Life is full of ups, downs, twists and turns. Joy, sadness, anxiety, and generalized angst – emotions can be intense. At times, food seems like an easy fix.
From the moment you scraped your knee learning to ride a bike and mom made it all better with a bowl of ice cream, you learned the soothing power of food. Or maybe you watched dad numb out in front of the TV with a can of beer and a bowl of chips. Many of us were taught from an early age that food is the ultimate comforter.
As adults, how do we discover the joy and comfort of food while also keeping our eyes fixed on the Ultimate Comforter, our Heavenly Father? God created all of these intense feelings – emotions that serve a purpose. They help us navigate the world, make decisions and they are a side effect of human connection. He also gave us many ways to cope with these emotions including a direct path to share our joys and frustrations with Him.
And He gave us food – glorious and delicious food with amazing textures, flavors and colors. Food has been bringing us together for thousands of years, even before Oreos were invented. From an early age, we learned that food is love. Eating comforts and consoles. Sharing a meal together is one of the many ways we can celebrate our unique cultures.
It’s no wonder, really, that we turn to food during emotional distress. It rarely disappoints and it’s always there. Food requires all our senses and rekindles childhood memories, sometimes even unconsciously. Thanks to culinary and food science geniuses, simple food regulation systems the Lord put in our bodies (hunger and fullness cues) somehow get complex when emotions are thrown into the mix.
If you’re someone who turns to food to fix, you can stop beating yourself up for that. Biological factors are at play. Our bodies naturally feel drawn to fat and sugar because that’s how our ancestors survived thousands of years filled with famines.
Plus, the shame game does nothing to put an end to the cycle. Instead of making yourself feel bad for an emotion-driven eating experience, get curious. Explore patterns, trends, and feelings with non-judgment and self-compassion. Take each eating experience as just that – an experience. Learn, grow, re-adjust, if you find there’s something that isn’t working for you. Let the Lord convict your heart where eating may be a stronghold, but refuse to live in condemnation. Say Romans 8:1-2 out loud and boldly!
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death.
You’d think that a personalized guilt trip would make you want to swear off eating altogether, right? It just doesn’t seem to work that way. Beating yourself up for eating more than you planned, or restricting food and denying cravings to “make up” for overeating almost always backfires in the long run. It actually feeds the cycle (pun intended).
Emotional triggers for eating look different for everyone. For some, there’s an urge to eat in the absence of hunger – a bowl of potato chips at a party along with some social anxiety, and before you know it, the bowl is empty. For others, eating episodes begin due to hunger, but it’s the stopping part that’s hard because emotions get all tangled up in there. Throw in some major distractor like the TV or your phone, and you might just completely miss the food and the feelings completely. All you know is the plate is empty and you’re pretty sure aliens came down and snatched the crackers and cheese from right under your nose.
Another tricky piece of the emotional eating puzzle is the role of cravings. Enjoying a warm delicious brownie or two after a savory dinner isn’t the same thing as using food to sooth an emotion. Eating dessert is usually just satisfying a craving that often hits after a savory meal. It’s honoring and respecting your taste buds as an important part of your body and enjoying food.
You know that emotions are at play when, after eating dessert slowly and deliberately, savoring every bite, it feels like it’s just not enough, and you’re pretty sure you need six more. On some days a few more brownies might just be a response to nothing more than an intense craving. It’s pretty normal to eat several of whatever just came out of the oven, fresh, gooey, and warm.
On other days, you may notice that what started off as responding to a craving, turned into an emotionally charged eating experience. You enjoyed that dessert slowly and intentionally, savoring each delicious bite, and you still have an insatiable desire for more. What’s the deal?
It’s possible you’re either experiencing the desire to sooth an emotion with food or you’re responding to a self-prescribed guilt trip of eating that food. See, what happens when you experience guilt with eating is that you start believing you should never enjoy that food again, and that fear of scarcity actually makes you eat more than you’re hungry for. Therefore, the simple act of not labeling food as “bad” or yourself as “bad” for eating certain foods is a total game changer in the realm of food and feelings.
Numbing out on food is another common way to cope with feelings. Similar to a Netflix binge, a food binge provides an escape route. Life feels heavy and hard, so dull the pain with a food escape. Numb out to keep from feeling. Intentionally zone out while eating because doing so sooths the pain. If this is your go-to food fix, consider meeting with a food therapist to unpack what might be going on. If you experience a “numbing out” while eating or habitual compulsive overeating a disordered eating specialist (or a BodyBLoved counselor) could help you explore these complex patterns in a non-judgmental, compassionate way. Don't just assume that you're a glutton though...we've discussed that here.
Who knew food and feelings could be so complex? We’re bringing these common eating thoughts and patterns into the light in this 2-part blog series. Awareness and non-judgment are the key to creating new patterns. Don’t be afraid to dig around and explore those complex feelings towards food. Ponder, pray, and pursue food peace. You never know what truths might unfold.
Body positive blogs are inspiring, but sometimes it might not be enough. We get that! You might want something more. An expert to walk along side you in your journey towards body respect and food peace. We've got you covered. Sign up for a free "pre-consultation" to see if working with one of our registered dietitians doing faith-based nutrition counseling is right for you.
Dawn is an Associate Professor of Nutrition and a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She is a wife and a mother to an amazing 11-year old boy. Dawn enjoys finding creative ways to spread the word that God’s unconditional love can bring healing to every broken relationship, including one with food.