The Beggars’ Banquet: Emotional Eating

I’m kind of sick of the phrase “emotional eating” getting bandied about like it’s the worst sin you could possibly commit against your health.
I grew up in a home in which both of my parents were busy and overcommitted, but my mother still cooked dinner at least six nights every week, because that was, to her, one of the best ways she could nourish us and show us that she cared about our health. Food was a message of familial love and devotion to one another’s well-being. My mother considered teaching me to cook to be one of the greatest gifts she could give me – and it absolutely has been.

I won a church picnic dessert contest when I was in elementary school with a pecan pie I baked all by myself, and pretty much since then making food has been a source of pride and a labor of deep care for me. Because I do it relatively well – I haven’t had too many “Oh my god, we can’t eat this” incidences with the people I’ve served food to – it’s an activity from which I can derive a lot of pride, a lot of pleasure, a lot of satisfaction that I’m doing something capably and with flair. And of course I eat the fruits of my labors. I emotionally eat those fruits – with pleasure and relief. “I did it again,” I think. It’s always a small miracle to me that this is something I do so well. When I feel like a failure at everything else, still there are ingredients, pots, pans, burners, and at the end, a sigh of great satisfaction.

Too, when someone else goes to the trouble of making me something to eat, I eat it emotionally: with gratitude, and with so, so much affection for that person. After a perfunctory but no less painful breakup a few years ago, a friend came to pick me up from work with cornbread and homemade butternut squash soup, and she took me home, heated up these treasures, and fed me while I started to feel better about life in general. At Christmas, when neighbors deliver trays of the perfunctory Russian Tea Cookies and Gingerbread Men and sugar cookies decorated with colorful icing or sprinkles, I feel a burst of warmth for these people who, frankly, I hardly give a thought to the rest of the year long. Food as a gift means forethought, care, consideration, and inclusion.

And when I’m troubled, stressed, depressed, or angry, I eat to help with that, too. I treat myself to something I wouldn’t normally eat (something really fatty and delicious), and it reminds me that I am worth the extra effort I can spend on myself to feel good. It reminds me that I deserve a delicious life, that my spirit might be starving but that my body will be indulged until these things can right themselves. This might not be the key to a slim figure, but… for goodness’ sake, which is more important? Your emotional survival or your so-called bikini body? If my choice is to give myself the brownie and calm my hiccuping tears long enough to get a grip on my own self-worth and give myself a chance to pick myself up and start over again, or eat the salad and continue to feel like an emotional wreck, then give me the damn brownie, thank you.

I’m not saying that I advocate the kind of binge eating that shuts your emotions off entirely: I’ve done that to deal with depression, too, but I think that’s the opposite of what I’m talking about. I think that’s unemotional eating, and I think it’s dangerous for two reasons: one, it doesn’t really satisfy the issue at hand, and two, I think that people who live in their emotions, feel them truly and deeply, and work with and through them are really powerful people. I think using a good thing – food – that nourishes us and can give rise to some wonderful emotions as an emotional anesthetic is misusing food. We lose its power. But let’s not lambast emotional eating. Eating emotionally, in my experience, has the power to give us the most food can give us: not just physical strength and nourishment, but emotional sustenance too.

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Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

16 thoughts on “The Beggars’ Banquet: Emotional Eating”

  1. Yes to all of this. As we speak, I’m stress eating peppermint patty’s at work ( they are delicious and somehow keep me from straight up flippin over desks, cursin ,quittin and gettin the police called on my ass. I dont know what it is, but I cant eat 13 in a row, no qualms.

    But when I think of emotional eating, I think of when I’m attached to food, when I feel good about eating – savoring every last bite. One of the strongest memories I have is eating crabs I caught with my mother and grandmother. It brings a strong response and every time I go home and eat crabs, which is rare, I relieve this experience. To boot, my mother who has struggled with disordered eating all her life : one of the happiest times I had ever seen her, I mean not just “happy” but ecstasy happy, was eating a batch of french fries. She savored it, she loved it and she loved the way she felt eating them. That to me is emotional eating, when its an act of love and happiness.

  2. I think food can be fuel, food can be an emotional eating experience and food can be pleasure . When I am hunched over my desk eating plain steel cut oats, it’s most definitely just fuel to get me through my day. When I get home start chopping away, turn on some music and sip wine or a michilada while I make enchiladas for my boyfriend it’s an experience that gives me pleasure. When I am stressed, angry or sad I lose my appetite.

    I think that the term emotional eating and how most people define it is different than trying to express the act of eating for emotions we would describe as positive. Even if you take issue with the term emotional eating being appropriated to mean eating to avoid some unwanted emotions, I think a different term should be used for eating for pleasure or gratitude .

  3. I always viewed emotional eating as eating to avoid unwanted emotions, so maybe there should be another label for what you’re describing even though I don’t hold much stock in labels. It’s the behaviors and the motivations that interest me. I love food, love to eat and love to cook. The thing is I was raised in a home where I was told I didn’t deserve love, was not worthy of love and was in fact unlovable. So it’s pretty much no wonder that I’d develop the awful habit of denying myself what I loved and also at times rewarding myself with the things I loved, but it was never for any good reason. It was just a bad coping mechanism. Slim body, fat body, never much mattered to me because its what I felt that mattered. And I spent a lot of my adult years feeling unworthy which made it pretty hard to enjoy a nice slice of cake without also feeling guilty, ya know?

  4. Great take on food. Very interesting and good–dare I say it–food for thought. *cymbal clash* In Chinese and Japanese the traditional greeting for hello was “Have you eaten today/yet?”

    Food is an object we can control. I believe we indulge as a reminder to stay alive, a sort of survival tactic. When we refuse to eat I believe our bodies and minds are cut off from each other. Not eating is a form of the mind saying we’re not in control of ourselves, so let’s not eat in case we ingest something harmful. Is that kooky?

    1. Not even a little bit. Many of the people I’ve known who’ve suffered from disordered eating often found that their most tempting times (particularly for anorexics) were when they felt out of control in their lives, because limiting food was something they felt they COULD control.

      I think it’s sad when we think we are controlling food. So often it ends up that really, our relationship to food – when it’s broken – is what’s controlling us, instead.

  5. *applauds*
    This is great. IMO, unemotional eating is exactly what’s wrong with how Americans (generally) eat. If we don’t have an emotional attachment to our food and simply think of it as fuel, we don’t think about where it came from, or what it will do to our bodies. It makes me so sad when people deny themselves such a basic pleasure to please the gaze of others. It sounds like such a miserable existence.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree. And I don’t think that “emotional eating” has to equal “eating a lot,” either. I think when I eat with my emotions really tuned into my food, and all of the factors that surround it in my life, I eat just the right amount for me. Sometimes that’s a lot, sometimes that’s a little. I think it all balances out in the end.

  6. I love this! In many ways I guess ’emotional eating’ is kind of a misleading term. I think maybe, at least in my experience, eating in a way that brings on strong emotions is a great thing. Eating to distract from emotions, or to suppress emotions – that’s the unhealthy way to eat.

    It always makes me so angry when weight-loss tv shows (which I know I shouldn’t watch) talk about how food is only fuel. Food is so much more than fuel. To reduce it to fuel is to deny the eater some of the most basic aspects of the human experience. In many cultures food is associated with family and community – feelings of love, acceptance, comfort. My mother’s chicken soup, made at the express request of her daughters, isn’t fuel; it’s love and affection and a link to tradition. The brown bread that I bake reminds me of home. And, frankly, food is also pleasurable. At the extreme end of that, it’s basically unbridled joy; I am totally unashamed to admit I was once moved almost to tears by a white truffle risotto!

    1. Yes, exactly! I think the reason these weight loss programs phrase things like that is because there is a myth that fat people are obsessed with food, so if they’re ENJOYING food, that must be why they’re fat, and of course fat is bad. (Bleh.) They take something beautiful and joy-giving and reduce it to a scientific survival tactic.

      I don’t want to just survive with my food. I want to thrive with it.

    2. Food is so much more than fuel. To reduce it to fuel is to deny the eater some of the most basic aspects of the human experience. In many cultures food is associated with family and community – feelings of love, acceptance, comfort.

      So true. I’ve felt the most loved when my mother was feeding me, and the most pain when she was lambasting me for wanting her food . . . for her wanting her love, which is how I viewed it. After all that was pretty much her only expression of love, to feed us and she used that as a weapon, too. I guess that’s the ugly side of it.

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