A lot of people use food as a means of coping with their emotions. Think about it for a moment. From birth, our parents used food to soothe us. When a baby cries, the first thing you ask is whether it is hungry.
As children, we associate food with celebrations (think birthday cakes, Christmas feasts, Easter eggs…) In a lot of cases, our parents use food to cheer us up or get us to behave. How many times did we hear an adult say, “If you are a good boy/girl I’ll buy you an ice cream”? Or something to that effect?
Comfort foods are comforting
And you know what? Food is comforting. It stimulates the senses and can evoke positive memories. It has the ability to remind us of a special time in our lives, or a special person. A memorable holiday, or an elderly relative that is no longer with us.
When we are feeling homesick, food can remind us of our loved ones and help us to feel connected to them. Eating meals as a family can be a really rewarding and enriching experience for a number of reasons. Where I come from, it is practically a religious experience!
My idea of a good meal isn’t something I shove in the oven and wolf down in front of the TV. It involves multiple courses spread over several hours, which I share with the people I love to be around. It goes hand-in-hand with a lot of laughter, debate, and maybe a glass of wine.
Sometimes we eat with our hands instead of cutlery. Sometimes we chew and talk at the same time. Elbows are allowed on the table and children should be heard as well as seen. People argue over who gets to finish the last of the salad and there’s always enough food for leftovers.
[People always leave my house with a tupperware full of food. It’s tradition!]
Food is linked to emotions
That’s my own personal experience, and I am sure anyone reading this has their own version of the perfect meal too. I don’t think we should underestimate the importance of eating. On a basic level, food is sustenance but over the last few millenia, human beings have evolved and so have our mealtimes.
The problem is that food has the potential to be so much more than a comfort and a social event. Food is an excellent way of coping with our emotions. They don’t have to be negative ones either.
When I’m excited or celebrating a success, I eat. When I am sad or lonely or scared, I eat. I eat when I am bored. I eat when I am angry. Hell, I even eat when I am feeling flat and emotionless.
In fact, I have learned to reach for food instead of taking the time to identify what I am feeling, let alone trying to work through it. And this makes sense, when you think about it. I didn’t exactly have the nicest childhood.
[It wasn’t the worst either, but it wasn’t great.]
Why I turned to food as a child
Growing up, I was never really allowed to express my emotions and I wasn’t taught how to deal with them. In fact, there were times when I was punished for them. As a result, I learned to shut them down and find other ways to cope. I was young, so I didn’t have that many options at my disposal.
Food was a bit of a taboo in my house because my mother had her own food and weight related issues. She hated when I ate too much. She was terrified of me becoming fat. And she criticised me when I gained weight.
So maybe reaching for food was an act of rebellion. A way of punishing her for the way that I was feeling. Maybe it was instinctive. As I said, I didn’t have that many options at a young age. It’s not like I could buy a bottle of vodka or a pack of cigarettes at the age of seven!
But food was readily available and something I could control fairly easily. Especially once I was old enough and had my own money. Let’s just say that a fairly large chunk of my pocket money was spent at the local newsagent.
The more I think about it, the more I realise that it was inevitable. No matter the reasons, the point is that I learned to reach for food whenever I experienced an emotion that I found uncomfortable. And in my case, this used to be pretty much all of them!
When food stopped helping and started making things worse
To begin with, food almost certainly helped. And in many ways, it still does today. Would it surprise you to know that research demonstrates that foods that are high in sugar and fat are soothing and comforting? I personally could have told you that without doing a study!
It was these kinds of foods that offered me a solution to all my problems. They were able to comfort and soothe me when no one else was. They helped me to cope during a very difficult time in my life and I learned to rely on them long in to adulthood.
But (and there is always a but), this tasty solution came with a side order of guilt. It wasn’t long before I began to feel like a failure because I was starting to put weight on. My mother’s fears became a self-fulfilling prophesy.
My boobs got bigger, my hips grew, and my jeans no longer fit around the waist. With hindsight, I was probably just going through puberty and my body was changing. Even though I was not an obese child, I definitely thought I was.
I was convinced that people were disgusted by me. I struggled to look at myself in the mirror. And I found myself constantly comparing my body to women whom I believed had the “perfect figure”. By the time I had reached sixteen I was consumed by the 3 S’s: Self-doubt, Self-comparison and low Self-esteem.
I felt a great deal of shame and humiliation. And guess what? I was once again confronted with all of those pesky emotions that I had been trying to avoid in the first place!
The vicious cycle of emotional eating
It became a vicious cycle. I ate to forget my feelings. I started to feel guilty and ashamed because I knew that made me “bad” and resulted in weight gain. So I punished myself until it all became a bit too much and then I ate some more to forget my feelings.
Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to find different [read: better] ways of coping with my emotions. I spent 18 months speaking to a counsellor who helped me work through a lot of these issues. I learned a little about self-compassion and I tried my hand at mindfulness.
I’m no longer a slave to the three S’s. But there are times when things get on top of me and nothing else will do. And its in these moments that I have learned to cut myself some slack. I lean in to the skid as opposed to pulling away from it, and I allow myself a few moments to indulge in my favorite comfort foods.
Because I am an emotional eater. I always have been and I probably always will be. And I have made my peace with that.
Do you use food to cope with your emotions? Have you found a better way? Then why not leave a comment below. If you’d like to know more about me, including how to subscribe to me mailing list then click here.