How my emotional eating taught me to help my kidsApr 29, 2022
I hadn’t heard of emotional eating before a few years ago, but man, I’ve been doing it since the 1970’s!
We are currently talking a lot about emotional eating as a problem, as a reason for overeating.
Well, I have to tell you something that they’re not saying:
We are all emotional eaters.
There’s nothing broken with you or your kids if you eat because of emotions.
We all do.
OK, except 'borgs. Cyborgs and robots don’t eat because of emotions. Because they don’t have any.
Humans, on the other hand, are full of ‘em. And that’s normal.
Everything we do is for an emotion.
When I first heard this, my spidey-sense went up and said, “Nah-uh, I’m not like that. I’ve trained emotions outta me.”
How wrong I was.
The magic of being a human is that we have emotions. And emotions are the fuel for our behaviors. What we do, what we don’t do - it’s based on what we’re feeling.
When I was going through burnout at work a few years ago, I would dread going to work on Mondays. I had little clinical support, my schedule was bursting at the seams, and I was all alone in this sea of patients and messages and paperwork. I dreaded going to work. So when I begrudgingly got there, I was grumpy, I was scattered.
Let’s contrast that with my current clinical work: I love it. I look forward to working with my colleagues and my patients. They keep coming, and yet, I keep going, because I love it.
My fuel was dread – ick (!), and now it’s love.
So let’s talk about food.
Food has generally been a social practice for humans. We come together and eat in celebration, in grief, and in bonding like family meals.
Over time, we got to smaller social circles for eating (think nuclear family). And now it’s smaller still, by nature of smaller families, or we’ve got folks in different places at dinner time, so you’re on your own for eating.
Well, eating alone didn’t take away the emotions of eating.
We just got to see even more comfort in the food.
After all, that’s why it’s called comfort food here in the South…. It makes you feel good. Especially when other things are feeling bad.
It makes sense - we turn to food. Oh, and electronics, and other “vices”. We are looking for comfort from feeling bad.
And we get it.
The food feels good.
But it doesn’t fix why we were feeling bad in the first place.
And a lot of times, we feel even worse - because the first issue is still there, and now we’re like “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
I had no education in emotions. In fact, I was pretty much taught to stuff them away in medical school - because no one wants a sad doctor, and if you treat the sad feelings with medications, you have to report it to the medical boards (this is thankfully now being addressed, but it has been a huge problem for physicians and other healthcare workers to get the appropriate care that they need).
Instead of feeling my feelings, or getting help for them, I ate. I ate for comfort. I would go to social gatherings to get away from the stress, I would feel good there and I would eat more - because it felt good.
It all makes sense.
Except for how I felt afterwards. I wasn’t eating because I was hungry. I was eating to feel better. That's emotional eating.
Ever notice what it feels like to be “good” all day with your food choices? And then the evening comes. You’re spent, tired from work and the kids and the to-do list mocking you?
How does that feel? Exhausted?
How often do you reach for a bag of chips?
For me, it was the crunchy Pennsylvania Dutch pretzels.
I would feel better eating them.
It was emotional eating. I didn’t want to feel exhausted - and found that eating made it feel better.
I wasn’t hungry.
And I sure wasn’t fixing the feeling of exhaustion.
It was comforting.
So often when we feel bad (worried, overwhelmed, frustrated, defeated, bored….) we look for ways to STOP feeling bad.
Yeah, because feeling bad… feels bad.
And what is all around us right now? Food! Yay.
We’ve learned that food is comforting.
Heck, we used that all the time in the medical office. After a COVID swab is done, the kids get a popsicle… to feel better.
I used it when my kids were afraid to do their thing on the potty – you do it, you get a food incentive.
Food is comforting.
And that is normal.
But it can also lead to eating when our bodies just don’t need the food.
THAT is the emotional eating that folks have been talking about and saying that it’s bad. Something to address.
Well I think that it’s something to understand.
In the early days of the COVID pandemic, chips would come and go very quickly in my house.
We were worried, uncertain… and found comfort in the bottom of the tortilla bag.
I pulled out a tool:
Feeling my feelings.
Yup - feeling worried. Feeling uncertain.
And not trying to eat to feel better.
This is our opportunity, to try on something new: feeling the feelings. This isn't something to just tell your kid to feel their feelings. No, my friend, we get to learn and practice this first. That's how I started changing my approach at home: I gave myself a chance to feel really really worried, uncertain, and just plain shitty -- and know that I could survive it. And not eat the tortilla chips.
And other times, I ate the chips.
Because emotional eating does happen. It is normal. We do it. And yet if we realize that it's happening and it's creating patterns we don't like (perhaps empty cabinets, sick bellies, or extra pounds), then we can see what's going on and choose to make a change.
Just please, none of the judgy voices about it. If it happens, it happens. Recognizing the pattern isn't to beat yourself up, or to chastize your child. It's your opportunity to become aware, and see it happening earlier and earlier til the point where you can choose to not use food for comfort.
Check out the Family in Focus with Wendy Schofer, MD Podcast!
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