Thursday, April 12, 2018

Emotional Eating and the Never-Donut Mentality

Been a little stressed, and my eating at times reflects that. A piece of dark chocolate as a snack, mixed vegetable and plantain chips with cheese and nuts as a lunch, a plate of green bean casserole as a meal. The sweet, the creamy, the salty and crunchy are all things that I have used for as long as I can remember as a way to soothe feelings. Well, there used to also be a lot of pizza rolls, donuts, and loaves of bread with butter in there too. So am I just living in the same cycle? Kidding myself that I don't have a problem with emotional eating anymore? I ask myself that every time I eat something specific in response to a feeling or a situation. What is this that I am doing? Is this harmful? Is this going to take me down? How big of a problem is this behavior?

I don't have all the answers, but I have learned a lot on this decade-plus-long journey of not only weight loss, but working at recovery from disordered eating. I do sit back and analyze my food- and exercise-related behaviors and habits, because that's how things change. That's how we learn.

There was an interesting discussion in the comments of the last post with a very helpful and thought-provoking Anon. One of the things I shared there, I wanted to also share here. I said:

"It has been such a slow and sometimes painful recovery for me and I think sometimes those who have never had an ED don't understand why I am here blogging 10 years later and still not 'at goal.' It's because 'goal' was never REALLY about a number or a BMI. It was about getting free from the emotional and mental chains of binge eating disorder, and then compulsive overeating, and then obsessive food thoughts. That takes a lot of time, and weight doesn't always correlate with progress."

In the same vein, it has never *really* been about never eating a brownie again, although there have been times over the years that I thought that's what it was about. To STOP eating candy. To NEVER eat a French fry. To QUIT eating food xyz forever. But in the past year or two I have come to realize that THAT is not the goal either. What good is it to have the "win" of never eating a donut for the rest of my life if I am miserable, struggling, anxious, and obsessed with my food, weight, and eating? The donut may be a small part of the battle, or not... but the real battle, at least for me, is inside. The goal is to find peace with food, and also with weight. If I want to become healthy, I have to focus on those things. I will never be healthy if I am hyperfocused on avoiding the donut. I have to find that peace with food, and the contentment with my weight, and I have to lose the anxiety and compulsion that drives the overeating that led to my morbid obesity. Because when I have that true peace with food, the donut loses its power. Eating lower carb and generally avoiding large servings of sugary foods is also a big physical part of that peace. It keeps my blood sugar stable and helps me avoid the physical cravings that can make it hard to moderate my eating.

I see the progress I've made over the years and how I had to take steps to heal from those issues. I know that I have so much more peace about all of this and very little anxiety, compulsion, or obsession about food now... but that doesn't mean it will never come back. I have to protect the mindset I'm developing about food, to stay at peace. That means if I actually want a donut, I can have one. But you know, I can't remember the last time I had a donut. It's just not a choice I care to make. I do have sweets sometimes, but 90% of the time I choose sugar free and keto. I also have fried foods, chips, and the salty, crunchy things sometimes. I usually pick a healthier alternative (beet chips instead of potato chips, for example) and a much, much smaller portion that I used to want. Or should I say, require. Yes, I do sometimes feel stressed or tired or worn out and decide to eat a food that used to remedy that feeling. The difference is, when I was stressed I used to eat an entire bag of Lay's chips with dip, half a block of cheese, and a whole lot of pizza with Coke. Over time, that has changed... and the other day when I was stressed I had a small handful of veggie chips, one slice of cheese, and less than a quarter cup of nuts, with water. And that little plate (which I had for lunch, *not* as an additional snack) was enough. I felt calm, satisfied, filled. Often I have a different response, like calling a friend, working in the yard, or taking a walk. But occasionally, I do choose food.

Would it be better to *never* choose food in response to emotion? I dunno. I have written a lot about that on this blog, with differing answers depending on where I was in my journey and my understanding of myself. Maybe over time, I will phase out this type of eating. But one thing I do know: taking it out *now* and going with "I will NEVER eat in response to emotion" would upset the apple cart. It would take away my hard-cultivated peace with food and probably result in some frantic eating. I know this because just thinking about taking it away gives me some feelings I don't like. I have worked so hard to STOP frantic eating (and even when I eat in response to emotion, it is a calm, slow eating while enjoying the food) and I don't want to ever dredge it up again. So maybe in time, or maybe not, but for now, this is working for me. I am giving myself grace.

I'd love to hear thoughts from others who have dealt with the emotional eating issue or recovering from an eating disorder. I always learn from the great comments left here! Let me know what you think.


Anonymous said...

Aw, Lyn, this is the anon who apparently prompted your reflection and I'm flattered that you'd mention me in a post. So thanks.

As for emotional eating... truthfully, I do think it's a bad idea to soothe yourself with food most of the time and my eating disorder nutritionist is the one who told me that. She was big on rational choices. What keeps me out of eating disorder food obsession hell is being fairly rational about my food and fairly dispassionate. If I am hungry I eat, if I am not hungry I don't.

I do not eat to distract myself from something else; I also, since my history is restrictive, do not skip meals or undereat in order to "check out" of my life [which I used to do a lot! when you are starved and super logy/foggy/exhausted, it is almost like being high]. I time my meals regularly so that I get hungry regularly and can follow a reliable schedule. If I had to eat entirely "intuitively" always asking myself what I "felt like" I'd be a total mess. Instead, I plan my food the way you'd plan food for a beloved pet or family member. I think about my health, energy levels, wellbeing, and preferences (yes, preferences and tastes matter of course).

Like you, I have found a way of eating that keeps me from experiencing binge urges. In my case that is eating whole foods and minimal added sugar. Don't get me wrong, I do eat a lot of carbohydrates, but not processed ones as a general rule. More like fruit, potatoes, oats, stuff like that. I'm an athlete in a high-intensity sport, so I need these foods to perform and feel well. I focus on what I feel good eating and what helps my athletic performance and also my performance at my job (mental focus).

One thing I totally relate to and think it may take time to unravel is the whole idea of the never-again food. I agree with you about how that dialogue of "I can never eat this omg I can never eat this" is counterproductive; it becomes like if I told you not to think of a white bear. You'd think about that bear all the time! I can SEE that you have been there when you make rigid rules, and so have I.... the first time I tried to eat zero added sugar I GAINED weight because I felt so deprived I overate other stuff. But truthfully, I think having rules that are calm and rational and not rigid is important... like lately I just... haven't been eating added sugar in my diet. It's not that I tell myself I can never--I am always going to enjoy birthday cake!--but I like how I feel a lot better without it in my regular diet.

In the past, here was what happened. I would eat a) too few calories and b) low-quality processed foods fairly often (don't get me started on my Arctic Zero obsession like seriously please don't). Then I figured: I'm hungry all the time anyway and feel like crap, so I will just eat whatever sounds good and try to keep the calories as low as I can. And it was a vicious cycle. I felt crappy and ate badly. My weight didn't go up, but my energy levels were uneven and my health was bad. Now, my weight is stable (dropping slightly in a hard training cycle) and my energy levels and health are good. I also don't feel emotionally dependent on treat foods to function, because the food I eat daily gives me good energy and focus to do things other than obsess about food. When food wasn't meeting my physical needs, then I did kind of want it to at least meet my emotional needs.

So, maybe consider that.

Cris said...

What a thought provoking post! I’ve been bulimic and have BED, and can really relate to the issues you’re addressing here.

Sometimes I too have what I call ‘junk food lunch’ which isn’t always actual junk food- but it’s not four ounces of protein, half a plate of green veggies and water...

I’ve been doing extensive work with a therapist that calls for maintaining this weight for a year (which is almost up!) as well as learning to stop labeling foods as good or bad, and more about addressing and analyzing my own behaviors (which i do with the Strides habit tracking app).

I wish you luck. In my case, no one could tell me how to figure this out. It took some soul searching and I had to face my own truth.

For me- it’s no longer about learning things. I’ve been fighting this fight for 15 years. Now it’s about accepting that I must change, if I want to.

FrenchyMcFrenchcake said...

Agree with above... it’s so individual! Everyone has their own issues and food is tangled up in them. It’s really not about the food, as they say. For me I’m an emotional eater so if I want to stay thinner I have to feel feeling and use other methods of regulation for my feelings. If I don’t then I gain. My food choices and body are a reflection of where I’m at ... I try not to have judgement about that and just see it objectively. This is my thing... everyone has a thing and this is mine until it’s not so no hurry just keep working at it.

Anonymous said...

First, you are doing so great! Congrats on your progress so far. Your "never give up" attitude is what will help you deal with the emotional eating. I struggled with emotional eating for 20 years. One thing that those who have not had the issue do not realize is that I would actually get physically hungry, even though I had already had enough food. I'm very happy to say that I have not eaten emotionally in over 5 years and if I can do it, you can too!
Emotionally eating is a learned behavior. We eat to avoid feelings or to try and soothe ourselves. This behavior has to be unlearned as well and it takes a LONG time. Everyone has their own path, so I will not try to give advice on what will work for you, but am happy to share what worked for me. I kept a photograph in my wallet of me at my heaviest along with a handwritten note that said "over eating will not make me feel better, only worse." When I felt the urge to use food, I would make myself look at the photograph and keep repeating the mantra over and over again. It worked 90% of the time. The more you don't give in, the less the urge comes. NOT eating emotionally forces you to actually deal with the feeling itself. I firmly believe forcing myself to "feel my feelings" is what allowed the emotional eating rollercoaster to stop.
I know you have mentioned going to therapy in the past but I recommend you revisit the idea. I spent a year going to weekly therapy with an awesome therapist. Please know that these sessions will get VERY uncomfortable and painful, but that is how true progress is made. After I learned to trust her, I was able to finally to talk about some horrific abuse I suffered as a child. It did not happen overnight, but the more I acknowledged and owned my past and dealt with those feelings, the urge to overeat finally went away completely.
I also could not have done it without the benefit of exercise. I believe exercise is vital for so many reasons. At the age of 30, I was 240 lbs. I lost 80 lbs and have kept it off for over 9 years. My weight loss and fitness journey finally culminated last year when I completed an Ironman (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile run). The race took me 14 hours to complete, you can imagine how hard it was, yet I smiled the entire time because I was (and am) so beyond proud of what I have accomplished.
At this point, I can honestly say I would not change one thing about my past and my journey. What I have been through led to me being an incredibly kind, non-judgmental person who treats EVERYONE with respect and care. I am confident that if you put in the work, you will have a similar outcome in overcoming your emotional eating and you will feel grateful for your journey. Wish you all the best!

Kendra said...

Emotional/stress eater here. I can remember a few years ago I consciously thought to myself "I am going to eat this ice cream to feel better and I know it will cause me to gain weight and I don't care. Feeling comforted is more important to me right now than weight loss."

Scary right?? The conscious choice and thought process involved in that internal conversation implies that I was in control of my actions at the time ... so WHY did I make that choice?

I don't know the answers. For me, restriction works. If I remove (insert trigger food here) as an option, I don't obsess about it. I don't even think about it. I just tell myself "I don't eat that food anymore." And I go on with my life. For me personally, letting myself think that no food is off limits leads to a binge mindset. I am no good at moderation. To me it feels similar to those I've known who struggled with alcoholism. There is no "just one drink" just like for me there is no "pizza in moderation".

But I also know that restriction doesn't work for everyone, and for many people, it's the restrictive eating that leads to binges and disordered thinking about food. So this is a tough question.

I will say that once I've gotten myself into the habit of eating the right foods for me, it is much easier to go back to making conscious choices about what to eat and being able to make the CORRECT choice, rather than the "I know it's bad and I'm going to do it anyway" scenario I described before. When I have removed all my trigger foods and been off them for awhile it is a lot easier, if I ever do start to want those foods again, to think objectively. Why do I want it? How will I feel if I eat it? Is it worth it to me? And nearly all of the time, the answer is no, it's not worth it, and I don't eat it.

But I have to already be in that place where my cravings are under control.

I don't think this comment is going to be very helpful to you! haha! But I think you are doing the right thing by being aware of your emotions about eating and considering the best way FOR YOU to deal with those emotions. Awareness is always the first step.

LHA said...

A giant thank you to all the people who have shared their experiences and ideas here. This is a huge issue for me and I am so grateful to read all the information offered. Lyn, I have lost a large amount of weight and kept most all of it off for a couple of years now but I struggle almost daily with the issue you raise. Do I say I will never eat another doughnut (or cookie or cheesecake or---------you name it), or do I say I will eat that food in moderation and only on rare special occasions? Neither way has worked completely for me. I do better staying away totally from sweets and heavy carbs but I run the risk of setting off a binge if I feel terribly deprived, such as being the only person at a party who can't eat the food offered. Believe me, that has happened even after months of abstaining from one of those foods. I consider it both a physical and emotional addiction to certain foods, but don't know for sure how to fight it. I have had some success with eating "those" foods in very limited quantities on a special occasion, but it is a VERY slippery slope for me. Sometimes I feel I will never find the answer to this and will always struggle with this one issue. I try to make myself feel okay with this outcome, knowing that it is better to keep trying and fighting to find a comfortable solution even if I'm never totally successful. My dream would be able to eat the occasional dessert or pasta, not let it bother me with guilty feelings or increased cravings, and go on enjoying a healthy life. Right now, that remains an elusive dream.

On the issue of purely emotional eating, I have to admit that I doubt I will ever shed this habit entirely. It is so ingrained in me even from childhood that all I can do is fight it, recognize it, and control it to the best of my ability. To those who have totally conquered it, my hat is off to you! I appreciate your blog so much and also those who read and take time to comment. I always learn something new and helpful.

FrenchyMcFrenchcake said...

LHA have you done therapy with an eating disorder specialist? I ask because helping you finding the balance is what they do! Mine is fantastic and so lucky to have found her!

Anonymous said...

You should write a diet book. Can you keep track of what you eat every day for a month and then translate it as so? i.e.

if you ate:
a chicken breast, a salad, and a piece of low carb bread you can write: meal 1: 6 oz lean protein, 1.5 cups raw green vegetables, 2 tablespoons of dressing, 1 serving any low carb starch.

This would make a road map or a guideline for all future meals without being too specific.

LHA said...

Frenchy, yes I have had therapy with a nutritionist, psychologist and psychiatrist all of whom are well versed in eating disorders and understand my particular needs in general. It has been very helpful and I am still working with all three. I agree that it is a complex problem, and I have other diagnoses being treated which further complicate things. I very much agree with your statement about using other methods of regulating feelings, and also smiled when I read your comment about everyone has a "thing". Very true!

MaryFran said...

Great post...I wish I had the answer for you!!! For me! For everyone that struggles with an addiction to food.

Like you I don’t want to be ruled by the restrictions of never eating pizza again...or never having a piece of cake again! I don’t want that restrictive lifestyle. To me when I was a ‘nazi’ with what I was eating, yes I was losing weight but in reality hadn’t I simply transferred my addictive tendencies to the act of strict adherence to the restrictions? That’s not healthy either!!! I have been saying for a while that I’m looking for the happy healthy medium. Not ruled by food...(which I know from the past is a bit of a high for me...being in control is empowering) but not ruled by a diet. I just haven’t figured out how to get there yet!!!!

Zoe said...

Anorexic in remission here. I began recovering from my ED about 5 years ago. The method that I used was one that I think isn't really typical.

The basic premise is that, as someone who had restricted for a long time (~4 years), I was hundreds of thousands of calories in "debt." My body had borrowed those calories from my fat stores, organs, muscles and bones. I hadn't had a period in 3 years. In order to fix that deficit, it was necessary to set aside all efforts to micromanage, and TRULY listen to my mind and body. That means eating what I wanted, when I wanted, in whatever amounts I wanted. No second guessing, just honoring hunger cues, including appetite and cravings.

This method relies heavily on the idea that the body knows what it needs and will drive you towards that. I ate on average 5,000 calories a day for the first 5 months, and around 3,000 per day after that. I was warned that this kind of extreme hunger is normal, because again, hundreds of thousands of calories in debt. I gained weight extremely quickly, way over my pre-ED weight, and once I was able to be totally sedentary (I quit my job), the edema happened as well. My body was stiff and painful.

That was also normal for the process. If you consider what happens when you sprain your ankle, with swelling and pain to accompany the process of healing, and consider that my WHOLE BODY was injured from restriction, it makes sense. The extra weight and edema created a kind of scaffolding to allow true healing and repair.

Then, over the course of about 2-3 years, that scaffolding came down as renovations completed. The extra weight tapered off and I ended up about the same size I was pre-ED. I still eat about 2500-3000 calories a day to maintain my weight, and I'm a size 6-8 at 5'5". I don't do formal exercise, I don't micromanage amounts, and I don't second-guess what I feel like eating. If I want to eat fries for dinner, I eat fries. If I'm stressed and don't have an appetite, I'm okay skipping dinner because I don't ever force myself to eat. I have faith that my repaired hunger cues will drive me to eat extra the next day to compensate.

I understand that the anxiety-based issues that underlie eating disorders can easily reassert themselves as hyper-controlling micromanagement in recovery. And I think that if someone isn't down with the total abandonment of weight control/diet management, they should do whatever they can comfortably sustain. I also know that other underlying anxiety issues can mess with recovery from restriction, as they can interfere with hunger cues. People who are in body-conscious professions, like the above commenter who said they're an athlete, have it even harder. So my method's not for everyone. But it's been a blessing to me in that it's made me well and truly normal again. No anxiety or mental haggling over food, and I don't focus on food unless I'm hungry. Otherwise, I don't think about it at all. Food is very low on the totem pole of priorities in my life.

Lyn said...


Thank you so much for sharing your story. A lot of what you said rings true for me as well, even though I had a binge problem and not anorexia. I am going to talk to my counselor about some of what you said, and see how I can utilize some of that in my own life. Best to you.