This is the second in a series exploring emotional eating, overeating, and compulsive/binge eating.
When Did Emotional Eating Begin For You?
Do you struggle with emotional eating? Do you find yourself turning to food on a regular basis when you’re not physically hungry? We all emotionally eat from time to time. It becomes problematic however, when turning to food or restricting food becomes your primary pattern of coping. For some people, this feels like a relationship. A relationship with something consistent, pleasurable, loving, comforting, soothing, while also being painful.
Emotional eaters often blame themselves for their “lack of willpower” or may simply feel either in control of food or out of control with food, a sort of black and white relationship with food. The reality is that your relationship with food is very complex. So many factors contribute to cravings, feeling satisfied, recognizing and feeling hunger and fullness and maintaining the middle ground in your relationship with food. Many of these factors we are often completely unaware of.
I find that it can be very helpful to begin to explore these factors by looking at your history. When you recognize how your past history has influenced your relationship with food you will have a better understanding of what to do to heal. You’ll also be validating your story rather than chastising yourself for not doing it right.
Some people may find that food was an issue in their family home, while for others it may not have been at all. Some may find that they were rewarded for “good” food behavior. For example, “she’s a good eater,” “she cleans her plate unlike so and so.” Others may find that food was restricted in a less obvious way, such as not having desserts in the home. And for many people, food was love, celebration, sadness, grief, the all-occasion connector. So let’s take some time to explore the history of your relationship with food.
Family of Origin Impact on Emotional Eating:
Overeating or restricting food (dieting) can be a way of coping with uncomfortable or unpleasant emotional states or expressing an emotion. To begin your exploration, consider how emotion was handled or expressed in your family of origin and how that may have impacted you. Following are some common experiences that can lead to the development of emotional eating as a coping strategy. By no means is this list exhaustive nor does any of it need to apply to you. Various experiences in our lives can trigger emotional eating behavior.
- Was love expressed through food, meals, and snacks? When family gets together, do they talk about what they’re going to eat, cook, or have for dessert? We all want to feel loved. If you have an association between love and food, you’re naturally going to be triggered for food when you aren’t feeling connected or need soothing.
- Were emotions not talked about, labeled or noticed in your family? Even if your childhood was loving and kind, we all experience emotions. It’s a natural part of being human. Adults learn to push emotions aside whether because they are too painful, or simply don’t have the skills. Children, however, are aware that something is going on. When those emotions aren’t labeled, the child learns that emotions aren’t safe, that he/she is wrong, or that emotions are too overwhelming. As an adult this can lead to using food to push emotions away.
- Was your house volatile, turbulent or chaotic due to someone’s anger, bullying, abuse, or disapproval? If your environment felt unsafe due to excessive anger, restricting or overeating food may be a way to avoid confrontation and feel control when things feel emotionally out of control. You may also experience most strong emotions as too intense or painful.
- Were you neglected as a child whether physically or emotionally, or as a by-product of an illness, caregivers who had to work long hours, or mental illness such as depression or alcoholism? When needs aren’t met, we look for other ways to meet those needs. One of the readily available things to children and teenagers is food. Is food a way of meeting your needs now in the present? Do you find yourself feeling as if you “deserve” to eat, or that food is a reward?
- Did your family have high standards for you? Sometimes a way of rebelling against the high standards of others is to “eat” at them, whether in secret or not. Determining your own relationship with food can be a way of having control over something all your own or asserting your independence over an area of your life. Does your relationship with food feel rebellious at times?
- Did you have limits or were your caregivers overly permissive? When caregivers are overly permissive and don’t set limits, it can be very difficult to know when is enough or how to have healthy limits with yourself.
What were your family’s rules and expectations around food, if any? Family members often send different messages about body image and food. What were the messages sent to you? Well-meaning parents might also raise their kids with nutrition rules about what’s ok and not ok to eat. It’s important to get a sense of these rules and how rigid they were implemented. Understanding the importance these messages have had on your own body image and eating patterns can be a first step to transforming some of your own self-messages.
Consider the following:
- What were mealtimes like in your family? Also consider whether any tension was present at mealtimes, this can be a powerful negative association between tension and food.
- What were your family’s messages about thin people, heavy people or your body? Did you hear comments or criticisms by your caregivers of their own bodies or other people’s bodies?
- Were you expected to eat everything on your plate?
- Was your weight ever monitored?
- Did any of your family members go on a diet?
Diet History and Emotional Eating:
Overeating or bingeing on food often first begins after a period of restriction or dieting. The restriction is what triggers the pendulum to swing in the opposite direction. Take some time to evaluate your history with dieting and how it may have triggered your first experiences with feeling out of control with food. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- How old were you when you went on your first diet (and each subsequent one)?
- What triggered you starting the diet?
- How long did the diet last?
- How much weight did you lose?
- How long did you maintain the weight loss?
- Did your first diet feel effortless, easy?
- What was the longest period of time that you sustained a weight loss from dieting?
- Does dieting feel harder now, both mentally and physically?
When answering the questions above regarding your diet history, do any patterns stand out to you? How has dieting interfered with your life? Consider the physical impact of dieting such as increased cravings, especially for “forbidden foods”, or a sluggish metabolism. Consider the social impact such as eating differently, avoiding social events, or worrying about what people think of your eating. Consider the psychological impact such as constant food worry, feelings of deprivation, strict food rules, or shame about your eating habits. Finally, consider the behavioral consequences such as binge eating or overeating, skipping meals, “sneaking” foods, or eating more food when stressed.
Review your responses and see if restricting or limiting food in some way in the past contributes to your relationship with food today. You might find that you resist all limits on food because someone else thought you should be on a diet or look a certain way. It may not necessarily be your own actual experience of dieting, but the threat or disapproval of someone else that triggers a rebellious, “I’ll show you” eating style. Research shows that when food is restricted, it increases our preoccupation with it. Research also shows that “I won’t” doesn’t work with our inner world of thoughts and emotions. If you say to yourself, I won’t be tempted by chocolate, it can actually trigger an increased craving and overeating of chocolate.
Other Life Situations That May Have Triggered Emotional Eating
When do you first recall thinking about food more than usual? When do you first remember using food for a reason other than hunger and usual celebratory reasons? Consider these points in your life and review what events may have been occurring prior. You may even look over a year prior as some situations trigger a trauma response, which can be delayed. For other situations, it’s a repeated negative experience that ultimately becomes troubling. Examples to consider include:
- Bullying, feeling of “differentness”, loneliness or not belonging with other peers.
- Major life changes such as moving, parent’s divorce, new family member.
- Experiencing trauma of any sort.
- Being teased about your body, weight, or other aspect of self.
The point of exploring your food history is to begin to identify the roots of your relationship with food. Often, they are much deeper than many people realize. Fortunately, neuroplasticity tells us that our brains can change. However, to really change your relationship with food it may mean that you’ll need to address the roots of your emotional eating and not just the behaviors themselves.
Rachel Eddins is a therapist in Houston specializing in working with emotional overeating, compulsive eating and binge eating. For help overcoming emotional eating and learning a new way of being in your life, join our 12-week overeating group program. The program will guide you step by step on how to finally make peace with food and start living the life you crave.