“Emotional Eating” is more than just emotional

In addition to working full time, I study health communication. You know, how people communicate about their health, how we can better bridge the communication between healthcare providers and everyone else, and how we can use communications to educate and motivate people to live healthier lives. For a class assignment, I was given the charge of making a “lifestyle transformation challenge.” I had to pick a behavior I wanted to change and track my progress towards making it a long-term lifestyle change. The point of this was to gain a full understanding of just how hard making a lifestyle transformation really is – an important thing to know if you are trying to convince others to do it.

So what behavior did I decide to change?  I’m a snacker. A big one. I feel most comfortable when I am eating something. My favorite foods are ones that you can eat over a long period of time – foods like artichokes or tacos that are more of a hobby kit than an actual meal.  I don’t have much of a sweet tooth, but I certainly have a salt tooth. Anything I can munch mindlessly while watching tv, writing or studying is a-okay by me. Anything with cheese is even better.

My lifestyle transformation challenge was to try to cut back on snacking, especially at night.  I came up with what I thought was a really creative way to do it – nothing like any diet plan I had ever seen.  I would give myself an hour-long window to eat dinner, and that would be it for the night.  I would not count calories or stress about what I ate for dinner, as long as I ate it within the hour window and didn’t nosh afterwards. I thought this would be easy.

Long story short: I failed to transform my lifestyle and stop snacking in the evening. But the good news, I suppose, is in what I learned along the way. During this challenge, I read Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, a powerful book about my generation’s relationship to achievement, perfectionism, and food, by Courtney Martin. I had of course heard of “emotional eating” prior to reading the book, but had never realized what it really meant or considered my snacking habits to fall under that category.

I have come to really hate the term “emotional eating” and all that it conjures up. The idea that millions of women are crying into a bowls of ice cream or “eating their feelings” is a myth. It’s a myth with plenty of moral stigma attached – weakness, gluttony, failure, loneliness. (Cat ladies? Cathy comics?) The reality is that when stressed, depressed, tired, etc., one is more likely to consume more calories for a number of reasons that are much more complicated than just “eating your feelings.”

In Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters, Courtney Martin described a “perfect girl/starving daughter” dichotomy in each of us, and while I’m sure her book resonated more with some than others, it was so true to my own experience that I now consider it gospel. You see, girls of my generation were raised by feminist moms– moms that told us that girls could be or do anything. These were also moms that managed (somehow) to work and raise us and take care of the home at the same time. They were “supermoms” and we grew up observing their busy schedules and overachiever lifestyles. And we became overachievers. We are breaking barriers in the sciences, outnumbering men in colleges, playing competitive sports, and we still look beautiful and feminine and thin. We don’t sleep much because all of this takes time.  We are Martin’s “perfect girls.”

But we are also “starving daughters” – weak, needy girls who are tired and lonely and just want to be cuddled, looked after, and loved. There is a hole in our center – you could call it spiritual, you could call it psychological – that wants to be filled with love and comfort.  Every now and then the break-neck pace of overachieverdom overwhelms us and the “starving daughter” comes out. I can literally hear mine repeating the phrase “I am just so tired” or “I am NOT okay” over and over in my head. These are the days we spend on the couch, watching TV and feeling weepy. And for many of us, these are the days we eat – consciously or not – in an attempt to fill that hole.  Thanks to Courtney Martin, I am now able to recognize my starving daughter self for what she is – my own body telling me I’m putting too much pressure on myself. She’s telling me that I don’t need another resume-builder; I need comfort, rest and love.

But there are other ways to look at the issue of “emotional eating.”  From a more medicalized perspective, there is a strong correlation between obesity and stress, depression, and sleep deprivation.  And let’s remember that according to medicine, stress and depression and sleep deprivation are legitimate medical ailments with diagnoses, treatments – the whole shebang. Overeating is a symptom of these diseases. Eating is soothing, and therefore a quick and dirty method for coping with anxiety or stress. Not to mention the fact that busy (and often stressed) people don’t have a lot of time for grocery shopping or meal prep, and often grab less-healthy foods on the fly. Sometimes their only option is a vending machine. And when you need energy NOW, your choices will reflect that with sugar, caffeine, and carbs. With depression comes apathy and the need to self-soothe. Again, these symptoms make it more likely that one will eat to soothe, and will care less about what they are eating so long as it is satisfying (warm, filling, sweet, salty, etc).

And finally, sleep deprivation is a huge factor in so-called “emotional” eating.  For one, if you’re awake for 19 hours a day, you’re likely to consume more calories than someone who is only awake for 16.  Also, sleep has a big effect on your metabolism and the way you process food. Sleep deprivation can actually cause you to gain weight, or make it harder to lose weight. Also, sleep deprivation makes us tired – and contributes to anxiety and depression, for which we often use food to cope.  I am not going to lie.  The more I learn, the more I realize sleep deprivation is a big part of my problem.

I now understand that the reason my lifestyle transformation failed was that I was trying to treat a symptom instead of the disease. I was trying to stop snacking when I should have been addressing the reasons why I snack. Working full time and being a full time student was just too much for me. I was stressed out and living with more anxiety than usual. And I had physical symptoms too – particularly a sore neck that some days hurt so badly I couldn’t turn my head.  I wasn’t sleeping much, and homework kept me from spending as much time with my friends – the people who give me love.  I also gave up exercise (the great stress-reducer) partly because I didn’t have the time, but also because I didn’t have the energy. I also didn’t have time or energy to go grocery shopping or cook. All of these things were factors in my snacking. There were physical factors, mental factors, and environmental factors contributing to my low level of health, for which snacking was a coping mechanism. Taking away my coping mechanism without making any other changes simply wasn’t going to work.

The irony in all of this is that I have been studying health all semester.  I began this semester as a “perfect girl,” pushing myself to do it all because working full time while I was in school was a smart career move and the financially responsible thing to do. I made it about halfway through the semester before the “starving daughter” took over. But during this difficult time, I managed to learn some things.

There are a lot of messages out there that tell us that success and achievement are more important than happiness, or even one’s health. Those are the messages I pretty much bought into, and despite my new-found perspective, I still have trouble challenging them. After all, we are a nation of workaholics that tends to view illness as weakness, and obesity as failure.  Even though we often view medicalization as a bad thing, this is one of those times that medicalizing an issue can actually be helpful in overcoming the moral stigma attached to it.  And as Courtney Martin showed us, sociology – looking at “emotional eating” on a society-wide level – can also be a tool for overcoming stigma.

Now that the semester is finally coming to a close, I am committed to making a real lifestyle transformation: the decision to drop to working part-time. While my “perfect girl” cringes at my laziness and self-indulgence, my “starving daughter” is hopeful. With the extra 16 hours a week, I will be able to sleep more, exercise more, and get to the grocery store before it closes. I will be able to see my friends on weekends. Surely it will be a financial hit and probably not the smartest career move, but it is a real step towards reaching balance and achieving mind/body health. It is my hope that by treating the real problem, some of the symptoms – like snacking – will clear up on their own.

4 thoughts on ““Emotional Eating” is more than just emotional

  1. Leah–another great post. I want to pick up this book. I am often aware I “emotionally eat” too, being lazy and cranky and making the dumb choices because of these reasons, all of which you elegantly explained. I’m interested in checking out that book.
    It’s amazing to me that you attempted to do full-time school (whaaa) and full-time work. I don’t know how you did it. That’s great that you’re lucky enough to downgrade your job to a part-time status so you can continue your studies. I hope your next semester improves as well as your health. Take care of yourself!

  2. Hope things get better next semester! I’ve been meaning to read Martin’s book for a long time and I just keep forgetting to do it – this sounds like another kick in the pants for me to get up on it.

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