Emotional Eating

by Marcelle Pick, OB/GYN NP

In all my years as a health provider for women, I think I can count on one hand the number of women for whom emotions played absolutely no part in their relationship with food. Our emotions and how we eat (and when and what) are so intertwined that I think it is virtually impossible for a woman to get healthy — and, eventually, to lose weight — without first addressing her emotional attachment to food.

SS Holiday CookiesEach day I hear all kinds of stories about women’s emotional relationship to food. For many of my patients, these memories, particularly the early ones, are fond ones: the ice cream truck on a hot summer day, traditional holiday meals celebrated with family. These stories underscore how food can be used to make us feel comforted, connected and loved. In many families food is the only currency of love, a legacy many women unwittingly pass on to their own daughters and sons.

Or just as often, the opposite may occur. Mealtimes may have been excruciating exercises in power or parental control. How many children sit down to a meal only to hear, “I have a bone to pick with you?” How many are forced to sit at the table until they eat everything on their plate? Who wouldn’t eventually lose their appetite after being fed a regular diet of criticism and shame every evening?

As women move into their adolescence, stories often morph into tales of deprivation and triumph over food, the perceived enemy. One of my patients describes how she and her friends ate one meal a day all through their senior year in high school, squeezing each other’s hands in support, so they could fit into tiny little prom dresses in June. Another remembers coming home and lambasting herself if she ate more than half a yogurt container for lunch. Often adolescence for girls is the entry into what may become a lifetime of self-loathing, all for wanting and needing to do something that is a vital necessity — eat!

Our society has few rituals in place to make teen-aged girls feel comfortable with their emerging curves and hormonal surges. As a result, a girl’s burgeoning body, her promise of fertility and womanhood, can feel threatening—more so to herself and her parents than anyone else. And if a woman never finds a way to feel comfortable with her grown-up shape, either through romantic love or emotional work, this discomfort parlays into an ongoing struggle with food and self-esteem.

SS Woman Binge EatingEating disorders aren’t the exclusive domain of young women. In their book, Runaway Eating, Cynthia Bulik and Nadine Taylor help clarify why huge numbers of women in their 40’s and early 50’s now find themselves coping with midlife stress through unhealthful eating patterns, including binge eating, yo-yo dieting, calorie restriction and compulsive exercise. While a woman at this age may not consider herself anorexic because she eats regularly, her obsession with maintaining control (and not just of her food intake) can be just as destructive. Emotional attachment to ritualized denial — of food, of pleasure, of money, of rest, of sex — is anorexia in another guise. It is an effort to erase a part of yourself or your life that weakens your sense of control.

And women aren’t the only ones doing the erasing. Just look at what has happened to dress sizes in the past 40 years — for those of you who still sew, you know your pattern is really a “12” even though designers are sewing size “6” labels into your clothes these days. And what’s with size “0,” “00” and “000” anyway? Do women need to fully disappear to be truly attractive?

At least 80% of the patients I see have some form of emotional issues with food — and what I’ve learned over the years is that most of them grew up in dysfunctional families. If you see yourself among the ranks of these women, it may reassure you that you don’t have to suffer alone — you are part of a wide continuum, at either end of which lie extreme over-eaters and under-eaters — and just by reading this article you are taking another step toward healing.

So now that you know that age has nothing to do with an emotional attachment to food, let me assure you that it has nothing to do with your level of education or socioeconomic bracket, either. What does vary among emotional eaters is how an individual has learned to respond to stress. Some women become hyper-responsible 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 every case, though, what we’re talking about is preoccupying yourself with food to prevent yourself from feeling unwanted feelings — including but not limited to the big ones: pain, despair, and shame.