The Problem With Emotional Eating

Some of us eat for sustenance while others eat for pleasure. It’s safe to assume that those who see food as mere ballast to fill a hole are unlikely to read this blog.

‘Emotional eating’ is a term used in connection with obesity in a certain sort of women’s magazine, usually in articles up the back near the horoscopes. I’ve always found it a strange term, for a number of reasons.

So far as mainstream media is concerned, it would seem that only women suffer from this condition. There are thousands of articles on the internet for women who want to break free of a cycle of weight gain caused by their compulsion to eat to relieve stress or alleviate boredom and disaffection. Male obesity is a different matter altogether, with weight gain usually framed as having occurred ‘due an increasingly sedentary lifestyle’. In tune with our expectations about gender roles, the Journal of Applied Psychology found that women in a large study who were 11 kg below average weight took home an additional (US) $15,572 while men who were 11 kg below average weight earned less than their colleagues. The researchers commented:

“Perhaps the most startling finding of this investigation is that men and women experience opposite incentives regarding weight in the very thin to average weight range. Whereas women are punished for any weight gain, very thin women receive the most severe punishment for their first few pounds of weight gain. This finding is consistent with research showing that the media’s consistent depiction of an unrealistically thin female ideal leads people to see this ideal as normative, expected, and central to female attractiveness.”

Emotional eating is a problematic term on another level, as it conveys the idea that ‘emotions’ can only be negative and unattractive. That we would only eat prodigiously when things are bad. That emotion is valid as a pejorative term. Yet the spectrum of human emotion covers from deepest black to the brightest hues of happiness. And food can provoke or match a wide range of emotions too.

Think: when do we choose to eat good food and wine? For many people, they celebrate special occasions with food, a decent steak or a roast at home with a special bottle of wine and warm company, or a meal at a restaurant, where a team of chefs take the best produce and their professional techniques to present several courses of the finest food for our enjoyment. Such an occasion is one of happiness and pleasure that is recalled fondly at a later date. Photos are taken, mementos tucked away so that we can prolong the enjoyment and recount the highlights to our friends. A whole industry is built on this that now extends to television shows, books, blogs, licensing deals and merchandising rights. Photosharing sites like Instagram and Pinterest are vehicles to parade our gustatory conquests  to others and record our good taste in food and wine for posterity. Our desire to extend the enjoyment of good eating seems boundless. These occasions are emotional and eating is central to them.

Even at a base level of choosing our food, emotions are involved. All of us have likes and dislikes, favourite foods and others we reject or avoid due to how they taste or their texture – these foods provoke feelings or emotions and are often tied to our memories of some other time when we experienced the same food. Have you ever found yourself  thinking about that amazing holiday you had by the sea years ago while your eating dinner or thinking about hanging out with your Granny as a kid as you catch the scent of your neighbour’s rose garden? Or of the dive-y sharehouse you lived in on the cusp of adulthood after you’ve just discovered a rotten onion or potato in your kitchen? Our olfactory memory is strong, smells and by extension food and flavours can bring all sorts of thoughts and feelings about the past sharply into our consciousness.

How food makes you feel is central to the act of eating. Eating is by its nature emotional, even if that feeling is simply the contentment of being able to fill your belly.

So, dear reader (I know there are at least three of you), tell me about your emotional eating experiences.

2 thoughts on “The Problem With Emotional Eating”

  1. Thought provoking piece. Emotion is wrapped up in so much of what we do, and as you state emotions cover a spectrum ranging from deep darkness to radiant light.

    For me favourite eating experiences are inevitably the joyous monents of shared eating. Be they lavish meals at somewhere like The Louise in the Barossa; or simple ’round the table’ affairs, a large group of friends, lots of shared food, a much mirth.

    I do enjoy my food, but i have a terrible memory/ recollection for it. For example, that dinner at The Louise: I can remember the wines we shared, yet not the actual food consumed. But that’s just me.

  2. Well written post Keira. Being such a sensory experience, you can’t separate eating from emotions. You can’t separate anything we do from an emotional experience, reaction or attachment. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to enjoy, savour and celebrate great food and all that comes with it; the company, wine, stories and memories. Indeed, most of my most cherished memories feature food as a central theme. I have also indulged in emotional eating (and drinking) to suppress ‘negative’ emotions and food has served a very different purpose. I choose to celebrate it these days rather than use it as a means of self destruction.

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