Following on from our articles on emotional eating and body acceptance and love, we explore the link between dieting and emotional eating a little more. We now know that emotional eating is eating to feed your emotional needs rather than your physical ones. But how does this emotional relationship with food start in the first place? How does food transform from nourishment for the body to a pacifier for your feelings?
Dieting = Restriction + Control
It starts with dieting. Let’s get this straight. Originally, the word ‘diet’ comes from the Greek word ‘diaita’, meaning ‘way of living’. Nowadays, however, with the growing popularity of fad diets, it has come to mean cutting out major food groups with the aim of reducing weight (which you are presumably dissatisfied with). Thanks to such fads, a lot of people end up starving themselves, avoiding foods that are “bad”, and controlling what they eat, severely restricting their caloric intake throughout the day. Eventually, you come to think, “I feel good about myself if I eat this way, and if I don’t eat this way, I beat myself up about it for hours and days. Clearly then, your diet has transformed into an approach to eating that you have become emotionally attached to.
The guiltier you feel about the way you’re eating, the harder you claw at trying to control what you put into your body, and the higher the likelihood you end up overindulging. Your body requires nourishment to accomplish your daily tasks, but when you push your body without food, you’re running on an empty tank of gas. In your hungry state, your blood sugar levels plunge, your judgement is clouded and impulse takes over. In order to compensate for your self-imposed food deprivation, you binge, barely tasting what you put into your mouth.
Moral of the story: Your “diet mantra” of “restrict and control” is not the answer to your food problem. Restriction and control usually backfire.
Eating = Sustenance?
Food keeps us going, it keeps us alive. But do we really eat merely for sustenance? Not quite. Here are the real reasons we eat:
1. Perceived Nourishment and/or Physical Hunger
You look at the clock, it’s 8 pm, time for dinner! This is perceived nourishment. When you are physically hungry, your body is giving you signs such as hunger pangs. It’s a biological imperative to put something in your mouth or you’d remain physically uncomfortable.
2. Emotional Nourishment or Emotional Eating
This entails allowing your emotions to dictate what you eat. You eat because you’re anxious, bored, lonely, sad, etc. to fulfil an emotional need. Although most of the time emotional eating is not a good thing, there are instances when it isn’t all that bad. For example, we cook special meals sometimes to celebrate important occasions and festivals, and food serves a communal, or even spiritual, function in our lives then.
3. Binge Eating
Binge eating can be considered a type of emotional eating, but it goes beyond that. While emotional eating allows you to soothe your feelings, binge eating is a response to real or perceived deprivation. Real deprivation is when you are physically restricting your intake of certain foods, like “no fats for me”. In perceived deprivation, you are physically eating, but you’re not enjoying it because you’re thinking about how you’re your food is going to make you or how you’re not ‘allowed’ to eat it (it’s the restrict and control diet mantra playing in your head). If you’re not fully experiencing your food, and you can barely taste what you’re putting in your mouth, you keep eating and eating to feel something, and thus eventually end up binge eating. This is how a spoonful of ice cream can lead to stuffing yourself with the entire tub. With each mouthful, you start to feel ashamed for “cheating” on your diet, feelings that ironically make you shovel even quicker through the tub.
Binge eating has been traditionally defined as consuming a large quantity of food in one sitting. The problem is that quantities are relative; what’s binging for one person could simply be a big meal for someone else. Therefore, the key to binge eating is not the amount of food you eat, but the fact that it is motivated by shame and guilt.
I Broke My Diet = I Hate Myself
You overate. That’s it. There goes your diet. The world is over and you now hate yourself. Why do you feel so awful when you break your diet? Because you worry you might put on weight. Oh, the horror.
In general, people are anxious about the way they eat because they are anxious about the way they look. Emotional and binge eaters cannot bear the idea that their weight might be over a certain number. You essentially have an emotional attachment to your weight, so being over a particular weight scares you so much. If this is the case, you are likely to be attached to a specific way of eating i.e. you’re perpetually on a diet (restrict and control), and you’re always on the brink of an eating binge.
If your weight does not determine your self-esteem, then you would not binge eat. Here’s why: normal eaters don’t care about food, they don’t think about it every minute of the day. In other words, to solve binge eating, you first need to change your relationship with your body before you can change your relationship with food. Otherwise, you will perpetually be stuck in the diet-binge cycle.
Dieting is initiated by poor body image, in that you feel uncomfortable with your current body. This leads you to constantly control what you eat and you can’t help but judge food. This body shaming is not motivating; if it were, you would have fit into that size two dress ages ago. Body shaming merely perpetuates emotional eating. Remember that night you felt so bad about your body that didn’t want to go out, but ended up binge eating a whole pizza to soothe your feelings?
If you love your body, you want to feel good and take care of it. Normal eaters want to feel good, which is why they don’t binge on a jar of cookies. Their bodies simply won’t allow it. Our natural biological instinct is to heed to our bodies’ urges in order to eat well, but dieting goes against this instinct.
A New Way of Thinking = A New Way of Eating
Here’s a crazy idea: what if you ate without rigidly sticking to your diet? What if you ate like a normal person, someone who has a healthy relationship with food? Observe a friend with normal eating habits. What is she doing that you’re not? What’s her relationship with food? What is she thinking when she’s eating? It’s definitely not, “This food will make me fat!”
The difference between a normal eater and you is not willpower. Normal eaters aren’t always attempting to control themselves around food. They inherently do not want to eat more than required. The problem is the way you think: your mindset is the problem, not the way you behave. It’s your thinking that needs to be focused on in the long run. Your best bet to change this pattern of emotional and binge eating is to develop a normal state of mind around food.
When mending your relationship with food, the shame and guilt associated with binge eating have to be tackled first. It would be difficult to fully address emotional eating if we have shame entangled with it. We have to look at our behaviours through a non-judgemental lens. The moment we judge, we will be swinging back into binge eating terrain. For more information on how to tackle these, check out our emotional eating feature.
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