Eating with Emotion
July 8, 2010

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 stripping 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 my meals intense and celebratory whenever I can.

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.

XO

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    55 Comments
  1. I used to have an eating disorder, too, like you. I could only think of the food I was going to eat and even shaping my social life around it. It was an obsession that was taking the control of my life. Now, however, I look at it as an action that is needed to keep me alive but I try to make the most of it by enjoying every bite I take. My mother and father look at me with awe, wondering how much a person can enjoy eating healthy food rather than junk food. That “healthy food” satisfies me more than any junk food I would eat. Even though I am not a vegan, I sometimes make vegan things and appreciate your recipes. Never lose the feeling of content when you are eating real food because life is better when you are mindful!

  2. Great article! A very well written and detailed look at how emotion influences eating and vice versa. So often many of my patients realize their emotional attachment to food when they start making healthier changes. I do really like how you made light of the positive emotional influence that food can have. As a health and wellness expert, that perspective is often overlooked. Cheers!

  3. Great article. We are emotional creatures and emotions can be positive or negative. We have a choice to eat positively and enjoy eating. I and my friends love coming together for good food good wine and a good conversation. I believe we should try to make food a pleasure not a substitute. This article has brought in to the open issues we women have thought to ourselves for a very long time.

  4. I finally got to read this! Great post!! I stopped my overeating issues by asking myself “What is this food substituting for me?” Then when I realize why I am really eating the food doesn’t seem appealing. Great topic, thanks for writing this.

  5. This is such a great perspective on the topic, Gena. As someone who is an “emotional eater,” it’s nice to recognize that yes, there are positive emotions associated with the act of eating sometimes as well. I agree with Matt, above–life without food might seem devoid of emotion to a great extent. On the other hand, those of us who tend to eat to assuage negative feelings need to learn that emotion can exist independently of food, too.

  6. Ah eating with emotions…yes I do that too. I experience all types of emotions when I eat. Some of it good, but I do tend to feel bad or angry when I eat, which I am trying to learn to stop and breathe when these moments happen. I love food. I love eating food. And I am grateful that I have learned how to eat to nourish me.

  7. reat post Gena. I”m new to this blog in the interest of exploring and learning more about the benefits and joys of eating raw vegan food. A new adventure and one I’m loving so far….

    Food is and always has been a VERY important part of my life and my identity, basically, my story and I think that’s true for everyone. I’m convinced that food is essentially a spiritual thing, which of course, is why it has the ability to exert such power in our lives, for better or worse. Think of the ways we describe and interact with food and you will see that we talk of spiritual things: nourishment, beauty, abundance, life-giving, communion, fellowship, sharing, joy, hospitality, pleasure, comfort, compassion, mercy OR, to look at the other side of the coin, obsession, control, shame, anxiety, sadness, scarcity, hunger, destruction.

    Food as a pure physical form is just cells and atoms and minerals and vitamins and other stuff. It’s neither good nor bad, it just is. It doesn’t possess any innate ability or tendency to give comfort, pleasure, shame or anxiety any more than the sun “means” to grow seedlings or a tornado “means” to destroy the things in its path. No, it’s our stories that give food meaning in our lives.

    Like everyone, my food story began the day I was born! Still, my first real awareness about food came at a young age as I helped Dad in the garden, then ate those tomatoes, cucumbers and squash 30 minutes later at our dinner table along with the sweet corn, fried chicken and biscuits that revealed my father’s southern heritage and my mother’s talent in the kitchen. We ate lots of different foods and cuisines – Mom was brilliant and cutting edge in the kitchen; no Hamburger Helper for us! – but to this day the sight of a fresh tomato never fails to bring back the messy delights of the last bite of biscuit soaked in tomato juice, salty butter from the corn and gravy from the chicken and those summer days growing up in central CT.

    Food was always a big deal to my family and it still is. We love to cook and we love to eat, in fact, we’ll go out of our way to find a reason to do so. It’s one of our ways of celebrating life’s goodness and the table was where we connected. Even in my teenage years, I rarely missed dinner with my family, even with basketball games, dances and play practices sometimes rushing us through. It’s where we learned to pray, to give thanks and say “please” and “thank you”, or to say nothing at all. We learned our place at the table, We learned science, adventure and good taste there as well, that table being the board upon which my mother laid her experiments with aspic, liver and frog’s legs (they DID taste like chicken)! And it was there all our children learned of their parents’ youthful “monkey business”, the times their grandfather spent at an orphanage during his service in the Korean war, or their grandmother’s misadventures with her childhood friend Maxine that usually ended in broken bones or a grounding.

    We learned who we were at our table, and somehow with every meal we eat together, we learn yet again. I can’t even see how it’s possible to NOT eat (and garden and cook!) with emotion! It’s like trying to sail without any wind!

    I think we need to tell and understand our stories around food – good and bad. And some of us might need to examine those stories and try to understand if the story we were told, or the story we told ourselves, is really true?

    Here’s what I mean: I find it extremely telling that in the creation story in the Book of Genesis in the Bible, that mankind’s temptation and fall pivots on the offering of one little piece of fruit. In this story, one little piece of fruit and some clever and manipulative words call into question the very nature of the universe and the truth about God’s heart and love towards us. Is he holding out on us? Can we really believe in the abundance all around us? Can we trust him? Or are we really alone? Regardless of one’s religious beliefs (or whether one has any at all) this story holds a great deal of wisdom for us. It shows us that stories are very powerful. God tells one story, the snake changes a tiny detail and the garden is lost on a question that still echoes loudly in the hearts or all humanity.

    Well….sorry to be so long-winded, I just love this subject. Thanks for posting.

  8. Food has always been a big part of my life and family. I genuinely enjoy all aspects of it, from where it grows in nature to the art of cooking and preparing it. Like many others I’ve had a disordered relationship with (over)eating all of my life, but in the past few years I have been retraining myself to use food for medicinal purposes as well as enjoying it for social and spiritual reasons. Now that I focus on real foods in reasonable proportions (most of the time, not always), it’s been much easier to balance, but it’s still hard. I’ve learned to coexist with all of my choices, good and bad, and I’m finally at peace with myself… and my food. 🙂

    Jenn

  9. Very nice post, Gena. Eating with emotion is, without a doubt, a natural, positive thing. Food SHOULD comfort us—our survival depends on eating, so it’s not surprising that we should feel positive emotions, beyond just physical satisfaction, when we eat.

    The interesting thing, for me, is just how powerful these emotions are. I tried to do a 7-day juice cleanse (and since talking to you I’m rethinking the reasons for doing so), but I only made it 2 days. Not because of physical hunger, but because life felt so devoid of feeling without food. And I was the last person I’d ever expect to feel this way, since I’ve never had anything even close to a weight problem or an eating disorder—if anything, I have trouble eating enough food.

    Finally, I did notice that without food I was forced to face emotions that I’d otherwise have distracted myself from by eating. I’m not sure where I stand on whether this is good or bad. Perhaps this is part of the purpose of food. Perhaps not. I believe there’s a lot to be learned about oneself by trying to face these emotions without relying on food, but it doesn’t seem like a cleanse is the way to do so.

    • Thanks so much for a great comment, Matt.

      I definitely believe that it’s essential to explore the emotions that we sometimes suppress with food and eating. But is NOT eating the answer? I don’t think so. I think the key is to stop and pause when one runs to food or snacking as a means of avoiding anxiety or sadness. In other words, treat the issue moment by moment. When you feel a tough emotion and you’re tempted to fix it with a bar of chocolate or simply by overeating, work to overcome that particular impulse: call a friend instead, and hash it out.

      But I don’t think wholesale avoidance of food is the answer. I don’t think it’s the way to break the food/mood circuit, or to get at those deep emotions. When your fast is done (if you don’t crash and burn because of the low caloric intake), you’ll still be left with those same tendencies. And you’ll have to face them, sooner or later, right?

  10. Yes, yes, yes! I’m nodding in agreement to everything in this post. I thought of this when you wrote your first post. Can there be a happy balance? Is eating because of emotion different than eating with emotion and enjoying food, and loving the experience of eating? Well yes I think there can be!! I used to eat from emotion, to fulfill a “hunger” or to quell anxiety. The enjoyment I got from eating in that state was more of a “fix”. Now, I eat because I’m truly hungry, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy food, it’s tastes, colors, textures. While I may still enjoy food more than the ordinary person it now comes from a place of appreciation for the gifts the earth gives us. Like Katie said above there is quite the difference between eating out of emotion and eating with emotion.

  11. I love how you turned this term around. When I don’t pay attention to what I eat, then I make pour choices. I think being more emotional and more involved in what I eat makes me a better eater. I try to eat with intelligence, compassion, and passion.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  12. I read your blog religiously and have only commented once. However, seeing as you’ve started a very interesting discussion I have to add my two cents. I think so many of us are commenting on this post because emotional eating, however you want to define it, affects us all. I also had an eating disorder when I was a teenager and I think that is when my intimate relationship with food started. About ten years later I am in my mid twenties and that relationship is still intimate but constructive instead of destructive. I think about food and spend more time preparing it than the average person but then again I think there are few things more important in life than what we fuel our bodies with. If we are what we eat I don’t want my body to build and repair itself with most foods in the Standard American Diet. I am guilty of eating out of emotion instead of with it but I think that as long as that behavior is kept under control and that the food being enjoyed at the time is nutritious it is not the end of the world. Guilt is toxic so we really need to be more compassionate with ourselves. As for people who advocate for eating without emotion, I think they are setting themselves up for a sadder existence. Why would I choose to rid myself of such a wonderful feeling? Lastly, as one of the other comments pointed out, cultures that have strong traditions that revolve around food and that make an event of meal times are generally healthier and have a more balanced relationship with food. I am originally from Spain and I can certainly attest to the wonders of three hour long meals, where the wonderful food is a way of gathering to share wonderful conversation and company.
    Please keep these types of posts coming Gena.

  13. I think we all want to be able to write like Gena! I’ve been thinking through this stuff forever, but haven’t been able to articulate it half so eloquently.

    I agree with a key point in the original article, namely that we ought not be asking food to fulfill us in ways that food is not intended to fulfill us. Food is not a substitute for a spiritual practice, for friends and lovers, for meaningful work, etc., nor is it a panacea for the emotional distress that drives many woman to overeat. But one of the reasons I’ve pondered the topic is that I know women who have meaningful work and great relationships, beautiful homes, etc., and they still have tortured relationships with food. And I’ve wondered if the way out isn’t learning to eat with pleasure, without guilt (something if I’ve managed, anyone can), and NOT adopting an “it’s just food” attitude. Because unless you’re hard wired that way (and I don’t know a single woman who is), I don’t think you can lose the emotional connection to food. You can deny it sure, but at your peril. The key is to find the food that nourishes us, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually as well.

    I’m grateful to Jessica Prentice, author of Full Moon Feast, for helping me to understand the relationship between food and our hunger for connection. Through the practice of mindful eating, I think we can learn to use food to satisfy (in part) our deepest hungers. The trick, of course, is finding the foods that nourish us in these deeper ways, no easy in today’s supermarkets. But definitely do-able.

    If you’re prone, as I was, to restrict your calories (because it makes you feel virtuous), elevating your view of food, finding food that meets your impeccable standards (be they nutritional, ethical, or aesthetic) can help you to feel good about eating and even (yes) to enjoy eating. If you’re prone to overeat, finding the food that nourishes your deepest hungers (it probably doesn’t come in a box), may help you to be satisfied with less. And for all of us, eating consciously, locally, in season, can help us to nurture our connection to the Earth that feeds us and to appreciate the miracle that food is.

  14. Wonderful post, I can definitely relate to being obsessed with food stemming from an ED that I’ve never completely overcome, but also turned into something more positive. Eating and food is a source of enjoyment and knowing I’m eating good, whole foods and has done wonders for cutting out the anxiety and obsession.

  15. I love this post – such a beautiful perspective on eating! I definitely eat with emotion but strive for a balance in how much of my time is spent thinking about food. I used to obsess. There are days when I’m busy and I need to grab a quick, routine breakfast or lunch and times when my fiance & I spend hours planning a meal, grocery shopping and cooking. Overall, food is a big part of my life. It always will be. And I am definitely OK with that. 🙂

  16. I really enjoy everything you say there, and while I liked your post “What eating is not” I think you refined a lot of great points here.

    “Stripping it of importance is as foolish as obsessing over it” I think this says a lot, as well as the notion that it is the types of emotions associated with eating and not necessarily the fact that emotions are present.

    Food should be enjoyed. It should the fuel to a fantastic life not surrounded by food. It should make you happy, but it shouldn’t lead your happiness.

  17. Wow, what an inspirational post! I too eat with joy and anticipation. I think one of the things that makes me eat with positive emotions is the fact that I am essentially “rewarding” myself with the food that I put my effort and creativity into making. The time it takes to prepare the food definitely makes its actual consumption so much more meaningful.

  18. As always, you write with such eloquence and simple truth. I think there is a definite difference between “food is just FUEL!” and eating for pleasure–the right kinds of pleasure, not to “make up” for others. That’s why food tastes so much better when in good company!

    I won’t say I never stress eat, or munch out of boredom. But I’m getting better at just listening to my body. And of course, food tastes far better when you’re hungry and happy.

  19. Hell YES I eat with emotions! Actually, this one of the things that my dad always tried to get to me regain…being able to eat with real, natural emotions, one which has nothing to do with my disordered thoughts and emotions…I truly believe that God gave us food as not just nourishment, but a gift….why else would He create so many different colors, tastes, textures, and fragrances of good? It’s all for us to enjoy, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

  20. My bf always asks me why I am so obsessed with food. I guess it’s because I do associate it with joy and giving me energy like you described above. Where as all he sees it as is a necessary part of his day. He doesn’t usually care what he eats, he just eats whatever I make him and he goes on about his day. Interesting that different people look at food so very differently.

  21. Amazing post Gena, thank you for sharing your thoughts! I definitely agreed with your earlier post about emotional eating – food cannot and should not be our emotional support system or the center of our life. But I DEFINITELY agree with this post, too! I eat with a lot of emotion, whether it is a green smoothie or a bag of chips. I love it all and eat with relish and gratitude. Food definitely is more than the sum of it’s parts, but in the end, it is just food.

  22. I definitely agree with Evan on the “living to eat and running to eat,” but anyone who has gone through a stage of emotional eating could find it hard to strike a balance like that without it bordering on exercise bulimia. We all know there is a lot of it going on, and it’s tough to differentiate between that and someone who is simply “addicted” to running for non-calorie related reasons. It’s all so mentally complex for each individual, especially after going through a phase of limiting food and maximizing expenditure for healthy weight loss.

    Sorry to kind of ramble, but you really do write in such a way that makes us all want to join in the chorus, so to speak! Awesome post and equally awesome discussion from all of the commentary 🙂 It’s nice that we can sort of assemble in the comment section and have healthy discussion and realize that there are people from all walks of life who share some connection to the freedom from the food/emotion conflict that seems to plague our society more than can we can even glean.

  23. Lurker coming out of the wood work here! I am compelled to comment because 1) I love Christie’s blog and I’m so glad you brought attention to her wonderful work and 2) I also blog about larger food/weight issues and feel compelled to throw my two cents in.

    I very much agree with you that the negative connotation of “emotional eating” hides the fact that we can and should bring positive emotions – joy, excitement, passion – to our eating experiences. However, I would add that there is a significant difference between eating WITH emotion, as you say, and eating OUT OF emotion, even if that emotion is positive.

    For example, in my particular case I struggled with “emotional eating” in that I ate in response to any strong emotion – good or bad. I have a very distinct memory of successfully finishing a major project in college and bingeing immediately afterward. The feeling wasn’t stress or sadless or lonliness; it was one of relief, or happiness even. And yet I still overate because I was trained to turn to food regardless of what the particular emotion was. Does that make sense? So in that case, I would say that “emotional eating” is problematic, even when the emotion driving the eating is a positive one. But again, that’s different than eating WITH emotion.

  24. Gena, this is a wonderful post! I am such an “emotional eater”. To me, food is all about evoking memory, discovering a culture, or even learning something new about myself (who knew I would love grapefruit, when combined with avocado?). Having the title of “emotional eating” being displayed as something negative completely defeats foods 2nd purpose: to bring enjoyment.

  25. What a really beautifully written and thought provoking post! Just recently I’ve been able to let go of emotional eating but I never wanted to just eat to live, it seemed so boring! I had never thought of seeing that emotional eating can have a positive side as well. I’ve noticed that the biggest thing for me is just making sure that I’m hungry when I eat,and that I’m eating exactly what my body wants and needs.

  26. More and more, I’m realizing the difference between my previous obsession with food and my current one. I used to peruse restaurant menus and lust over every dish I’d never allow myself because it had “too many calories”. Now, I read restaurant menus to inspire my own culinary adventures, with the hopes that I’ll one day be able to taste the original. It’s so sad to me that our culture is one of extremes, and food is always the devil, whether it’s a woman aspiring to be thin and perfect or an obese person eating HoHos and Doritos. Food is amazing, especially nutritious and tasty food…we NEED it, so why not make it an enjoyable experience?

  27. As always, amazing post from one of the most amazing bloggers I know. Food is so emotionally charged and we have a tendency to get bogged down in the idea that we can’t enjoy food anymore, a notion that I don’t express enough. Post forthcoming, I love the circle of inspiration we have going here.

  28. Gena, I always enjoy reading your insights.
    I think that we need to be grateful and appreciative of food. Celebrate both its wonderful flavours and nourishing nutrients – respect the power it has to fuel and build our bodies, and help us feel grounded, satiated and energized. I have found in recent years that the more I appreciate all the goes into growing the food I eat the more reverently I consume it. That approach feels both grateful and balanced for me.

  29. I was talking to my husband exactly about this recently and specially this paragraph rings true:

    “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.”

    What you’ve pointed there is the exact same feeling i do have towards food today. I’ve grew so much away from the tormented relationship but yet i food and i didn’t grow apart, we are tied. I love to make my beautiful meals and i feel good for the fact that they aren’t just delicious and visually appealing with the colours and textures but they are also deeply nourishing. This close relationship with the food i put into my body makes it difficult for me to see it as an enemy. i understand it now and im grateful.

    Food once was just a form of scape. Today its a celebration of the kindness and care i wanna treat myself and people around me. What i make, what i cook is exactly how i perceive the world, is just like my approach to life: gentle, kind, calm, concious. It’s magical to me and i wouldn’t trade that for nothing.

    Great post “milk woman” ;****

  30. I think it’s when we use food to numb emotions, block out emotions, or use it as a tool of abuse that it’s wrong. Just like cocaine, sex, starvation, etc. However, I TOTALLY agree with you. I don’t think that food/eating should be void of emotion. When looking at many cultures, traditionally who may not struggle as much with eating, food is an emotional experience wrapped in family, celebration, emotional security etc. What we have made food is a mechanism of emotional avoidance, escapism, and abuse. It’s an excruciatingly fine line that is hard for people to find. So instead of learning how to balance out those hurtful emotions, and re-wire them with positive/supportive emotions..people go on diets,binges,yo-yos cause it’s almost too hard to sort out how to not be an ’emotional eater’.

    Thanks for writing this.

  31. GREAT POST!I agree with everything you say and good thing you clarified some things from that last post

  32. Hi Gena,

    This is a brilliant post and is relative to so many people.

    Thanks for linking Christie’s post – I read both yours and hers, then had a long hard think and came to some conclusions.

    Food has a very positive place in my life and heart in that cooking/pottering around the kitchen is how I relax when I get home from work; Eating/tasting something delicious I’ve created makes me feel very satisfied and accomplished; learning about food and making new things stimulates my creative urges.

    On the down side… I justify any occurences of over-eating with a delicious-o-meter. The tastier it is, the more I will eat. I’ve struggled over the past few months to accept that leaving food on my plate or dishing up a small dinner is NOT an insult to my skills in the kitchen.

    Thanks for provoking all of this from within me!

    Nat x

  33. On the negative side, I do eat too much when I’m stressed or depressed, and I need to stop doing that.

    But on the positive side, I always think eating should be enjoyable and I never eat things I don’t really like, because it just isn’t worth it. And I don’t feel it’s worth it to eat things that aren’t doing my body any good.

    I think most people are emotional eaters. There are some people who are very disinterested in food and eat only for sustenance, but I’ve only met one of those in my entire life, and a couple others who were somewhat like that.

    It’s about balance. Eating should be enjoyable, but it shouldn’t replace other joys.

  34. Wow. This post made me think about how much value/weight I do still allow food to have in my life, and that I am dangerously close to letting it get out of control again.

    Food is so much of a tightrope act for me still, that there’s no way for me to be an unemotional eater. Thank you for giving me permission to be that, whatever it means for me.

    Sometimes it takes seeing ourselves reflected in others to realize that we are okay just as we are.

  35. Oh you’re gonna get a million articulate, amazing comments since this was a wonderful, articulate post! “dissertation, and then–pscyh!”–yeah, because this is such a BIG topic.

    I used to “like” food more for all the wrong reasons when I was eating my allergens. I was constantly living in the bathroom, truly addicted to gluten and dairy, but refused to give them up b/c I “loved them” but they don’t love me. It wasn’t until I had major food allergy symptoms far too much for this comment field that I realized I needed to get off dairy/gluten and once I broke the casomorphin/gliadomorphin addiction, I don’t crave those things anymore…and I “like” food now, for all the “Right” reasons. (I’ve posted on this before in a Dairy FAQ post I did)

    It’s fun to eat good food, but for me, good food is very basic. Raw, vegan, easy. Not fussy. Simple is best. That’s what nourishes my brain, my psyche, and my body.

    I could go on and on…you’ll have so many comments to read b/c this is a great post, Gena!

  36. “I’ve simply transformed it into a source of positivity, rather than torment.”
    Me too! There are days here and there with torment, usually when I’m in less control of my food options or under a lot of stress. But as I replied to your earlier post on this subject, I think someone with deep emotional ties to food does best modifying those ties, not ignoring them, and I think that when you look at food as a potential source of joy and healing, that can only be an asset to your life. Then go out and try to make other things in your life work that way, too… all easier said than done 😉

  37. Such an important and eloquent post, Gena! Analyzing and embracing the emotions I have when eating has been such a challenge for me. For so long, the only emotions I associated with eating were panic and shame. I was panicked and ate to bury my anxiety. Or I beat myself up for every bite. No more!! Since I moved to NYC, and meeting such wonderful people as you and Diana, I’ve learned, bit by bit, to take note of, and appreciate the way food makes me feel both physically and spiritually. And I’m learning to turn negative thoughts away and to embrace the great experience eating should be. Thank you!!

    • @Katherine: Shucks, I’m blushing. 🙂 I am an admiring witness to your courage, K.

      @Gena: I think you are right to strip “emotional eating” of its negative connotation, and the key point that you made (for me) is the human distinction. It is the emotions themselves that make us human, that make us different from other species that are able to sustain themselves by simply hunting/foraging/consuming on the spot. Emotions are why we have chefs and recipes and culinary literature and entertainment–somewhere down the line, someone made the connection between eating and pleasure and began to put some effort into creating meals that heighten that pleasure. As far as I know, we as humans are unique in that effort, so to try and ignore that in favor of food being the sum of its nutrients does not work, not this far down the line. Not when we have chefs elevated to the status of A-list celebrities and restaurants that charge a week’s salary for a single meal. At this point, I would say that culture has recognized food’s emotional significance and has in fact caught up as a key player in what assigns a food significance. I was about to say that unless you live under a rock, you are not immune to this, but actually, even people living under rocks have human tendencies and communities and are therefore subject to the same emotions as the rest of us.

      I’m definitely an emotional eater–not always for the reasons I would prefer, but for me there is no doubt that my mind influences my hunger and/or satisfaction every bit as much as my belly. Sometimes that’s a great thing, sometimes I stumble, but the best thing I’ve learned on my journey has been to move from hearing those cues to actually listening and honoring them.

      Lastly, sorry for all the poor grammar. I think my comment ended up as long as your post. Holy sociology major, eh? 🙂 Happy weekend, G! xoxoxo

      • I’d argue that food is the one thing that connects every human being to culture, to place, to tradition (in ways books, music, etc., often elite enterprises, don’t), and that (I’d say vital) connection is endangered by the globalization/industrialization of food production. It’s no longer a matter of “culture catching up” but of humans holding on, for dear life. As Eric Schlosser writes in Fast Food Nation, there’s been more change in the way we eat in the last 30 years than in the previous 30,000, and with those changes, we’re in danger of losing something that makes us human. I know I’ve made this comment before, but I can’t help repeating, because I think Deborah Madison is absolutely right that the more intact a culture, the fewer cookbooks it produces. The celebrity chef phenomenon (whatever we might think of it) wouldn’t exist if we had remained as connected to where our food comes from as our great grandparents were. What’s sad is the cultural deprivation affects the poor disproportionately. I’m sure it’s one (of many) reasons for the greater obesity rates among the poor, who have less access to food that feeds our hunger for connection.

        • “I’d argue that food is the one thing that connects every human being to culture, to place, to tradition (in ways books, music, etc., often elite enterprises, don’t), and that (I’d say vital) connection is endangered by the globalization/industrialization of food production.”

          I respectfully disagree. Firstly, music, narratives are hardly elite ‘enterprises.’ Music and oral or written narratives are unequivocally primal and innate.

          Secondly, to claim food as the ‘one thing that connects every human being to culture’ is so sweeping.. every human being? Truly? This is an erasure of the individual and his or her agency whilst privileging their associative/assumed culture over their autonomy.

          Despite the co-rumination and micro-analysis of one’s eating habits in which certain people partake (myself included), there are innumerable individuals who are simply uninterested in food. Period.

          Moreover, those that may be interested in food may wish to transcend their culture – why the assumption that one craves to adhere to one’s roots or the romanticized notions of eras past?

          And what of the artistry of food? The intellectual expression and erudition of its creation and presentation? The celebrity chef phenomenon satiates many modern needs, this one included.

          I agree with you that globalization/industrialization has a hand in threatening the healthfulness of our relationship with food – to a certain extent. Still, globalization is a force or medium. That fast-food has been catalyzed by globalization does not mean that this mechanism of dissemination is at fault. What of medication distribution? Globalization has allowed inoculations, antibiotics, and the discovery of new foods and cultures to travel the world. The more cookbooks a culture, quite frankly, the more diversity and potential understanding of others – the better.

          I appreciate your articulateness and enjoyed reading your commentary. You are quite eloquent.

          • I love this conversation!

            And actually, I find myself sympathizing with all views expressed. On the one hand, the first thought I had when I read your comment, Elizabeth, was that food hasn’t historically been a source of communion for ME. I’ve always eaten so very differently from those in my life — first due to the disorder, and then as a vegan — that I typically don’t feel that food binds me to other people. I tend to find that sense of cultural “glue” more in my appreciation of art, music, books, religious faith, and the great human life experiences: love, loss, family strife, friendship. When I’m asked, as I often am, if I feel that my lifestyle makes me feel deprived of communion or social inclusion, my first response is always to say that no, it doesn’t, mostly because I don’t expect the act of eating to give me those things in the first place.

            This is a gut response, mind you, not a considered one. In truth, I do experience much joy from sharing food, and indeed one of the best parts of moving away from disordered habits has been partaking of meals with friends and family once again (especially eating in restaurants, cooking on holidays, etc.). That I eat differently is no matter: what matters is that everyone eating is sharing in the experience of nourishment — a fact that relates, I think, to Elizabeth’s point that food is essentially satisfying a hunger for connection, regardless of the TYPE of food eaten.

            And certainly, blogging has helped me to really understand the nice communion that can be shared when people DO eat similar things! It’s been a joy to find a community of people who eat the way I do (again, maybe not all of the same foods, but the same sets of concerns and sentiments). I am so grateful.

            Remy, I also like something I think you’re pointing to, which is that it’s also OK to consciously break away from a “herd,” if you will, with food choices. I’m half Greek, and food was a HUGE part of my home life growing up. But it wasn’t food that appealed to ME, not ever: I stopped being able to consume meat in childhood, purely out of visceral distaste for it, and my likes/dislikes were never like those of my family (this predates my eating disorder). So I am/was actually proud to find a way of eating that suited ME, and in some ways I remain proud of the fact that I was not afraid to express my difference from others, my individuality, through food.

            And finally, I like the point that some people just aren’t interested in food. At all. They’re out there — it’s a fact we tend to forget on food blogs. I’m not one of them and don’t wish to be, but they do exist, and I’m sure they find ways of honoring EM Forster’s famous “only connect” dictum in ways that have little to do with sharing food.

            THANK YOU both for your thoughts!

            G

          • Wow. Great comment. Next time around, I’d still make the same argument, but less forcefully. I do see cultural production as a mostly elite enterprise, but I am thinking about “culture” narrowly (in a canonical sense). No denying culture percolates from below; we wouldn’t have a “starving artist” stereotype if there weren’t a certain amount of truth to it. And I was not criticizing the dissemination of culture (be it through proliferation of cookbooks, translation of literature, etc.), an activity I’m actively engaged in professionally. Of course someone can be uninterested in food, as easily as they can be uninterested in literature, or music. But such individuals would not likely experience an emotional connection to food, or look to food to fulfill unmet emotional needs. As someone who eats 90% raw foods, I have a diet very different from that of my Swiss ancestors. I’m not arguing that we should be eating the foods our ancestors ate, rather, that our food should do for us what it did for them, namely, satisfy our hunger for connection. For us, it means making a conscious effort, whereas for them it was a matter of course.

            As for globalization, it is a force to be managed. More literature in translation is a good thing, for sure. And as a well off American, I can enjoy just about any cuisine I’m fancying. Maybe that’s a good thing too. But I’d argue the boon – the availability of so much “cultural diversity” – is offset by the the diminished influence of local cultures. No where (to my mind, here I go with my sweeping generalizations) is the downside of globalization more apparent than in our food system, where industrial production threatens both biodiversity and cultural diversity.

  38. I am so happy to be in a place where food is not the enemy anymore. I realize how much time I wasted contemplating what I was going to eat, stressing over it, and ultimately feeling like I made bad choices. But now I think about what I’m going to eat shortly before I eat it and then I’m done and I move on.

    With my 5-year-old, I am very careful to not associate eating with any type of reward. I do believe that will help her avoid giving food too much significance.

  39. Fascinating ponderings. Thanks for sharing!

    I eat a little too much on the negative side of emotional eating – often over-eating just to feel good, or numb me up a bit. Ah well, at least I’m conscious of it these days. And it’s mostly raw.

    But it is so important to find that joy, especially when striving for life-long healthy eating. We should search for recipes that support both joy, and our health.

  40. Wonderful post, as usual, Gena! I have often thought about this, and in fact had this very same thought when I read your initial post, What Food is Not. In the past 6 months or so I have struggled a bit with this…a lot of sources are telling me to remove emotion from food, but at the same time I experience a lot of joy from eating. And for a former anorexic and bulimic, as you know, that’s something to celebrate! I wasn’t a joyful vegetarian, but I’ll tell you…ever since I became vegan, I have definitely been a joyful vegan! Good vegan food excites me and makes me feel good.

    Now, I can be the other kind of emotional eater…the negative kind…as well. Whilst I recognise the need to address the underlying emotions that make me want to eat for comfort, due to boredom, etc., I struggle with removing emotion from food entirely because I simply don’t want to. We all spend so much of our lives eating, that we might as well enjoy it! But where I struggle is in wondering that one needs to cut off both the good and bad (in some instances) to fully recover. Hmmmm….food for thought.

    All I know is that if eating joyfully is wrong, then I don’t want to be right 😉

  41. Wow, what a wonderful, thought-provoking post! I’ve never thought of “emotional eating” as anything but negative. Now, I’ll have to re-think this notion in a more positive light… thank you, Gena!

  42. I like this post in the light of Matt’s recent post of realizing food is comfort to him. I have to say I’m one of those people who live to eat, run to eat. But I don’t mention things like that on my blog because I worry that while I’ve reached a healthy balance, I don’t want to spark someone else’s unhealthy obsession. I think you wrote and walked the fine line between the two beautifully.

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