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“Look Anna! Can’t you see how delicious this meal looks?”
“Yes, I flipping well can!” I mutter exasperatedly under my breath.
This was just one example of the many unhelpful albeit well-intentioned comments I received when I suffered from anorexia in my teens.
If any of you out there have been unfortunate enough to battle this disorder, then you’ll know and understand that this comment completely misses the point.
Thankfully, it is now more widely acknowledged that the causes behind an anorexic mindset rarely have anything to do with food; food is the conduit between the emotional state and the external environment.
But is this only relevant to severe eating disorders such as anorexia?
The sheer size of the weight loss industry demonstrates the immense desire so many of us have to achieve our “ideal” weight—to lose just a few kilos or to drop a dress size.
For many people, weight gain due to (but not limited to) illness, medication, injury, or having had children is beyond their control. But for many of us, our drive to lose weight is perhaps born out of the realisation that our weight gain has imperceptibly taken hold in one way or another.
Now, maybe weight gain has happened as a consequence of life, and a few adjustments here and there are all that it takes to get back on track. Or perhaps weight gain is a result of using food as a coping mechanism—an emotional crutch that has helped us through life’s trickier moments. Certainly, an emotional reliance on food is the most common weight-related issue that is presented to me in my hypnotherapy practice.
This brings me to the crux of my thoughts around food, namely, the relationship we have with food and how we often use food to fulfill an emotional need or desire.
Recently, I saw an article that included a visual representation of grief. It was an entangled ball of wool interwoven with a myriad of painful emotions.
I realised that the array of emotions relating to food could be successfully depicted in a similar way.
In the above diagram that I’ve cobbled together, I’ve chosen some of the most common emotions that we attach to food.
Comfort is up there at the top when it comes to eating in excess or falling off the dieting wagon. In many ways, it is an umbrella term for some of the other feelings in the above illustration and more. When we’re looking to numb our feelings, we might seek comfort in food. When we’re bored, we might brighten our mood by eating something we enjoy.
Interestingly, recent research has discovered that many of the foods we turn to for emotional comfort contain substantial amounts of fatty acids. It is thought that these fatty acids have a direct effect on the parts of the brain that intensify or suppress emotion, and indeed, the researchers found that the people who received fatty acids through a feeding tube (Yes, that’s right! Through a feeding tube. Tasting the food wasn’t required!) reported reduced feelings of sadness. No wonder we turn to food when we are desperate to feel better or desperate to lessen the impact of intense and difficult emotions.
If one of the main drivers for overeating is comfort, then could the mindset of someone who chooses to limit their food intake be driven by the need to deprive feelings of comfort? Although I have personal experience of both undereating and overeating and am aware of the emotional differences, it only takes a quick search online to bring up the overriding traits that contribute to the excessive dieting mindset, which includes self-loathing, self-punishment, and wanting to disappear.
I know from my experience of being trapped in this mindset that these feelings are quite opposed to seeking comfort in the traditional sense of the word. I remember having overwhelming feelings of self-hatred, as I took it upon myself to inflict punishment on me for being me (purging is occasional in anorexia but more central to bulimia).
Nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems when it comes to food, however. We only have to look at one of the core beliefs of NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) to appreciate that all our actions, even perceived negative ones, have a positive intention. I clearly recollect thinking how much better I felt when I’d punished myself by not eating or purging (a kind of inverted comfort perhaps).
Control (or a lack of control) often features in our emotional eating habits. For some of us, the desire and emotional need for comfort food obliterates our ability to control our eating habits. Conversely, limiting food gives people the stringent control they are looking for. When we fall off the dieting wagon, we can experience feelings of failure, therefore increasing the desire for comfort or punishment (self-punishment drives both overeating and purging), or if we manage to control our eating, we can feel a real sense of achievement, strength, and success, which gives us the impetus to carry on. It’s easy to see how we end up on a slippery slope to eating too much or too little, and it’s all emotionally driven.
Some, if not all of the “benefits” listed on the ball of wool illustration, will span the entire spectrum of emotional eating and will play out in their own unique way. What is evident, however, is the huge emotional undercurrent that drives our eating habits and responses to food.
Also, we must not forget the Law of Reverse Effect.
If we tell a small child not to do something, what do they do? That’s right: they do it! It’s completely normal, and it’s how we’re biologically wired.
So what happens when we deny ourselves certain foods? I don’t need to tell you the answer.
What can we do about our emotional eating?
In very simple terms, our emotional minds are incredibly powerful, and they are fundamental to our survival and keeping us safe. For example, if as children we turned to something, such as eating chocolate, when experiencing difficult times, the emotional mind remembers that eating chocolate helped to make those moments more bearable so it prompts us to do it again. And it doesn’t just give us a quick nudge. Eventually, the feelings can be as overwhelming as a child screaming for something they want. Not an easy thing to ignore!
This is a big hurdle to get over. Of course, it can be done but not with traditional diets unless we have unshakeable willpower. Yes, traditional diets can help us to lose weight in the first instance, but they don’t sort out our minds. How many times do we hear people say that they’ve previously lost weight but put it all back on again? Eventually the biggie emotions will win through.
If you are a comfort eater, I urge you to look at what your mind is trying to tell you. What is the message behind your emotional eating? What needs healing? What’s troubling you in those moments of temptation around food? In emotional terms, what does eating or not eating do for you?
If you heal your mind and learn to reparent yourself with healthier and more nurturing responses to difficult emotions, you will begin to embrace a healthier relationship with food.