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Eating is an Emotional Experience

We often say in eating disorder recovery that the eating disorder has nothing to do with the food — it’s true. Food can be the method of coping with uncomfortable emotions, stressors, change, trauma and more. The internal distress and lack of healthier coping mechanisms are the true underlying issues, not the food.

In recovery, I have found that food is intrinsically tied to emotions, comfort, memories and togetherness. I especially feel this way around the holidays when I’m eating more often with my family. Food is more than simply nourishment and energy; it is part of our everyday lives. Food can make notable impacts on our mood. I’ve also learned that I cannot depend on food to help me cope. I no longer restrict food to feel powerful and euphoric. I no longer binge to feel comfort. I no longer purge to release all the pain.

While we do not want our behaviors to cross over to disordered behaviors, there is a balance to be found. We can experience comfort and joy while eating, especially around the holidays, when eating with others and in some instances, while distracted. I think to an extent, eating out of comfort serves its purpose. We still deserve to give ourselves kindness and grace if it does go into disordered territory though. We often shame ourselves when we slip up, but we must remember that we cannot shame ourselves into positive, long-lasting change. We must work on taking compassionate stances and being kind to ourselves when we slip up.

Eating is not emotionless, so we cannot expect in recovery to eat simply out of requiring nourishment; it is an experience, undoubtedly tied to our emotions, where we are allowed to find comfort and joy.

Eating delicious food with others while forming emotional connections through story-telling, laughter and new memories is a beautiful part of life.

As children, some of us may have been given a treat by our parents or caregivers if we were upset. “Here, have a cookie!” was the offering when tears started streaming down our faces. This response was a means of quieting us down, which does not always bode well with children developing healthy eating habits. We learn to self soothe using food early on. In a moment we begin to feel emotional as adults, that memory clicks in our minds and suddenly we feel the need to self soothe with food. Some of us may have also been yelled at to stop crying and told that we were overreacting, thus cementing into our minds that we are not allowed to feel “bad” emotions. Some of us were taught to avoid the expression of normal, healthy emotions at all costs. We may in turn use food as coping with big feelings. For some, snacks and treats may have been restricted at home and that deprivation led us to buying the forbidden food to be eaten in secrecy. It makes sense why many of us learned to depend on food. We could not always depend on adults encouraging the expression of our feelings in safe ways. We did not always have an array of all types of food offered at home. We adapted and leaned on food to fill the holes.

In some cases when an assortment of food (carrots, pizza, apples, pasta, grapes, cookies, salad, candy, etc.) is readily available, children are able to pick and choose what they want in the moment and have a colorful diet, whereas if food with higher calories/sugars/carbs is prohibited, some may seek out the “bad” food more often. Not to mention, that food could be eaten in secrecy or binged on, which promotes shame and disconnection.

In my adult life in recovery, I practice intuitive eating. It helps me feel more balanced. However, I still face moments where mindful eating is inaccessible or not practical. Intuitive eating involves taking the time to eat mindfully, engaging all the senses while eating. It also involves paying attention to hunger-fullness cues and eating until we are comfortably full. It’s about enjoying the food and nourishing ourselves when we feel hungry, and to the best of our ability. Life can get busy and we become so focused on other aspects that we may not even fully be present when eating.

I have a tendency to watch television or look at my phone while eating at times, and when I do this, I am careful to engage my other senses like taste and touch. Distractions like technology can make intuitive eating challenging, as we may be more focused on what we are taking in visually and audibly. In cases like this, our brains may lose focus of the other senses. 

Ways I eat more mindfully include limiting screen time, slowing down and taking one bite at a time, and appreciating how good something tastes, how it is visually appealing and how it smells appetizing. I ask myself, “Does this give me more energy?”, “How does this taste?”, “Do I enjoy the texture?” and “Would I want to eat this again?”. I try to be in the moment as much as possible. I enjoy food more often when I eat mindfully.

I always have water with my meals and take sips between bites as a way to slow down. At home, one of my dogs hops up on a chair next to me and begs when I eat so I’ll pet her while I’m eating! Focusing on her every few moments helps me slow down while eating, too. I don’t really have a rule like, “Drink water after every bite”, as I don’t think it needs to be that rigid, so I loosely follow some ways to slow down that reinforce eating more mindfully.

While intuitive eating is a wonderful thing to practice, mindless, emotional and distracted eating are difficult habits to break, especially because they are woven into our history. In the late 1930s in the United States, it became commonplace for popcorn and candy to be offered at movie theatres. It still is today. We were taught to enjoy food while occupied with other engaging means. I grew up enjoying food at the movie theatre and this activity was mirrored at home. Distractions like television can be part of the comfort of eating, which is why I combine the activities at times. You are feeding yourself while also feeding your mind and soul. Consuming food while consuming visual or audible content with friends or family can also be comforting and build feelings of connection.

Perhaps it is difficult to eat alone and sitting at the dinner table can feel like all the pressure is on you and as if you are being monitored for what you eat — I certainly felt like this early on in recovery. I felt self conscious of my food choices and was worried my family would comment on it. Television can work as a barrier, preventing those unnecessary comments from being said as everyone is too busy paying attention to the screen. With my friends in recovery, watching something can also take the pressure off of them as we are not face-to-face and they do not have to worry about how quickly they eat or what they eat compared to others. The television can do wonders for some of us in recovery.

On the other hand, eating while watching something can prevent us from fully enjoying the food. I believe there are arguments to be made on both sides. Perhaps we can find a balance. Eating and watching a show or movie can enhance both experiences and it can also cause the process of eating to not register as quickly. It comes down to a practice in dialectics for me.

We may overeat if we are wrapped up in an engaging, visual story. Especially if the content is high drama, our bodies may be reacting more to the emotions being presented, compared to if we were watching something more lighthearted. In my psychology courses, I have enjoyed learning about studies hypothesizing various ideas, like if holding a hot cup of coffee while talking to someone causes us to feel more warmly towards them (which it can). I would love to see studies on if the type of content consumed, perhaps drama versus comedy, will it take away our focus from eating? Will emotions impact or interfere? I’d also love to see studies based upon how comfort food serves a purpose while watching television or movies, as well as if there are different levels of distraction for different people or if there are some consistent results.

With that being said, I may still feel hungry if I ate mindlessly, emotionally or distracted as the act didn’t fully register cognitively. Intuitive eating can lead us to healthier relationships with food as it can prevent binge eating, deter mindless eating and leave us feeling satisfied. I see mindful eating like any aspect of recovery: it is about the journey, not the destination — every single meal and snack is a new opportunity to try to eat mindfully. When we mindlessly eat one meal, we can try again the next.

Mindless eating can also occur if emotions are high or we are stressed out. I recall the photo posted to social media of empty rows of a Ben and Jerry’s display in a grocery store’s ice cream section due to the upcoming Election Day results of 2020 in the United States. Especially in difficult moments, we turn to food that gives us comfort, safety and joy. It makes sense why we lean on comfort foods to help get us through.

The important thing is that we must do the hard work to get back on track with mindful eating and being kind to our minds upon using food to cope. I believe lapses are part of the recovery process. Lapses are meant to be learned from rather than feeling ashamed of or punishing ourselves for. As previously said, I believe that recovery is a process and not a destination — it consists of constant choices to mindfully eat. It is not about the end result; it is about every single meal in the moment and how we feel better when we are mindful.

Another instance where I may not be able to mindfully eat today is when I may only be able to take a short break at work during a busy day and I have to eat food quickly. Or I may have a long day at work where I didn’t get the chance to eat at all, and I eat quickly when I get home out of hunger. Mindful eating can take the back seat for me at times when I have to eat quickly. I do my best to adjust to these circumstances, like opting to eat snacks throughout my day or working on slowing down and focusing on how the experience of eating feels. It is difficult if you are in a rush and still have to nourish yourself.

Anxiety can also cause us to eat quickly and not pay much attention to how the eating process feels because the body is on high alert, which is also a point to be made in regards to how watching television while eating can influence us. In moments like this, I try to check in with myself, speak kindly to myself and be intentional. I remind myself, “It is ok if I ate quickly for a few minutes. I am now going to try to eat more mindfully. I forgive myself. I am doing my best.”.

I hope you give yourself grace this holiday season, especially if you are in recovery. It is natural to find comfort and joy in food. In fact, I think the rediscovered emotions are part of recovery— they are even part of the human experience.

No longer do I feel like I am forcing myself to eat just because I have to eat. In early recovery, I had a hard time enjoying food because I was accustomed to restricting or binge-eating. There was a huge disconnect for me. It has taken time to rewire my brain to eat to nourish my body, let alone enjoy the food again.

I also had a hard time believing I was worthy of enjoying food due to the size of my body. We all deserve to eat and enjoy food. It is healthy to enjoy all types of food. All foods have a place in our diets, even if the food doesn’t provide us with as many obvious nutritional benefits. It’s about balance. And we never have to “make up” for foods we eat through exercise or disordered means.

I hope you are kind to yourself if you ever slip up with emotional eating, especially during the holiday season when triggers and stressors may be more prevalent. There is a difference between emotional eating and understanding how eating can be a naturally emotional experience. Emotional, mindless and distracted eating may vary person to person and moment to moment.

When we normalize and honor that eating is inherently tied to our emotions, we begin to heal old wounds. We now have the opportunity to practice more effective means of coping.