Disordered and Emotional Eating

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week was from February 21st to 27th. I missed it.

Well, no: I didn’t really miss it. I only found out that it was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week very last-minute, and I already had our Grocery Shopping mini-series set up, so I postponed discussing eating disorders. At the time, I was also a little bit too fragile to be in any condition to discuss eating disorders.

What happened was this: during Reading Week, which was from February 14th to 20th, my old disordered eating thoughts returned with a vengeance. I had decided to take the first few days of Reading Week off from doing any work; I was going to take a real holiday from school and enjoy myself. I enjoyed the first couple days guilt-free, knowing that I would do school work later on in the week. But as the week progressed, I found myself unable to concentrate on school work, and I knew that I hadn’t given myself a long enough break. So I decided to take time off as long as I needed.

Unfortunately, this didn’t go nearly as well as I had planned. Instead of enjoying a few extra days of fun and then cracking down to do my work, I was plagued with guilt. I couldn’t enjoy my activities; even reading novels felt like a guilty pleasure because I knew that I *should* be working on assignments or doing readings for university. I began to feel anxious. The knowledge that I’ll be finished university in April and will have to find a “real” job came to the forefront, and my anxiety levels shot through the roof. I began eating. And eating. And eating. I binged for nearly the entire week. This was a new kind of disordered eating, for me; in the past, my issues have been that I have restricted my eating, rather than eaten too much. It scared me because I couldn’t stop the binging, and it scared me because it was a form of disordered eating that I had never dealt with before.

After one particularly horrible binge- and it shames me to say this- I actually purged. It was awful. I can safely say that I will never do that again. And perhaps doing that was what helped me to give my head a shake: I broke down sobbing later on that day and admitted to the boyfriend what had happened. Talking it through with someone really helped, and admitting what I had done was a major step towards dealing with the issue.

Towards the end of the week, I wrote on my food diary blog, Health Writer Eats, that I was taking the weekend off from recording my food in the hopes that I would be able to get it under control by not tracking it all. This, too, helped. That weekend I went for breakfast with the mother dear, and whereas I would normally ask for dry toast and no bacon etc etc, this time I ordered a regular breakfast without “healthifying” it. I knew that if I healthified it, I would feel deprived (not that I normally feel deprived by healthifying things, but because my state of mind was so fragile, I knew that in this case I would). So I went with the non-healthified version and I found that I was able to regain my composure and take control of the situation.

That following week, I created a single goal for myself: no binging. I managed to do decently well; I still ate more than was necessary, but I did not binge. The week after that, I was able to set the goal for myself to eat the amount that felt right. And that week, too, was quite successful. The pounds that I gained during my binge week (and yes, you can easily gain a few pounds in a week if you binge every day) melted off just from eating clean and from eating proper sized portions. My state of mind is considerably better. Last week I had a few days of overeating and regained a couple pounds, but it’s nothing that can’t be dealt with, and it wasn’t nearly as concerning because last week I was in a good state of mind- and having a clear, rational mentality is what’s at stake.

My anxieties may also have lessened because of another recent development: my roommate has moved out. While I adored my roommate, I had no idea how anxious it made me to have a roommate. I never knew when the roommate would be around and when I would have the place to myself. Not knowing those things bothered me on some level, I guess. I have felt considerably less anxious since he moved out. He was one of the best roommates I could have asked for, but I don’t think it matters who I would have been living with: I’m just at a time in my life right now where I need to live on my own. It makes me all the more confident that buying the condo and living by myself is the absolute right course for me at this time.

I will be writing more about my Health Writer Eats blog on Wednesday, but I will say right now that recording my daily food intake for the world to see is not something that I believe contributed to this sudden surge of disordered eating. And just for the record, I do not believe that any of my disordered eating habits or patterns have arisen from the nutritional challenges that I occasionally do. They are for learning and health awareness purposes, and they have not corresponded to any of my disordered eating. Disordered and emotional eating are not about the food; tracking my food intake and conducting nutrition challenges are something that I will continue and which are actually beneficial to me at this time because they help me to build a better relationship with myself and with the food that I eat.

All of this leads me to an important question that I really want to get your input about:

My nutritionist Nicole and I were discussing last week how there is many books out there which talk about emotional eating, but few of them define emotional eating. Until we pinpoint what exactly “emotional eating” is, we cannot deal with the problems related to it. Emotional eating means something different to everyone. Both Nicole and I would love to hear your thoughts on emotional eating: what’s your definition of it? What does “emotional eating” mean to you?

26 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for your honesty. I have struggled with disordered eating patterns for at least 3 or 4 years now and, no surprise, my bingeing became increasingly more of an issue whenever I was anxious and abroad. I didn’t talk about it on the blog bc I didn’t want to alarm my family who was reading but I did reach out to a few friends I was abroad with and/or bloggers who had been open about dealing with a similar thing. It was all very mental most of the time, but telling myself, “have some tea, calm down, and just sleep,” was nearly futile when my mind was racing a mile a minute and I craved the comfort of home. In that case, to me, emotional eating is when I find myself returning to those disordered eating habits at the mercy of my present-time feelings. I believe that’s the only time I really do slip right back in… otherwise I prefer to focus on friends and living life, and eat the reasonably healthy way that I have learned is best for me. You’re amazing, glad you’re feeling better :)

  2. Sagan – sorry to hear about your rough week. When I had roommates in college, I often felt as you do – never knowing who is in the apartment when I return home or if that crash in the middle of the night is from a roommate or someone breaking in. But the plus side is that it is sometimes nice to have someone home. And it is also nice to have your own place with only your stuff around.

    I think emotional eating is related to any emotion we attached to food. I think everyone has some sort of emotion attach to food on some level, just that some people can control it better than others. I tend to eat when I am bored or anxious. And when I am upset, a good meal often makes me see the lighter side of things. But I have never purged nor consider myself to have an eating disorder.

  3. An interesting question. At first glance I suppose it seems straightforward – eating in response to emotions, rather than physical hunger. But I know that my responses to emotions and stress are not consistent; sometimes I might turn to food, other times I might not be able to eat at all. I couldn’t tell you why that is though.

  4. Oh sweetie, so sorry about your rough week! But you’re so strong and honest–it was great to hear how you sensibly returned to a better state of mind.

    I think “emotional eating” is a dumb term because it’s virtually impossible to detach -all- emotion from food. If I’m out with friends and we’re having a great time, we might go for some ice cream because we’re happy and craving the desire to get something sweet together. And yeah, if I’ve had a really shitty day, cooking calms me down and a warm, filling meal -does- make me feel better.

    But here is what I -think- people are implying when they throw the “emotional eating” term around. Eating in order to push away the genuine emotions–to avoid dealing with them and put a whole PF Chang’s Chocolate Wall between them. These kinds of people often wind up obese.

    My therapist and I were actually talking about this. She agreed with my conclusion: “So, if I’ve had a bad day and need to think some stuff over, thinking about things over a tasty scoop of frozen yogurt is ok, as long as I’m addressing my emotions?”

    And at the end of the day, there’s a difference between grabbing a square of chocolate because you’ve had a rough office meeting, and skipping out to find a whole pint of Ben & Jerry’s.

  5. So sorry for the bad times! They do catch up to us when we least expect them, don’t they? I’m happy you worked your way back to center.

    For me, emotional eating is responding to almost any situation by reaching for food (or avoiding it.) It’s not *always* a bad thing, but if used consistently as a “dealing method”, it’s not healthy.

  6. I’m really sorry to hear about that, but posting about it in this way may be somewhat cathartic as well, no?

    Anyway, glad you’re back on track. And living alone is probably fantastic. And I may try to crash your party pad tonight.

  7. For me, emotional eating is when I eat for any reason other than hunger. The situations may change and my emotions may change, but the bottom line doesn’t. If hunger isn’t the problem, then food is the solution.

    I wish you luck in the process right now and let you know that you’re not alone. I have, at many times, stepped on and off what I know to be the right track for me. It happens. You’ll find your way back, if you haven’t already, and will forget that you ever left!

  8. I, like everyone else, appreciates the honesty and bravery that comes from putting your most secret eating habit on a blog for all to see. The important thing is that you know that wasn’t in your best interest and were able to stop without it spiraling out of control. Kudos on that.

  9. Oh, Sagan – I’m so sorry you had a bad week. The good news is that you know how to handle the problem (living with a roommate) and it will soon be remedied. Trust me, past roommates of mine have caused many a binge!

    To me, emotional eating is when I’m upset, angry, hurt, lonely (or any “negative” emotion) and I choose to almost numb that feeling with food. I’ve been better at handling my emotions lately, but I am still not perfect. Obviously it’s easier to eat than deal with something you’re trying to run from!

  10. Long ago a therapist friend of mine gave me a saying,”If you can’t make it alone, you can’t make it. If you can’t make it with someone, you can’t make it.” There is a time for every purpose in life. Slow down, you have done so much being so young. Spring is here, it will be your Renaissance, buddy!

    Who says you have to define something to deal with it? Don’t be problem oriented, be goal oriented, like your wonderful hockey team :-) Going for the goal will eliminate problems. Problem oriented people go from one problem to the next. I think you know where you want to end up, and what that looks like. Fake that and see how that feels.

    Of course, what do I know?

  11. Tracey- Thanks, dear!

    Danielle- That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s one thing to TELL ourselves to calm down and stop being anxious… it’s another thing to be able to actually DO it.

    Asithi- Hmm… and there are also POSITIVE emotions related to food, we just often thing of “emotional eating” as a bad thing. And I guess it IS a negative thing, if it starts to be the thing that controls US.

    JavaChick- Such a mystery!

    Mimi- “My therapist and I were actually talking about this. She agreed with my conclusion: “So, if I’ve had a bad day and need to think some stuff over, thinking about things over a tasty scoop of frozen yogurt is ok, as long as I’m addressing my emotions?” ” Aha! You’ve nailed it.

    Cammy- Agreed, if it’s once in a while, it’s likely not an issue. If it happens repeatedly… cause for concern.

    Westwood- I don’t like to hide these sorts of things. I’m writing about the REAL world, after all; and that means that there’s lapses in health judgment from time to time! Come crash my “party pad” on Thursday?

    Candice & Mary- Thank you.

    Holly- And then there’s the trouble if emotional eating occurs with positive emotions, too. Hoping that is not the case!

    Dr. J- Ooh I like that saying! So very true. And you are so wise. That makes a LOT of sense.

  12. Sagan,

    I applaud your honesty and humility! I think that in and of itself sets you ahead of the curve and all will be well! Try not to be too hard on yourself.

    I don’t know if this would resonate with you but a book I have and think of as a possible resource is called “Eating in The Light of The Moon”, by Anita Johnston. While I believe everyone’s journey is different and individual I found this book to be very thought provoking. Keep looking forward, you’re doing great work and offer so much insight.

  13. Aw, Sagan…I knew about this because you tweeted to me, but I didn’t know it was this bad…but kudos to you for being so honest about it…you are just so refreshingly real. And you learn from your mistakes, and despite the minor setback, you ask for help, and you bring yourself back right up. I admire that so much!

    Not sure about emotional eating…I guess it would be an inexplicable need to ingest food just to meet a certain unfamiliar emotion? Or… maybe a way to shut OUT emotions…and just purely deal with it a physical way….instead of thinking and dealing with the emotions themselves.

  14. amazing raw honest post Sagan.

    THANK YOU FOR THIS.

    I fear Im not much help but for me the definition is simple—though the act and motivations and behavior changing is not:

    its when we eat out of something other than pure hunger.

  15. Oh Sagan! I’m so sorry about the suprise attack from your ED – I totally know how it feels to be pummeled by a new and different type of ED, just when you thought you’d got it all taken care of! The bingeing must have been so scary but you seem to have handled it in just the right way. Thanks so much for your honesty!

    As for emotional eating, I will concur with MizFit’s definition. Which means of course that I do it a lot…

  16. sorry about your rough time, sagan. when i was bingeing, any emotion justified a binge – happy, sad, bored, anxious, depressed, you name it, i could justify eating for it.

    emotional eating, to me, is eating to help get you through/fix whatever emotion you are feeling. it has nothing to do with physical hunger. food is a comfort when you don’t quite know what to do with yourself to help you get past what you are feeling.

    i hope this helps and i wish you well on your already successful journey back. it’s so great you poured your heart out to your boyfriend, because keeping it inside you would have been much worse.

  17. To me emotional eating is when there’s a part of you that knows, even while you’re doing it, that this is no way to carry on. The difficulty is in paying any attention to that part of you! And I think finding a way of doing that is different for everyone.
    I’m so sorry you had an awful time. You are very brave and very honest, and hugely determined. You’ll find a way through.

  18. Sagan – so sorry you had to go through all that, but yes, finding out what the “root” of the problem is is answer #1.

    Unfortunately, there are always going to be obstacles in our life – our kids get in trouble, unemployment, unexpected rise in property taxes – all these things have happened to me – but I take a different approach. I figure out how to fix the problem and try to move on. I’ve always been like that – if I want something I make it happen, not wait for it. Call it selfish, I am not sure.

    I wish I had the answers for you but it seems like you are stepping away from the edge and trying to figure it all out – hugs!

  19. Hi! I want to say thanks for an interesting site about a subject I have had an interest in for a long time now. I have been lurking and reading the posts avidly so just wanted to express my thanks for providing me with some very good reading material. I look forward to more, and taking a more active part in the discussions here.

  20. Sagan, after 35 years of food craziness, I joined a 12-step meeting, Overeaters Anonymous, that has, in the last ten years, brought me sanity and peace with eating. We have a saying, “I’m as sick as my secrets,” so if I do anything weird with eating/food, I don’t keep it to myself but rather disclose it to one or more people. Just as you did. No secrecy, no shame; these, in my experience, lead to yet more overeating. I thank you for your vulnerability, and I also think it is the essential doorway to change.

  21. To me it’s when I try and fill up an empty feeling, a sadness or celebrate a joy with food. When I make it more important than it is and think it can somehow improve me at that moment.

    Despite eyars of improved eating and change of attitudes it is still an issue…I don’t think you ever completely lose it.
    And yes, I envy those who don’t seem to have to deal with it :)

  22. Jolene- I am ALWAYS interested in book recommendations. Thanks for this one!

    Sophia- I hadn’t thought about it in terms of dealing with unfamiliar emotions… that’s an intriguing thought.

    Miz & Diane- So simple! Yet so tricky to deal with.

    Charlotte- I’d gotten used to recognizing symptoms of disordered eating from my old patterns of it, so it was a big shock to see myself react in a completely different way. It’s rough, needing to learn all over again how to deal with it. Gotta do some self-analyzing to figure out the emotions, I suppose!

    Love2eatinpa- Thanks. I must say that reading YOUR blog has been helpful for getting me to understand the issues.

    Liz- Thanks for the link! And I think you’ve really hit on something there… we’re often aware of what’s going on but we don’t WANT to be aware, it would seem. Hm. Sneaky indeed.

    Biz- That’s admirable, not selfish! We can’t wait for someone else to do the work for us.

    Louisa- I agree: if we keep these things secret, it’s only going to get worse. We need to address the problems and one of the best way to do that is to admit them to ourselves and to others. It’s scary because it makes it that much more REAL, but if we don’t do it, then we’ll just be hiding.

    Geosomin- “When I make it more important than it is and think it can somehow improve me at that moment.” Ah! Yes. I don’t think you ever lose it, either. It’s just something that we have to figure out how to handle!

  23. http://www.beinghealthier.com/2010/03/13/eating-disorders-or-disordered-eating/

    I enjoyed this post because it felt very relatable. I have gone through this same thought process and similar events in “dealing” and I agree its hard to find a definition for “emotional eating”…. hard and easy at the same time… if you are eating to fuel yourself- because you are physically hungry and have an empty stomach- you are eating using its purpose. but purpose and consistency are blurred in emotional eating- eating for any other reason aside from physical need seems to be emotional.
    whether it is unhealthy as well depends on a million other factors- your current weight- your consistency of the pattern- your need for more that day- your ability to be flexible with social reasons etc…

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