Emotional Eating

February 8, 2012 § 2 Comments

Eating Grapes (with Loretta Mancuso), from Gee Whiz Magazine, 1959 (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Some of us who weigh too much are pretty tired of the term, “emotional eating.”  It’s one of those word combos which by being repeated so much, has lost all meaning.  What would this phrase be, if restored to natural goodness?  Let’s look.

Emotional eating is defined as the ingestion of food, often in a binge, to stuff down negative emotions–anger, depression, boredom.  It is said to be unconscious, automatic.  You, the sufferer, or, dare I say, the perpetrator, are urged to identify your triggers, and then negate them, or distract yourself from them, or avoid them.  Dietary changes are recommended, along with psychological exploration and sometimes, physical therapy.  You are urged to regain control.  Control is good.

Have you ever had control?  Of anything?  I certainly haven’t.  Well, maybe a light switch and my car.  And my emotions include love, yearning, contentment, and desire, as well as the hatred and shame, anger and suppressed sexuality which the diet industry pins on every overweight person, including me.  Is control really my polar opposite, my heaven, to my state of emotional eating, which is hell?

I’m someone who strongly prefers mastery to control.  Though it’s true that to master something I must deal with the negative emotions I bring to it, I’ve never achieved mastery by concentrating strictly on the negative–on loss.  Anything I’ve ever mastered, has included, along with a new facility or achievement, a surrender of control, and a responsiveness to intuition, and flow states, and a receptivity to the unexpected, along with daily persistence in the face of a struggle.

I looked at the PubMed (NIH) literature on emotional eating, and wow, is it unhelpful.  There’s no discussion of cause.  The scientific literature hinges on effect–changes to insulin chemistry, cardiovascular functioning, and–if one goes to the psychological or sensory literature, we have talk about anger and self hatred and habit, as well as control.  Conscious talk and equally conscious feedback, as though the senses are always negated and dulled in this behavior.  As though the person who eats emotionally is always half a step away, or more, from the good side of being human.

If emotional eating is in fact emotional–centered in the biochemistry of body and brain, in a reciprocal relationship with this biochemistry–why not ask exactly how habitual behaviors which become integrated into one’s biochemistry and psychobiology, are changed by charging the emotions with desired work?  And vice versa?

What does the emotional eater feel during and after eating?  What are the short term and long term changes to mood which precede and accompany this behavior, as well as which follow it?

Exactly what does food do systemically when in the mouth or throat, or in process of incorporation into our body and spirit?  It’s food we’re talking about, right?  Not always food in excess?

By eating, we make what’s outside, real within.   What does food do?  What do we do to food?  What kind of afterlife does a vegetable or a piece of meat have, when incorporated into our bodies?  Is it a good fate?  Something the vegetable can look forward to?  Or is it always death and hell?

Is the purpose of emotional eating always psychological and negative–to avoid something worse?  Or are we sometimes exploring the nature of taking, being in our hands, mouth, arms and throat, instead of in our minds?

Might some of us emotional eaters actually be kinesthetic, craving a flow state?  Might others be hyper-acute, craving a cessation of the senses?  Why are we seen by the literature as angry or dull, or as objects?  What would we do if we were subjects, if we were heroes of our stories?

In emotional overeating, are we always creating or perpetuating some sort of disconnect with the present?  If so, what are the short term rewards, the experiential benefits and health value we achieve from this disconnect?  In emotional eating, are these rewards always greater than our engagement in long term rewards, for us to overeat at all?

Is some emotional eating wonderful?  Why is “emotional eating” always perceived as synonymous with “overeating?”

And by the way, aren’t we hard wired to eat all we can, as tomorrow there may be nothing?  Doesn’t our genetic info command us to pack on the pounds we might need tomorrow?  But tomorrow never comes?  What if today was seen as tomorrow?  Would we still be emotionally overeating?  Or not?

What I believe is that either all eating is emotional, or none is.  Please let’s not Balkanize our habits, even our bad ones.  Let’s not give ourselves a program which equates weight loss with emotional amputation.  Can’t we look at the positive side of what we’re doing?  If we want to come to peace with it?

Copyright 2012 by Jacqueline Austin.  All rights reserved.

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§ 2 Responses to Emotional Eating

  • Maurice says:

    I’d like an explanation of the difference between control and mastery as you use the terms. I can conceive of control without mastery–someone with a button to push but no idea how it works–but not mastery without control. So ‘I practically never have control, I seek and obtain mastery’ is hard to make sense (of). Would you please elucidate?
    Second, might there not be more than one generator of appetite? Just as fear may inspire untimely and irregular excretions, might not anxieties inspire eating? Richard Farina’s ‘Been Down so Long It Looks Like Up To Me’ is not at hand for an exact citation, but I’m confident he referred to students eating pizzas(?) confusing anxiety with hunger.

    • jacajacjac says:

      Sure, Maurice! Re mastery vs. control…If you’re on skis, going downhill fast, trying to exercise control second by second, you are likely to break your leg. You would have so many decisions to make, that you would be overwhelmed. Same with playing an instrument. If you control every note, will it sound like Bach? To get the spirit of Bach, I must relinquish control and let myself hear the music, and trust to the moment and my hands.

      Re your second question, yes, of course… Marta Vago wrote some great comments to that effect on Facebook. She traces some of the psychodynamics of emotional eating. People often eat when they’re anxious or depressed–a variety of situations, sensations and emotions can trigger eating in someone who isn’t physiologically hungry.

      Would you rather control your body and mind (restrict it), or know your body and mind, as one knows a well loved workshop in which one can make something beautiful?

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