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Rethinking Emotions, Food, and Restriction

This hungry caterpillar has a hungry cat.

I’ve mentioned in a few previous posts that Maggie, who my family adopted in 2002, is a bag of bones. Her weight has dropped by more than half, and a couple of weeks ago, the vet was able to identify the cause: her kidneys are failing. I guess kidney failure can cause the body to lose a lot of its protein, at least according to the vet, and for a while, it seemed to put a major damper on Mag’s appetite.

For a while, Maggie wouldn’t eat or drink hardly at all. But over the summer, Mom started feeding her canned cat food. It was still a bit hard to get her to eat, but she’d eat more and more often.

Then suddenly this past couple of weeks, though, she’s been eating about every hour and crying for food constantly. Mom said, “Maggie’s become obsessed with eating.”

I always sort of internally flinch when I hear someone talk about “obsession” with eating. First, I think our culture is too eager to say someone is “obsessed” with food or has “food addiction” when what’s actually happening is the intense hunger that follows a period of semi-starvation.

Which is exactly, I imagine, what’s happening to Maggie. It’s accurate to say that Maggie’s obsessed with food; obsessed as any starving animal would naturally be. Maggie just doesn’t realize that humans don’t consider it socially acceptable to whine for food literally any time someone walks into the kitchen. Also, Maggie doesn’t have opposable thumbs and can’t open the refrigerator. Nor does she have any diet-culture BS in her brain telling her there’s any reason not to eat if she’s hungry.

Sprinkling some random photos of my life recently in here. I had leftover kale pizza and scrambled eggs for breakfast last week and it was great!

Maggie’s constant whining has been making me think more about my first year or so of recovery. I’ve been thinking about the shame of realizing that I, like Maggie, was obsessed with food.

About six months in to recovery, I was weight-restored and trying to learn to eat intuitively, still regularly seeing a therapist. I remember my therapist telling me–correctly–that I had a huge emotional attachment to food. That year I had finished college, had few friends, worked a job that I found unfulfilling, and was exercising very minimally; one of the few things which gave me joy in my life was food. Food and swing dancing. Go swing dancing. Anyway…

I remember that if I wasn’t hungry at dinner time and therefore wasn’t “allowed” to eat (because my understanding of intuitive eating was still pretty narrow), it was really distressing for me. Like, ruined my day distressing.

Realizing how much I was emotionally invested in food was beyond embarrassing. I couldn’t have been more embarrassed if I’d admitted to drug addiction. I started crying right there in the therapist’s office.

I don’t remember exactly what the psychologist said. I do remember she suggested I read the book When Food Is Love. I’ve yet to read it, but I’ve heard about it and I imagine it’s a very helpful book.

But in retrospect, what I’m sure the psychologist didn’t say to me–and what I’d say to my former self if I could go back now–is:

Of course you’re emotionally attached to food. You’ve been starving. Not starving like “I could really go for some pizza right now” but starving like “I am extremely undernourished and exhibiting symptoms of clinical starvation.”

Of course if you have a biological need for something and you fulfill that need, whether it’s for movement or water or warmth or human interaction, it’s going to bring you joy. And the greater the need, of course, greater the joy.

My brother’s wife reads “The Night Before Christmas” to my cousin’s daughter.

And what’s more, if you’ve been deprived of something you like, something that brings you comfort, whether it’s a trip to the mountains or your favorite food, it’s going to bring you joy to get to experience that thing again. I remember that after studying abroad, the simplest joys like seeing the wide-open Kansas skies or eating sweet corn on the cob were suddenly glorious.

I wish I could have said this to myself because I realize in retrospect that there was no shame in being emotionally invested in food. Food is rightfully important to us for many reasons. Deprivation from anything important makes the thing even more important, disproportionately so.

It’s been three years since I’ve started eating enough and I’m still trying to develop what I’d call an emotionally normal relationship to food.

No one wants to call themself “an emotional eater.” No one wants to cope with their emotions primarily or exclusively through food. Speaking from experience, I know that I was miserable when food filled all of my emotional holes.

But there’s no shame in it, either.

My grandmother made this angel, and it appears on our Christmas tree every year.

Restriction is not the only reason that food can take up disproportionate space in a person’s emotional life, either. It wasn’t the only reason for me, although the other reasons are harder for me to articulate. (Not for lack of trying. I’ve literally written several essays trying to articulate this and failed miserably. For someone with a master’s degree in creative writing, I stink at writing about emotions.)

I also acknowledge that emotional eating is a real and difficult thing for some people who have never been dieters or restrictive eaters. There’s no shame in that, either.

So the point I’m trying to make here is two-fold:

First, I think discussions of emotional eating need to be more cognizant of the role that restriction can play in creating an unhealthy emotional relationship with food,

and second, just like there shouldn’t have to be any shame associated with depression or anxiety or bipolar disorder or dyslexia or epilepsy or any other mental or physical health condition, there shouldn’t have to be any shame in emotional eating.

Especially not if you’re a gingerbread person. If you’re a gingerbread person, having an emotional relationship with food is self-love. 😉



Linking up with Amanda to share these thoughts for Thinking Out Loud Thursday.

Have you ever noticed whether restriction can impact your emotional relationship with food?

Are there any family heirlooms you take out every year at Christmas time?

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  1. Cora says:

    Well said and all very true. Our bodies want what they feel they are being neglected of, even if our minds think otherwise. I’m slowly witnessing myself become less and less “obsessed” with food – meaning not putting much weight on what I eat that day, or if a meal ends up badly or doesn’t taste that great. But in periods of restriction, I see how it all makes sense.

    1. Joyce says:

      Thanks, Cora. Isn’t it a relief to have less emotional weight on what we eat every day?

  2. Emily says:

    It’s amazing how that emotionally normal place takes so LONG to get to. I’m thankful that I don’t feel as crazy around food as I used to; it’s so good to be in that place where we don’t have to feel crazy or obsessed with food anymore. I’m still learning, but I’m thankful for this.

    1. Joyce says:

      I’m still learning too; intuitive eating is definitely something to be thankful for!

  3. I LOVE this post! I think we can learn so so much from animals in this regard. Sometimes my dog will have eaten a meal after not eating for a long time and then immediately after she asks for more. My grandma says, “oh please, you’re not hungry, you just ate.” And I’m there like, um, yesterday I finished a meal and was still hungry so I went and ate a spoonful of peanut butter, but the dog can’t very well get herself peanut butter!
    Completely agree with you how dangerous it can be to talk about food “obsession” like that. And I think emotional eating is a normal part of intuitive eating, as long as one has other coping mechanisms and is not only relying on food for comfort.
    Thank you for the thought-provoking post <3

    1. Joyce says:

      I agree, Nicole! Obsession is an accurate description of what’s going on, but it drives me nuts when people try to address the “problem” of “obsession” by encouraging someone to diet or restrict more. Ick!
      And yes, food is emotional, and that’s fine and normal as long as you have other coping mechanisms. Robyn and Kylie both write a lot about that! Love those bloggers.

  4. Evangeline says:

    I noticed that even years into recovery, if there’s a really busy day and I don’t get enough to eat, food is on my mind until I eat and feel satiated. It makes so much sense, and it’s incredible that our bodies are that sensitive. When we don’t have enough energy, our brains send persistent little messages telling us “eat” “food” “eat”. I’m beginning to see this as a positive thing. Slowly, slowly. Thanks for this!

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