In Defense of Emotional Eating

In Defense of Emotional Eating

The term “emotional eating” is often used with a negative connotation. Eating for emotional reasons, rather than to satisfy hunger, is usually talked about as something physically and emotionally unhealthy. Here’s my take: Emotional eating isn’t inherently unhealthy! 

Of course, “emotional eating” can sometimes be an ineffective form of coping with emotions or distress. Avoiding emotions through eating can be part of an unhelpful cycle. (Then again, so can avoiding emotions through NOT eating!) However, it makes sense for us to involve food in our experience of many emotions, pleasant and unpleasant!

Eating out of celebration can connect us to our culture, to family and loved ones, and to sensory delight. For me, homemade cherry pie is a food I eat exclusively for emotional reasons! It’s tradition in the family I grew up in to have cherry pie on birthdays and other special occasions, usually AFTER a big meal of Taiwanese dumplings shared together. I’m almost never hungry by the time we get out the cherry pie, so I guess that means I’m always “emotionally eating” when I eat cherry pie. If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right! The delicious experience of filling my belly with dumplings, then savoring tart cherries and flaky pie crust is a big part of what makes those special days significant. This type of emotional eating is precious to me because it has been a tradition in my family since I was a child.

Eating for nostalgia, to remember a person, a place, or a tradition, can be beautiful and meaningful. Whenever I eat a fresh peach, whether I’m physically hungry or not, I cannot help but find myself “emotionally eating.” To me, the smell of ripening peaches instantaneously takes my mind back to the kitchen of the home where I grew up. The taste of fresh peaches is the taste of decades of Labor Days spent laughing with my siblings. A bowl of cut-up peaches set on the table is a love note from my mom or dad. For me, peaches are often a part of “emotional eating” that I deem as healthy for myself and my relationships.

Eating because we are feeling stressed or sad makes sense, and can be a helpful choice. Eating can be soothing to our bodies. From the very moment we are born, we are meant to find soothing and safety through eating. Eating is supposed to feel good! When approached intentionally, “emotional eating” can be a helpful tool for coping and self-care. For me, sometimes crunching my way through a bowl of cereal (especially Honey Bunches of Oats with almonds. IYKYK.) is part of what helps me soothe myself enough to face the stresses of another couple of hours of parenting little kids. I see these moments of “emotional eating” as an effective way for me to sit with and work through stress so I can move on with my day.

Food is fuel for our bodies, and it is also so much more. Eating for emotional reasons can add variety, meaning, comfort, and connection to our lives. There needs to be no shame in “emotional eating.” Emotional eating is a normal part of the human experience, sometimes in helpful ways, and sometimes in unhelpful ways. Of course, if eating for emotional reasons has become part of a cycle that is not adding to your well-being, you deserve to have support and help with breaking that cycle, and with learning more effective ways to cope. And even then, eating for emotional reasons can still play a healthy, helpful role in your life. Making room for “emotional eating” is, in many ways, an essential element of having a peaceful relationship with food because eating and emotion can never fully be separated. Food and emotion are inherently intertwined, sometimes in painful ways, but also in beautiful and meaningful ways.

Body Reflections

Body Reflections

If you struggle with body image, your relationship with the reflection of your body in the mirror might feel complicated. Maybe you find yourself spending too much time in front of the mirror, picking apart your reflection, and feeling upset about what you see. Or maybe you find yourself avoiding glimpses of your reflection, not wanting to see your body because you don’t feel good about it. Maybe you experience a mix of both. If your body’s reflection is a source of stress in your life, you aren’t alone–body image stress is something everyone experiences at least occasionally and something many experience chronically.

For today’s blog, I want to take the word “reflection” and use its other definition–not the one that means an image thrown back to you by the mirror. Reflection (noun): thought or consideration. The end of the year is a time when we naturally reflect–look back on and consider our experiences, thoughts, and emotions. If body image is a struggle for you, you might find it helpful to do some reflection on your relationship with your body beyond its reflection in the mirror. Here are a few questions that might help you reflect.

  • What were some meaningful experiences I had this year? How was my body a part of those experiences?
  • Where did I struggle in my relationship with my body this year?
  • Where did I grow in my relationship with my body this year?
  • How did my body support me this year? How did I support my body?
  • What were the sensations my body enjoyed this year? Think about experiences with each of your senses: touch, taste, sight, sound, smell.

Focusing on the reflection you see in the mirror can distract you from a deeper, more meaningful type of reflection. What you see in the mirror only tells you a small part of the story of your body and its experience, function, and meaning. Looking deeper–into your relationship with your body, into the experience of being alive in your body–yields so much more complexity and so much more meaning than looking in the mirror does. 

Your Best Might Not Always Be the Best

Your Best Might Not Always Be the Best

My clients know I use a LOT of metaphors in therapy. It’s just how I roll! Here is a metaphor that I’ve shared with a couple of clients lately that might resonate if you’re dealing with perfectionism.

Let’s pretend you’re driving a car. What if when you were driving, you felt like you always had to “do your best?” In some ways, “your best” might mean driving at maximum speed and power, engine revving at full capacity, and really showing everyone else on the road what your car can do. What if you felt like you had to push your car to do its “best” ALL the time?

If you were to drive this way in real life, of course, there would be some negative outcomes. Even if there were no traffic laws to pay attention to, constantly pushing your vehicle to perform at its “best” would actually do damage to the engine, the tires, the transmission, the brakes, etc. Helping your car perform well in the long run, and extending the life and utility of its engine, tires, etc. might actually mean driving at a capacity that is far below your car’s “best.” Sure, you might want to occasionally push your car to show off its full potential in certain situations, like if you were drag racing, trying to outrun a tsunami, or auditioning for a stunt driving role (please don’t do any of those things unless absolutely necessary), but for the most part, taking care of your car would mean driving fairly conservatively.

Even if you feel pressure to always “do your best,” running yourself at full capacity isn’t something you can do all the time, at least not without consequences. You might feel like you have to stay up all night to do “your best” on a project for school. You might feel the need to be extremely rigid about your exercise routine in order to do “your best” physically. You might feel like you have to say “yes” to every opportunity to help someone in order to be the “best” friend/child/sibling/partner you can be. Perfectionism might make you feel like it’s not ok to put in less than 100% effort ever, for anything, even if you’re feeling stressed or burned out.

Remind yourself that, like a car, you aren’t meant to run at full capacity all the time. In fact, most of the time, it’s more effective and sustainable to pace yourself, and conserve energy for the long road ahead. Life sometimes does happen in bursts when we need, and benefit from, using our full capacity. However, more often than not, going at a speed that lets you get things done AND take care of yourself will end up feeling more sustainable and satisfying than pushing yourself to do your absolute “best.”

My Body Is a Wonder, and So Is Yours

My Body Is a Wonder, and So Is Yours

Recently, I was watching my 9-month-old baby as he played on the floor. Laying on his back, he held his hands up in front of his face, staring at them intently. I watched him clasp and unclasp his hands, clap, stretch his tiny fingers, twist and turn his pudgy wrists, seeming captivated by the movement of his own little body.

What would it be like for each of us to notice our bodies with wonder and curiosity? What would change if we could see our bodies with fascination and awe, instead of with criticism and disdain?

There have been some monumental moments in my life in which I’ve felt profound wonder towards my body. Seeing my body change through pregnancy, witnessing its power through childbirth, and feeling it heal from significant injuries have all been experiences that have made me acknowledge how astounding my body is. There are also many, many everyday moments in which I can’t help but be fascinated by my body. Over the years, I’ve tried to develop a habit of paying more attention to my body as it does everyday things. As I’ve done so, I’ve connected with a truth about my body that grows more meaningful and deeply felt as time goes on: my body is a wonder. 

I find wonder in my body as I sit on the floor and stretch before bed. Each movement of my limbs is the result of the complex mechanics of muscles, tendons, and ligaments working together.

I find wonder in my body as my fingers type this blog post. My fingers tap the keyboard with rapid, reflexive, fine-tuned movements that I create consciously but that also feel automatic and intuitive. How many neural pathways in my brain are firing at once as my fingers type?

I find wonder in my body as I stare out the window. There are six extraocular muscles that surround each of my eyes and control their movement. Those muscles contract and relax automatically, letting my eyes move and change focus from the window pane in front of me to the tree across the street. I don’t tell my pupils when to dilate, but they do, responding seamlessly to changes in the light around me. As my pupils allow in light from the outside world, photoreceptor cells on my retina turn that light into electrical signals, which travel through my optic nerve and to my brain, where my brain creates and interprets images. And that, somehow, is how sight works. (I had to look all this up, by the way. https://www.nei.nih.gov/learn-about-eye-health/healthy-vision/how-eyes-work)

I am fascinated and amazed by my body! Even as she ages, and even with her weaknesses, she is a wonder. 

Not all moments in our bodies are filled with awe and amazement. Sometimes, having a body can be difficult, painful, frustrating, or embarrassing. Regardless, I believe there is healing to be found in acknowledging the truly amazing things our bodies–of all ages, sizes, and abilities–are constantly doing for us. Noticing the wonders your body is working can be a piece of finding greater peace in your relationship with your body.

How to Stop Binge Eating: A Place to Start

How to Stop Binge Eating: A Place to Start

Being stuck in binge eating can feel like torture. The physical discomfort and pain, the guilt, shame, and frustration, and the dread of the aftermath of a binge can feel awful. The good news is it’s possible to stop binge eating and start feeling more at peace with food. If you’re struggling with binge eating, this blog post is for you.

First, a little bit of transparency. Our integration team at Balance Health and Healing does a lot of research to help the information we share get to the people who could benefit from it. As part of that research, they found that one of the most searched-for phrases from our audience is “How to stop binge eating at night.” I share that so that if you’re reading this post looking for support on how to stop binge eating, you’ll know that you’re not alone. Binge eating is a struggle that many, many people are trying to overcome. Even though binge eating is a common struggle, it still carries a lot of stigma. Many who are dealing with binge eating feel shame talking about their behaviors, even within the eating disorder recovery community. I hope we can change that by shedding light on some of the reasons why binge eating happens and how to find healing.

Let’s dive right in. My primary recommendation if you are struggling with binge eating:

Eat more food.

That seems VERY counterintuitive, right? I know. But hear me out. If you are struggling with binge eating, there is a high likelihood that you actually need to eat more regularly and consistently in order to stop binge eating. One of the most common cycles of binge eating I hear about as a therapist is the binge-restrict cycle. If you binge, you might feel guilty or panicked and start trying to eat less to “make up” for the binge. In reality, that restriction primes your body for more bingeing. Your body is wired to protect you from starvation. If you restrict your eating, your body will sense that it needs to eat more food more quickly than usual the next time food is accessible. Even though it can feel very difficult to eat consistently after a binge, one of the most helpful things you can do is continue eating meals and snacks and include a variety of foods. Eating enough and eating consistently might feel overwhelming when you are already feeling guilty about bingeing, but feeding your body adequately throughout the day is key if you want to break out of the binge-restrict cycle.

Another recommendation for stopping binges:

Actively manage your stress.

Even though binge eating ends up feeling awful, it often starts off as a way to try to feel better. Eating is soothing, and it’s supposed to be. From the time we are infants, eating is a source of physiological soothing and comfort. If binge eating is serving as a coping mechanism for stress, it makes sense why! Bingeing is not about lacking self-control. It’s more likely about not having adequate ways to cope with distress. Finding other ways to help your body manage stress can help you stop bingeing. Make a list of three to four simple, easy-to-do coping strategies that you can use when you notice yourself feeling stressed. Having this list ready to go before you need it can help you choose a different way to manage your stress when you’re feeling the urge to binge. Here’s an example of the kind of coping skills list I mean:

  1. Dance in my room to a high-energy song
  2. Step outside my apartment and spend 5 minutes looking at the sky and breathing
  3. Lay on the floor in my room and stretch

Binge eating, whether on its own or in combination with other symptoms of disordered eating or body image distress, is complex. The suggestions in this post represent just a small piece of things that might help you find healing from binge eating. Working with a therapist and a dietitian to explore other factors in your binge eating (like nutrition, metabolic factors, trauma, mood disorders, relationship struggles, and other factors) can also be helpful. Wherever you are on your path to healing, I hope you’ll know that it is possible to stop binge eating, and there is hope for things to feel better!