Eating our Emotions

Diet strategies are always news and it seems we are hooked on learning more, and yet for thousands of years the problem for humans was not so much about over eating, it was more likely to be not having enough to eat, and the real challenge was staying alive.
Long term scarcity in supply of food is thought to be the reason we now store energy from food at a significantly quicker rate than we can lose it.

It seems the majority of us have evolved in a way that shifts the odds in favour of survival, but not everyone’s metabolism works in this way – you probably know at least one person who can eat more or less what they want and still look like a ‘runner bean’ or maybe you are one of those fortunate people? If not, you can comfort yourselves with the notion that should food ever be in short supply, those with an inclination to store fat, will survive longer than the skinnies amongst us!cookies
The reality of being spoilt for choice and bombarded with high fat/sugary foods, often with little or no nutritional value, means this biological gift of efficient storing is now working against us (at least in the western world); a point that was highlighted to me when I attended a three day course for therapists entitled ‘Emotional Eating’ run by Professor Julia Buckroyd.

Fortunately, Julia Buckroyd has also written a very helpful book about our relationship with food and specifically disordered eating. Her book Understanding Your Eating discusses the reasons behind those patterns which cause us distress (usually when they are experienced as beyond our control) whilst also shining some much needed light on why diets don’t usually work as a long-term solution to being overweight.

Many of us will recognise the process of being able to galvanize oneself for a short period of time to lose weight, only to put it all back on afterwards; it is extraordinarily wearing and  leaves some feeling desolate.

Weekly weigh-ins and support groups offer encouragement and support, but what happens after the target weight has been achieved and you no longer attend? Many people struggle to maintain their desired weight because their emotions are entangled with their eating habits, and unfortunately that issue is no more resolved at the end of the diet than it was at the outset.

“Are you eating your emotions?” is a question posed by Julia Buckroyd. If we reflect honestly on the feelings that have accompanied significant fluctuations in our weight, we may realise we have a habit of ‘eating our worries away’. When we find ourselves experiencing high levels of stress, over eating or not eating enough, can be a way of channelling our unmanageable feelings.

Having control over our food intake, when another significant aspect of our life is very much beyond our control may be an unconscious source of comfort – a coping mechanism of sorts, even if this means eating significantly more (or less) than our body requires.
Person eating in front of TVFor me that moment came when I had moved continents and found myself isolated, and unable to follow my profession. Suffering a loss of identity, the wakeup call came a few months into the posting after complaining to my family, “that American washing machine is shrinking all my clothes”. Hah! Everyone else looked blankly back at me; I was the only one struggling to do my jeans up and the washing machine was working just fine…

Eventually, our sea container arrived with our worldly goods and as I was reunited with my bathroom weighing scales, the unpalatable truth emerged – I had achieved a significant gain in weight without even noticing I was eating more than usual.

With hindsight, I can see I struggled to come to terms with my new situation and in the throes of culture shock and isolation I had taken to self soothing, with rather a lot of nibbles… The unspoken message rebounding in my head; I deserve it, don’t I?

It was helpful to acknowledge the relationship between my body and mind as symbiotic, remembering they cannot operate separately, particularly as my initial reaction to focus on calorie intake alone, was not helping.
In addition to  ‘eating my emotions’ another contributing factor was confusion over the food value of what I was consuming. If you have moved countries you will be familiar with the adjustment required when you first encounter the local supply of food in your new ‘home’.

A number of staples in my diet were different from those I was used to or simply not available in my local Houston supermarkets. I remember low fat/low sugar yoghurts seemed difficult to find and encountering more sugar in bread was another unexpected difference. I soon learned to live without the yoghurts and bread by supplementing with replacement items – I ditched my toast and marmalade and became a committed porridge eater for the rest of the posting! Big deal, not a great hardship… After all some of the new dishes I was trying were exciting and delicious (Tex-mex and prawn gumbo being two of them!).

More challenging, were the difficult feelings I struggled to manage. Eventually they needed acknowledging and reconciling, and with help I was able to do this. In the process of regaining my happiness and equilibrium my eating habits returned to normal and I enjoyed being more active again.

So do a few extra pounds really matter? Arguably not, unless you need to be slender for your work… a dancer perhaps. Most people would agree, that it begins to matter if the excess ballast you are carrying (or severe lack of it if you are significantly underweight) has become a threat to your health. In my case, it was simply another thing about myself that didn’t feel right at a time when everything else was unfamiliar. In short, the irony of putting on weight was that my sense of identity was further eroded by the reflection in the mirror – I did not feel ‘normal’ inside or out! So it felt important to get back to being my usual size.heart shaped food

I believe our identity is in part wrapped up in how we look and what our body and our clothes unconsciously tell the world about us. For example, we might be keeping people at a distance by being very large or unconsciously defending ourselves from intimacy? Perhaps we are undernourished and too thin, what does that say about our self worth if we are starving ourselves.?

These complex emotional issues involving misuse of food are explored by Julia Buckroyd as she aims to look at what many describe as an “ongoing battle with food”. I like the fact that her focus is ultimately on eating and not worrying about it and her findings are based on many years of research. Also included is a chapter specifically for men, who are often overlooked in terms of their specific issues around disordered eating.
Understanding Your Eating is available from Amazon.com
and if you would like to read more about my expat adventures (and what I learned), please dive into my memoir: An Inconvenient Posting, an expat wife’s memoir of lost identity.

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