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.