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Emotional Eating

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The weight loss clinic that I go to has the patients go through kind of a cognitive-behavioral component, where you examine your relationship with food. This week, I'm supposed to journal about emotional eating. Beware, this is a deep and unexplored territory for me, so this is probably going to be long. So here goes...

--One of the factors that I know makes me overeat is when I am worried that food is going to run out. I am always the first in line at a buffet, I take more than my share if food is left out for a group, like a treat in the faculty lounge, and I am constantly worried that restaurants will run out of my favorite dish (ridiculous, I know) or I won't get my fair share at a pot luck. I also get nervous when I'm going out and don't have food with me; I always try to keep some food in my car or my purse (and not good food, either--chips and candy bars for "just in case.") There's no rational reason why I'm afraid of scarcity; I was raised in a middle to upper class home, with plenty of food. A psychologist looking at this might point to the fact that I'm the youngest of seven, and as the little runt I was probably always trying to make sure I didn't get squeezed out. But that isn't really true, because most of my siblings were much older than I am and not even around when I was growing up, and there was plenty of food around (too much, in fact).

So, why this fear of food running out? I think I remember being a little kid and going into "food crisis" mood when I went several hours without eating; I'd get weak and shaky. My mom started carrying food around for me, especially when we went on trips, but she'd have to sneak it to me, because my dad thought I was being ridiculous--he's ex-army and liked to "pound, pound, pound" in his words--cover a lot of ground, not stop to eat, that kind of thing.

One thing I have to ask myself is, what would be the worst thing to have happen if I didn't have food with me? One of the books I'm reading suggests purposely going long stretches of time without food so that you can feel what REAL hunger feels like, since for so many overweight people, at the slightest sign of a little hunger pang we panic. I think that was true for me. It turns out it's not the worst thing in the world to get hungry, and I'm not going to keel over from it. Going this long on such a restricted diet should be teaching me that.

I was at a pot luck party recently, and of course my natural instinct would have been to pile up my plate right away so that I didn't miss out on anything. I wasn't going to eat anything then, though, so I had the opportunity to watch how other people behaved. Most people got to the party and sat around and talked for up to an hour before they even took any food! I couldn't believe it! The food sat untouched for at least 1/2 an hour, until a very overweight woman came and immediately headed for the food (that would have been me). She tried mostly everything, and went back for seconds and thirds and then continued grazing throughout the rest of the evening. I had my eye on her, because again that would have been me. She kept commenting on how good the food was and asking for recipes and you could tell the food was a big part of her experience at the party. The thin people didn't start to eat for a long time, when they did they took one plate, usually with only one or two foods on it instead of sampling everything, and then they were DONE! I couldn't believe it. They just stopped. You could tell that the experience itself--being there with friends--was the purpose of the party, instead of the food. Very interesting.

--I eat for comfort, because it brings me happiness. Two aspects to this: one is when I'm out and the other is when I'm in. When I'm out, I (used to) go out of my way to make stops that would incorporate food, and I would look forward to these outings. So if a friend wanted to get together, of course I would suggest going for dinner instead of a walk. Or if I needed to do grading, I do it at my favorite deli, where I could go back to get several different dishes throughout the 3-4 hour session. Or if I had to get gas, I'd stop at a convenience store where I could get a candy bar. Or if I was going to a movie, I'd look forward to the popcorn for hours beforehand. In this way, food both cushions the blow of having to do something unpleasant (grading) and enhances something that's already enjoyable (being with friends). It's amazing how I could work food into just about any trip out--taking my daughter to an early hockey practice meant stopping at McDonald's for an Egg McMuffin, going to a faculty meeting on another campus meant stopping at Dairy Queen on the way. These were my rituals, and I would look forward to them and plan my days around them. The ANTICIPATION of food was almost as good as the food itself.

When I stay in, I'd use food, too. Then, it was a comfort and a coziness. I'm someone who likes to be covered up and cozy. I usually have a blanket wrapped around me, I don't go anywhere without socks on, and I love soft, fuzzy fabrics. I think of food as being kind of like that. Watching a movie means finishing off a pint of Ben and Jerry's, a morning reading the paper means crepes, and a weekend at the cabin means I'm cooking all weekend (out of joy and love): blueberry muffins, asparagus and tomato frittata, and blueberry pancakes for breakfast; bruschetta, caprese salad, and open faced mozzarella sandwiches for lunch; and capellini pomodoro, , hot artichoke parmesan dip, garden risotto, and orzo with tomatoes and basil for dinner, with homemade ice cream every night. I love to cook--the process of it is very calming to me--but I also love to eat, because it's so synonymous to me of home, comfort, and coziness. A perfect weekend to me would be one spent at the cabin cooking and eating and curling up by the fire reading (and eating ice cream!)

It will be a very different world in which I don't plan trips out to include stopping for food, and when staying in doesn't not revolve around food. I guess I'm going to have to find other things to do with my time. But a weekend at the cabin that doesn't involve me cooking periodically throughout the day and us spending huge amounts of time eating feels very antiseptic and cold. Interesting.

--The legacy of my parents' attitudes toward food: first, my mother. I usually double or triple recipes because I'm worried that there won't be enough. This relates to the first point about being worried that I'll run out of food, but it also relates to the idea that food is love. My mom also always made tons and tons of food. She struggled with her weight her whole life, and I remember when I was in high school her saying to me, "When I was your age I weighed 115 pounds and I'm taller than you are." Needless to say, I didn't weigh 115 pounds when she said that to me. That sounds awful, but she really wasn't like some mothers who are competitive with their daughters over weight. But she had her own struggles, and she did a lot of yo-yoing. She had pretty crazy eating habits, that included cooking for the kids and then barely eating it, but then staying up late at night and grilling herself a steak or eating ice cream. She rarely exercised, either. But for her, food was love, so she'd make lots and lots of food, and the worst possible thing would have been if someone had left her table hungry or empty-handed. In fact, this was such a thing with her that it ended up in her obituary, and people at her memorial service mentioned the abundance of her table. She was a very generous person--you had to be careful not to say you liked something she was wearing, or she'd take it off and give it to you (literally!). And for her, food was love. I know I definitely got that from her.

On the other hand, when my dad was 38 (when I was 5), he lost about 150 pounds, and he has been one of those few who have kept it off. He eats a huge salad every night (and I do mean huge--it weighs about 10 pounds and he eats it out of a bowl that's enormous, like one of those huge, oversized popcorn bowls for a big group of people). He puts no dressing on it, and he eats no butter on his bread and basically almost no fat at all. When we go to restaurants, all he'll order is two salads without dressing and some dry toast and he'll tell the waiter that if they put butter on it and he eats it he'll end up flopping on the floor in a fit of convulsions (not true, obviously, but my dad's a character and that's what it takes to get servers to remember not to butter the bread, apparently). He often walks around with carrots sticking out of his breast pocket and he munches on veggies all day long. He believes in huge quantities but of low-or non-fat foods. He never eats sweets, and he will often make comments even now (and even more frequently when I was younger) like, "So, how many fat grams do you think is in that?" or he'll not-so-surreptitiously examine the labels of my foods and say, "Do you know how many of your daily fat grams this represents?" He's a real evangelist for Covert Bailey's Fit or Fat program. He also works out two hours a day--an hour of exercise biking in the morning, until he's all sweaty and gross (I remember having friends sleep over when I was a kid and how embarrassing it was when he'd come up from working out with his shirt off and with his heart rate monitor and sweat was dripping off him) and then an hour-long walk in the evening. He'd often try to guilt me into working out or coming on a walk with him. One of his favorite phrases was: "You can weigh within 1 to 2 pounds of any reasonable weight you want to weigh. You only have to decide that you want to do it." It's true, in the sense that he weighs about 150 pounds and has for the last 40 years (he's in his late 70s now). He has kept up the same food and exercise regimen that whole time, and he never varies it, never takes a day off (except when he's sick--but even on vacation he follows the routine and won't stay in a hotel without a fitness center). He's 100% disciplined, which obviously isn't the case for most people. I should say that my dad is one of the most fit people I know, he looks like he's under 60, he has a resting pulse rate of about 40 and his doctor says he's in better shape than almost all his other patients, so obviously he's doing something right!

So...lesson here being that you can see how I came to my all-or-nothing approach to food! My role models have definitely modeled that, both my mom who did it on a regular basis with her yo-yo dieting, overabundant food and then starvation diets and my dad with his extreme overweight-to-extreme fitness and an impossible model to live up to. Where was the moderation? Nowhere to be seen, that's for sure. I think that plays into my emotional eating, because in the past, when I've started losing weight, if it didn't go well or if I stumbled I would often throw in the towel and say, "Well, I screwed up. It's over. I might as well quit." Or if I got close to my goal but not all the way there, I'd say, "Well, it's no use, I can't get to 130 anyway" (and, interestingly, I'd berate myself subconsciously for 130 being so far from the "perfect" 115, that why even bother). Or, once I got fat, I'd say to myself, "Well, all hope is lost. I'm a fat person now, so I might as well enjoy it. I'm going to eat whatever I want."

A big part of my maintenance, I think, will be examining these attitudes and developing sane messages to counter them. I know I'm going to need to embrace moderation, although I think I'll also just have to cut out things that I know are such trigger foods that I just can't be moderate about them. And I'll have to find ways to make my life revolve around more than food. If you'd asked me two months ago what the most important thing in my life was besides my family, I definitely would have said food. It certainly was my most satisfying, constant, important source of pleasure. That's got to change. That's what I've realized from writing this, but what I don't know is how to change it. At least not yet.





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SYZYGY922 5/13/2012 4:38PM

    Wow, thanks for posting this. That story about your dad is interesting.

I have weird issues about food scarcity, too. I don't understand it either. I'm also always first to the snack table at a party, but that's something I'm working on. I was at a board game night at my best friend's house last week, and we had treats on the table while we were playing games. I had to ask people to move the foods away from me because I kept reaching for food and I wasn't even hungry. Changing these behaviors is going to take some work!

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BARBAJMATTHEWS 5/13/2012 10:10AM

    Thanks so much for sharing. I think it's a little overwhelming when we really comprehend how important food is to us overeaters. The amount of change that is required to lead healthy lives is huge. It's not just a few months or a year of dieting, it means changing where we draw our comfort, how we express love, how we spend our leisure time. I applaud your efforts to examine your feelings around food and I look forward to hearing more about your journey of change, of finding moderation.

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ALMONDFACE 5/12/2012 11:47AM

    Thanks for sharing your story. While reading your story I felt like crying. I have been planning my life around food too and I think I have been doing that to my children. I am so disgusted at myself right now. I am going to change for my kids and for myself. Thank you for sharing. emoticon

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