I get a lot of messages and some of the questions people ask most frequently are the following:
“Ines, how can I overcome emotional eating?”
“Ines, how should I eat to lose weight? I stick to a diet for a while and then I stuff myself with an enormous amount of food. Where do I go wrong?”
I’ll take the opportunity to answer here, because I could not reply to everyone separately.
If you have been reading my blog for a long time, you probably know that I, too, have struggled with emotional eating, or binging as I prefer to call it. For me the emotional eating problem has two aspects – a psychological one and a physiological one. What do I mean by that?
1. Biology always gets the upper hand over willpower
As I mentioned last week, emotional eating, just like anything else, is a biologic urge too. Maybe each and every one of you has noticed that the times when her hunger urges for all kinds of food get stronger are also the times when she’s most desperately trying to eat right, stick to a particular diet and at the same time is depriving her body of something.
Emotional eating is sort of a way out for the body – the body resorts to it to save us from ourselves. Pushing us to eat everything in sight is the body’s tool to heal itself from the damage we inflict to it with our starvation diets and our heavy training. It is the only way the body can obtain the micro- and macronutrients that we are not providing to it with our “healthy eating”.
How often have you happened to experience a craving for something more calorically dense and have refrained from eating it, trying not to think about it or replace it with fruit and vegetables? And at the end of the day you always end up eating your initial object of desire anyway, don’t you?
Consider what would happen, if you make something that contains fat, carbohydrates, salt and perhaps starch, when your body signals you need this kind of food. Here’s what that would look like on your plate: salmon – protein and fat, marinated dried tomatoes and a handful of rice with some vegetables. A perfect meal. And it won’t even interfere with our goals to lose weight and sculpt our body, but at the same time has a complex taste which satisfies our receptors and our minds.
2. Our subconscious controls our conscious decisions
How often do you keep reminding yourself that being on a diet does not interfere with your life and the deprivations are justified? And how often do you believe it? The more you repeat it, the more likely you are to be trying to convince yourself and not others.
I spend a lot of time analyzing myself and human behavior in general. I have realized that the spiritual life of every one of us is full of powerful, but unconscious thoughts which determine our behavior and the choices we make. What does that mean?
How would you describe emotional eating? I would call it binging; you eat like a person who has been starving and is trying to catch up.
Now let’s go back to diets (the way most people stick to them – with a lot of deprivations). Eating the same food day in and day out. Restricting yourself to chicken breast, egg whites, lettuce and broccoli has an impact on body processes, as well as on the mind. An idea emerges in our mind that we are depriving ourselves and starving. And even if we can find arguments in our conscious minds why we are doing the right thing and how happy we are, something in our subconscious feels that things aren’t going well. We push the feeling that we are deprived and starving to the back of our mind. The problem is that what we push to the back of our mind does not disappear – it sits there, digging its way into our unconscious. It has a strong impact on what we do. The very times we feel we have no conscious control of our actions – the times we consume large amounts of food in no time – are the times the feeling of deprivation that has been growing in our subconscious manifests and overpowers us.
This is why I think that many dieting women fall prey to these emotional eating situations – the rest of the time, even if they deny it, they are living with the idea that they are depriving themselves. So, when the hunger urge strikes, we consume so much food, because our subconscious makes us compensate for our starvation.
I had come upon an example of one of Freud’s female patients. She was hysteric and vomiting, because she imagined herself pregnant. She was not conscious of that idea, but after a more in-depth analysis and sessions with her, it turned out that the woman was simply playing the part of a pregnant woman because of convictions and desires she had pushed to the back of her mind.
That was what made me draw this parallel between starvation and binging.
I am sure most of you have noticed that when you allow yourself more diversity and eat sufficient amounts of food, these urges disappear.
3. If I don’t eat this, what would nourish me?
Now we come to the psychological aspect of emotional eating. For me eating disorders are disorders of silence. Disorders which find a safe harbor in the minds of perfectionists and maximalists – people who never feel they are enough and always think it is their fault. People who try to make up for their internal deficits by overcompensating – excessive ambition and success in the external world.
The problem is that excess in the external world does not fill up one’s internal deficit. This deficit needs to be filled with something and quite often what we do is we fill it up with the emotions that eating generates. The fact is the soul feeds on emotions and needs them. The problem is many of us, women, resort to food as a source of these emotions.
I like saying that when the soul is starving, the body overeats. This is also the place to ask the question: “If I don’t eat this, what would nourish me?” If we don’t eat this enormous amount of food, what would nourish us? What would nourish our soul that is starving for emotions?
These are questions you can ask yourselves.
One of the most important things I want to emphasize is that working on solving the problem with emotional eating and eating disorders is not a one-way process in general. The solution is not just a diet – a diet can give the body what it needs. But at the same time we need to give the mind what it needs too.
I like saying that too much food exhausts the soul, while too little food exhausts the body. That is why the solution is in the balance.
And as I wrote this morning in my personal profile page: “What I am not aware of and/or what I don’t want to face, now owns a part of my life.“
Food and emotional urges own us, because they are states and emotions we resist. The only way to overcome something is to understand it. In order to understand it, you need to become friends with it. In order to become friends with it, you need to accept that it exists. Allow it to exist.
The emotions we don’t resist at the end of the day lead to a feeling of joy and acceptance.
The problem cannot be solved by struggling with food and even more deprivations, self-punishment and self-accusations. It can be solved, if we understand that the body and the mind have their needs and that in order to achieve our goals, we need to satisfy at least the most basic needs of both.