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Eating with Emotion

Posted Jul 08 2010 7:18pm

In the last few days, my highly intelligent friend and blog reader Elizabeth and I have been having some back and forth about a post I wrote in October, entitled “What Food is Not.” At the time, I liked the post a lot. I wrote it as a response to the many readers who have emailed about overeating and binge eating, and the jist of my argument was that we can’t look to food to satisfy all of our deeper needs for love and fulfillment.

In context, I think I made some good points. But back when I wrote the post, Elizabeth pointed out that the blog may not have given enough thought to the spiritual joys of eating. And she was right: in arguing that food can’t be our be all and end all, I think I inadvertently made it sound as though I don’t believe food offers us anything but macronutrients and calories. Food is nourishment for the body, yes, but it’s also a sensual pleasure, a source of communion between people, an expression of artistry, and much more. Food bloggers know this better than most people!

We can’t look to food as a substitute for human love, or as a stand-in for professional fulfillment, or as our sole source of contentment. Fixating on each morsel of what we eat, rather than going into the world and seeking out good friends, interesting work, and fulfilling experience, strikes me as unwise, and it reminds me of the obsessive, socially isolated mentality that often characterizes disordered eating.

But my post also missed something important, which is that food is more than the sum of its vitamins and minerals. And when the food we eat is nourishing (not only nutritionally, but spiritually), it gives us the energy we need to go out looking for all that other stuff — the friends, the work, the experience. Food may not be everything, but it is a whole heck of a lot, and divesting it of importance is as foolish as obsessing over it. Like so many things, it’s a balancing act.

This dialogue was fresh in my mind when I read Christie’s recent post on emotional eating. The post, which bravely aimed to de-stigmatize the behaviors we call “emotional eating” struck a chord with me, especially in light of these recent musings. I realized as I read Christie’s wise words that I actually dislike the term “emotional eating,” simply because it seems to suggest that eating with emotion is bad. If that’s so, then I’m a terrible eater. I eat with plenty of emotion. I eat with joy. I eat with anticipation. I eat with curiosity, both from a foodie standpoint (what’s in this? how was it made?) and a nutritional standpoint (what’s in this? how does our body use it for energy?). I eat in the hopes that what I eat will give me comfort and pleasure.

I don’t think this is the same as the “emotional eating” that has become a catchall phrase to describe binge eating, mindless eating, and eating out of depression. Those aren’t my particular tendencies (though I did spend my pre-adult life restricting food for all of those reasons, which seems like an inversion of the same predispositions). But does the fact that I don’t eat to combat loneliness or boredom mean I’m an unemotional eater? Hardly. I’m one of the most emotional eaters I know, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Each time I sit down to a meal, I thank my lucky stars that I can muster up a wide range of positive feelings. I spent many long years eating with listless apathy, or not at all. And when I did eat, it was with fear, resentment, and mistrust. Each and every positive emotion I bring to eating now is a reminder of how radically my approach to food has changed. Thank god I can finally accept the many wonderful emotions that eating can evoke.

There’s a good argument to be made that, for recovering anorexics and bulimics, it’s important to put food in a proportionate place. “Eat to live, not live to eat,” and so on. I understand this, and in fact I’ve advised certain readers of mine to take breaks from food blog reading when they feel that the food fixation is taking over. Part of recovery, at least as I experienced it, was learning to diminish my own obsession with eating/not eating, and learn to re-prioritize relationships, socializing, and work.

Yet I would never claim that I let go of the food obsession altogether. I didn’t. I’ve simply transformed it into a source of positivity, rather than torment. Food plays an enormous–possibly abnormally large–role in my life. It certainly isn’t everything to me, but it is a great deal. And I don’t think this will ever change. Given a choice, I don’t think I’d want it to change. Yes, I’ve seen the ugly consequences of food obsession. But I also know that giving consideration and care to the things we eat enriches the human experience. So I’m proud to eat with emotion, to make each meal intense and celebratory.

Perhaps we need to refine our understanding of “emotional eating” to specify the types of emotions involved and their origins, rather than the presence of emotion itself. What do you think? Do you eat with emotion? How important is food and eating in your life, and do you think this is positive or a negative? How do we negotiate between awarding food too much significance, and trying to divest it of its worth?

As usual, I didn’t mean to write a dissertation, and then–pscyh!–I did. It just goes to show you how wonderful it is to be engaged in smart dialogs with smart people.


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