book I discovered on compulsive eating and since then pretty much read nearly every thing Geneen has ever written. BUT, I can honestly say now that her method has never worked for me. In fact in labeling myself as a compulsive eater I think it basically made me binge more. I believed that I was failing intuitive eating cause I could never do it right, but now I see that it was failing me cause there really isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to all this. Which is why I’m finding the approach to intuitive eating here (planning rather than demand feeding) to make much more sense and to be much more practical.

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