by Marcelle Pick, OB-GYN NP
Supporting all of your body’s systems is the key to losing unwanted weight and keeping it off. But some women will have difficulty in taking the necessary measures to heal their physiology without first addressing their emotional attachment to food.
Everyone has certain emotional associations with food, and so much of our emotional attachment to food is cultural and familial. that usually have some reference to feeling cared for and nurtured. Anne Lamott has a great piece in her book Bird by Bird about school lunches. From an early age, having a “good” lunch (whatever that means to you) served as a visible social indicator that you and your family life were okay. Contrast that to the lunch hastily thrown together — or not at all — that seemed to speak of neglect and hard times.
So much of our emotional attachment to food is cultural and familial. When you look at your family of origin and occasions where food was served, what memories bubble up for you?
Approximately 80% of the women I see have some form of issues with food, and what I’ve learned over the years is that most of these women I see with eating issues had dysfunctional childhoods. Now this has nothing to do whatever with their socioeconomic bracket, but what more importantly what varies among these women is how they learn to respond to stress. Some become hyperresponsible or obsessive-compulsive, and use food as a form of control over themselves or others. Others are sensate types and cope by taking it all in, learning to soothe and stuff their feelings with food. In nearly every case, though, what we’re talking about is that preoccupying yourself with food one way or another prevents you from feeling unwanted feelings. Food doesn’t talk back.
Many of us as children were rewarded with sweets for being “good.” During times of high stress, many women look to reward themselves in a similar way with comfort food that’s filled with high in sugar and simple carbs. This helps us feel good in the moment, but tends to feed a vicious cycle of guilt and self loathing. What I notice is that a woman will then be angry at herself for eating, but not upset at the situation itself.
That’s because most women who struggle with emotions and food actually “hunger” for a deeper sustenance. They fill that psychological yearning with food. At Women to Women, we call this bottomless void your “black box.” Recognizing that you have one, and that no amount of food will fill it, is a great first step to dealing with your emotional eating and food.
Deprivation can be a powerful motivator, too. It is a great way to exert control over yourself and the people around you. For some women, depriving themselves of food feels very virtuous while it lasts, but this tactic often ends in binge eating. Anorexia can take many forms, but it all has roots in a sense of powerlessness.
Next time you find yourself using food as a control device or soothing mechanism, ask yourself, What was I feeling? What made me feel that way? How do I feel now? Many women don’t realize the degree to which food issues are impacting their long-term health. Finding someone to discuss this with can help you unravel and reverse these health-sabotaging behaviors.
In addition to our learned emotional response pattern, emotional eating often has undiagnosed physical underpinnings. Hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalance can spark insatiable cravings that contribute to overeating. There are a range of tests now available to help us diagnose neurochemical imbalance. I’ve had good success in treating these patients with targeted support in the form of amino acids, vitamins and mineral cofactors.
Food sensitivities can also lie at the root of food addiction: we crave the foods to which that we are sensitive or allergic to because we’ve grown used the abnormal biochemical state that those foods produce. Once the body has grown accustomed to behaving in a certain way, it tends to want to stay there, even if it’s not the healthiest place to be.
Chronic overeating, anorexia and bingeing/purging are special conditions that usually require professional assistance and are best treated in a holistic manner. Finding a therapist or support group is a great way to start. Enlist the help of your healthcare practitioner as well. That way you can tackle your issues on all fronts.
There are many alternatives to antidepressant and anxiolytic medication to help you get a handle on disordered eating behavior. I’ve had great success with sending my patients to Overeater’s Anonymous (OA) or Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous (FA), especially when combining this work with therapy. Geneen Roth, author of Feeding the Hungry Heart, and When Food Is Love, runs workshops around the country specifically designed to help people with eating disorders and other food-related issues.
Whereas eating disorders were once principally the territory of young women in the past, in Runaway Eating, Cynthia Bulik and Nadine Taylor discuss the current trend, where huge numbers of women in their 40’s and early 50’s find themselves coping with midlife stress through unhealthful eating patterns, including binge eating, yo-yo dieting, calorie restriction and compulsive exercise.
So one thing to keep in mind if this kind of behavior feels familiar: You are not alone. Almost every woman at one time or another has faced some of these concerns. The important thing is to realize that many of these adverse response patterns are set in childhood and can be very difficult to break without help. (For more about this, please see our article on, How emotional experience determines your health).
You may find encouragement in the fact that humans are adaptive creatures: just as we learn negative coping mechanisms, we can unlearn them — it just takes more mindfulness. To really overcome eating issues, we must develop a deeper understanding of all the reasons behind them. Regardless of your emotional history or your biochemistry, talking this over with someone you trust is the first step toward letting go of the past and learning to care for yourself in the way you deserve. Remember, if you want to take the long-term approach to weight loss and good health, don’t leave out the emotional piece.