The holidays are in full swing and we all know what that means: Food, lots and lots of food! From the Thanksgiving dinner, to the 12 days of holiday cookies, and every office party in between, the holidays can bring up a lot of our food issues. One does not have to have an intense eating disorder to struggle with food and body image; I know many women (and men) who live in a silent prison around food and this time of year can feel especially confining.
I received a text message this morning from a good friend of mine looking for suggestions on resources around this topic. She shared feeling like her struggle with food and body image would never go away for her and she just wished she could “dismantle” her brain sometimes so she didn’t have to think this way. I told her what was told to me and what I share with so many of my clients: I know how you feel, but so much of the work to heal ourselves is about accepting, with compassion, that it is a part of you, right now. Fighting, judging, and getting frustrated with yourself only perpetuates the battle.
We are always so quick to judge, shame, and get frustrated with ourselves for our struggles, and while this time of year might feel more challenging, it’s also a great opportunity for us to practice using new tools. Going to war with ourselves only creates more ammunition and further perpetuates the underlying issues that cause us to struggle with food and body image in the first place!
Idealistically, the holidays are a time for family gatherings, togetherness, and joy; realistically, they can also bring stress, worry, and family conflict. Coupled with the inherent, indulgent nature of the foods typical of this time of year, the holidays are a prime time for emotional and mindless eating. Therefore we have a choice: we can either beat ourselves up until the new year at which point we make a resolution we know we won’t be able to keep to only further justify the shame spiral, or, we use the opportunities to ease into the discomfort and promote healing and growth.
Although there are some emotional eaters that eat when they are feeling good, most emotional eating occurs when we are feeling what we typically perceive to be “negative” states, such as sad, bored, lonely, discontent, stressed, desperate, deprived, etc. We often think that food will make us feel better, and typically we are reaching for high fat, high sugar, and high salt foods. However, research (and our own experience) is showing us that this just isn’t so.
There was a small study done by researchers at Penn State which assessed the moods of women before and after eating “unhealthy” foods. The study defined unhealthy foods as those: high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat. Their results: If the women were in a bad mood before they ate the unhealthy food, eating made them feel even worse.
But most of us probably don’t need this study to know what this process feels like. All we need to do is ask ourselves, Do I really feel better emotionally after eating foods that are high in sugar, salt and saturated fat? What is it that I do feel? Am I happy, satisfied, confident, relieved, energized, proud, delighted, pleased? My guess is probably not. (For the record, I believe we can experience this process whenever we engage in mindless eating, whether it’s bingeing on Oreo’s or broccoli, the emotional experience remains the same.)
My guess is you probably feel pretty bummed about the choices you made, tired, sluggish, grumpy, frustrated, or maybe you feel nothing at all because the food was used to help you numb out. Typically, whatever “bad” feelings there are prior to emotional or mindless eating are replaced by other, equally “bad” feelings of shame, guilt, frustration, remorse, anger at yourself, disgust, contempt, and despair.
It can be incredibly eye opening, and even life-changing, to become aware of the connection between your mood and the foods you choose to eat. This is a great time of year to begin to develop this relationship with yourself as it is prime for triggers and opportunities to engage in mindless or emotional eating.
If you are someone that struggles in your relationship with food, allow yourself to check-in after eating, particularly when you are reaching for foods to provide emotional comfort. Make a mental list of the emotions that you feel. My guess is that other than numb, which is not, by the way, a positive feeling, your list is going to be emotions no one would ever intentionally seek out. Yet, that is the consequence every time emotions lead to non-hunger eating. It’s so common to hear that people “eat to feel better.” But we know that, while that may be our intention, it certainly is not the outcome.