I have to imagine that most people eat emotionally, at least to some extent, but probably to a large extent.
It seems reasonable that everyone gets hangry sometimes, and that the dysfunction of “emotional eating” is a spectrum, where some people far to one side comfortably eat ONLY for nutrition 100% of the time, and some people far to the other side eat (or do not eat) ONLY for emotional reasons 100% of the time.
Those for whom food is totally emotional might also tend to fall into the clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder, though a professional would have to determine that based on a lot more than just whether food is emotional.
Feelings inspire eating (or not eating) and eating (or not eating) inspires feelings
It seems reasonable that all people fall somewhere between the extremes of never eating when bored, sad, happy, mad, etc., and always feeling emotionally attached or provoked or relieved by food. And, most people lose their appetite or forget to eat due to life stressors from time to time.
It also seems reasonable to imagine that most or all people experience some degree of psychological or emotional discomfort in response to being “deprived” of food; even if that “deprivation” is just normal hunger that develops when we haven’t eaten for several hours and mealtime is approaching.
And, conversely, that most or all people feel comforted by eating. We are biologically made to feel discomfort of hunger and comfort of satiety, so that we keep ourselves fed and alive.
What hunger feels like to me, a person without a colon
I had my entire colon removed 7 years ago, due to severe Ulcerative Colitis. In place of the colon, my surgeon used small intestine to create a new mini-colon, called a j-pouch, which makes my digestive functioning relatively normal, especially considering my disease. Thanks to the j-pouch, I don’t have an ostomy bag outside my body, like many who have had colectomies.
Side note: I think the j-pouch diagrams are slightly freaky (although cool and amazing), so I’m not including one here, but if you’re curious what the anatomy of people like me looks like, definitely google “colectomy with j-pouch diagram” to have a peek.
One major change, however, due to my now very short bowel, is the transit time for my food is only about 6-10 hours, where the Mayo Clinic says it takes about 2 days for a normal body to digest and eliminate eaten food as waste.
Some people who have had surgeries like mine develop something called “short bowel syndrome,” where they have a difficult time gaining any weight or even maintaining a normal weight.
I’ve wondered why I don’t have a weight loss “problem,” since it’s obvious to me that I don’t digest everything I eat with such a quick transit time, but I know there is a psychological component for me:
During the initial four years of having Ulcerative Colitis, I was in extreme pain, it was difficult to eat, and I was often placed on NPO (Nil Per Os, meaning “nothing by mouth,” not even water!) for days or sometimes weeks, to allow my intestines to heal from ulcers.
During those years, I often lost huge amounts of weight very quickly, and since that experience was coupled with often life-threatening medical experiences and tremendous pain, I think I was surely traumatized; I associate weight loss with dying. I vividly remember the discomfort of having nothing to eat for 5 or 6 weeks. It’s a unique kind of emptiness that is tinged with fear, and I’m sure that’s a natural biological response to starvation.
Since the process of getting back on my feet after surgery, and back to eating normally, took several years, I very gradually adjusted to my feelings about having been so extremely ill, having lived in the hospital for so many years, and now having a very different anatomy to get used to working.
I was pretty constantly on high doses of prednisone and other steroids, which, as anyone who has ever taken them knows, caused me to gain huge amounts of weight. Over my illness period my weight fluctuated from about 135 to below 100 to over 175.
So, when I started to stabilize about 5 years ago, I was around 170 pounds at 5’0”, and having a lot of trouble finding foods I could eat comfortably with my new pouch. The best kinds of foods for my tummy were soft things like mashed potatoes and applesauce, and other carbs, but I wasn’t worried about losing weight quite yet.
In fact, I noticed that I was afraid of losing weight.
For the first year I was stable, I was definitely feeling fragile and vulnerable from the war I felt like I had been inside of for about 5 years at that point. I was jumpy and had trouble sleeping, and I started thinking that every little twinge or ache might mean something was an emergency. At this same time, I started developing troublesome fibromyalgia (intense fatigue and body aches, much like the flu), which makes sense; many researchers believe fibromyalgia comes on after a physical or psychological trauma, and my illness had definitely been both.
I wanted to keep weight on so that I wouldn’t experience the terrifying sensation of wasting away to a skeleton before my own eyes, while I had no control over anything in my life, trapped in a hospital.
And I started feeling a strange new kind of hunger. I am sure that it was partly biological: since my system empties quickly, I do feel a deep kind of hunger when there is nothing in my GI tract, and I think that’s normal.
But, the hunger I have had since my colectomy must also be psychological because when I get hungry, I feel it so strongly that it takes over my consciousness. It is very difficult for me to think about anything at all when I’m experiencing hunger, to the extent that I can’t even concentrate on a fun movie or maintain a normal conversation. I also wake early in the morning with intense hunger pains that keep me from sleeping as long as I want to.
That’s been hard, and it’s something that I know delayed my desire to start a weight loss plan. Even though I want to get back to my pre-illness, super fit, 130 pound body, I convinced myself that I was perfectly comfortable at 170 lbs and sedentary, because (a) I was at least relieved to be alive and stable, and (b) I didn’t know how I was going to do battle with the new form of hunger I was (and am) experiencing.
My medical doctors have all been so wonderful through my entire illness, and now, as I continue to deal with occasional pouchitis (similar to colitis, but inflammation of the new pouch), inflammatory arthritis, and fibromyalgia, but they’re not very concerned with my sense of extreme hunger on a medical level. That makes sense to me; I think it is primarily psychological.
I have a great therapist I’m working with, but I haven’t started talking about the hunger yet. I think I will, soon, but I think that in the same way I haven’t wanted to fight with this hunger, I have been reluctant to bring it to therapy where I will have to really look at it. Once I start to look at the hunger, I’m going to have to unravel all of the painful emotions and gory memories I’m carrying from the scary years of the most dramatic parts of my illness.
I need to face that, and I’m almost ready.
Basic Factors that Cause Emotional Eating
In the meantime, I’ve been learning about emotional eating.
One very brief resource from Healthline gives a succinct explanation of how emotional eating works for us:
Negative emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. Food is believed to be a way to fill that void and create a false feeling of “fullness” or temporary wholeness.
Other factors include:
- retreating from social support during times of emotional need
- not engaging in activities that might otherwise relieve stress, sadness, and so on
- not understanding the difference between physical and emotional
- using negative self-talking that’s related to bingeing episodes. This can create a cycle of emotional eating
- changing cortisol levels in response to stress, leading to cravings.
A Process for Addressing these 6 Contributors to Emotional Eating
Something I like to do when I’m trying to improve something about myself, or develop new skills, is to take things in parts. Particularly for lists like the one above, I like to take each item and assess whether/how it applies to me and to identify a strategy for addressing that element.
You can go through this same process by identifying the unique way you relate and a strategy that works for you.
So, here we go:
1. Negative emotions may lead to a feeling of emptiness or an emotional void. Food is believed to be a way to fill that void and create a false feeling of “fullness” or temporary wholeness.
How do I relate?
If I’m being honest, I often do feel empty emotionally. Even though I have a job I love and friends I love, being chronically ill involves a lot of grieving over things I want to do but can’t do. I try not to focus on the negative, and it’s possible that by forcing myself to always be cheerful and push those sad feelings out of my mind, I’m making them show up in my belly as a feeling of physical emptiness.
- Be mindful of the fact that I need to face my grief, and I need to look for other sources of emotional emptiness, through journaling and through working with my therapist.
- Find more things that genuinely fill my life with joy and satisfaction! There are many hobbies and activities that give my life meaning that I put to the side because I’m “too busy.” If I want to feel less empty, I need to fill my life with authentic positivity, either by adding new things or by amping up my gratitude practice, so that I can become more aware of how full my life really is.
2. retreating from social support during times of emotional need
How do I relate?
Well, this is definitely a big one for me! I didn’t feel like I had a strong support system as a child, and I think I just closed myself to some extent from the idea that other people could help me. I also sometimes feel like my chronic illness is burdensome or boring for others. Not that anyone makes me feel that way at all, but I know it must be hard for my loved ones to really relate to an illness that never clears up. So, I’ve gotten in the habit that I think the majority of chronically ill people fall into: putting on a happy face and failing to be authentic.
The easy answer to this one is: stop retreating from social support during times of emotional need!
But, of course, if it were that simple, it wouldn’t be a problem to begin with.
So, I think the right strategy is to focus on what makes a good genuine friendship (with a friend, family, spouse, or anyone): being authentic, caring unconditionally, and sharing life.
Of these three elements, I can ask myself to consider myself in the PROCESS of being more authentic, by testing out sharing more about my real life. I can see how it feels to share a little more about how things really go for me, and I’m sure that will give me more confidence that my friends really do want to support me, the way I support them.
3. not engaging in activities that might otherwise relieve stress, sadness, and so on
How do I relate?
Another big one. I have limited my activities over the course of my illness to preserve my energy, but I’m not always sick. I’m underestimating what I can do; an activity to relieve sadness can be as easy as watching a funny movie!
I’ll create a list of difficult emotions and then create a list of healthy (and accessible) activities that help me cope with those emotions.
For example, I think the biggest emotion I tend to eat because of is fear/anxiety.
Some healthy and accessible activities that help me with anxiety are:
- Take a bath
- Walk the doggo (if I’m feeling up for that)
- Sometimes I’m only anxious because I’m overworked and under-rested, so: take a nap
- Call a funny friend
- Watch a “safe show.” I have a handful of standby TV shows (such as The Office) that never fail to calm me down
- Play with my chihuahua!
4. not understanding the difference between physical and emotional
How do I relate?
This one is interesting, and probably worth pondering for most people. How do we KNOW whether we understand the difference between physical and emotional hunger if the sensation is the same?
There are a lot of articles about physical hunger vs. emotional hunger, but this one is from the reputable source of the Cleveland Clinic: “Decoding Your Hunger: Are You Really Hungry or Not?”
This element is complex for me and I feel like a beginner when it comes to really being able to tell the difference. So, my initial strategy is to study the article above and do some more research about how I can teach myself to tell the difference.
5. using negative self-talking that’s related to bingeing episodes. This can create a cycle of emotional eating
How do I relate?
I don’t, really relate to this. If I give into a craving and eat more than I want to, I accept it and feel fine. Probably much too fine!
As I was learning to eat again after such a long period of intestinal illness, I celebrated being able to eat, and placed no limitations on myself.
While I certainly don’t want to start down a path of negative self-talk about over-eating, it is time to rethink how much I have come to accept emotional eating as perfectly normal, or even “good.”
I’m definitely aware of when I’m indulging an emotional craving—I did it just yesterday as a “reward” for a stressful day at work—so, I can take a moment to pause when I’m deciding whether to get some food to soothe myself.
Instead, I can stop and ask myself: “What could you eat to nourish and love your body with nutrition?”
6. changing cortisol levels in response to stress, leading to cravings.
How do I relate?
I’ve thought about cortisol a lot over the past decade, since my doctors tell me stress leads to cortisol which leads to inflammation which leads to disease flares.
Reducing stress is a huge part of my life now, but it’s not easy with everything going on in the world and in my life. Here are some things I try to do every day:
- Exercise. Even if it’s 10 minutes. Every day.
- Any kind of arts/crafts are amazing for stress
- Talk with fun friends
- Playing with my dog as much as humanly possible
- Writing, like I’m doing here
- CBD oil
- Talking with kindness to myself
- Keeping a routine
Keeping a routine is definitely my biggest challenge, especially working from home during this pandemic. But I can’t even blame it on the circumstances. It’s about cultivating the discipline and deep-down will to actually put my needs first in life
All of these elements are huge challenges, but the first step is concretely understanding what they really are.