“Emotional Eating”

June 4, 2011

A few weeks ago I got an email from a patient who was in a bit of a pickle. She’s a young woman who had just been offered a new job in New York, and she was having a terribly difficult time figuring out what to do: uproot her entire life and move 200 miles away for the possibility of a better job, or stay in D.C., where she’s comfortable and has a steady, though unexciting job.  Long story short: we talked by phone that night for a while, worked through the decision, and ultimately she decided that she really liked her life in D.C. and, for now, staying here was a better decision for her.

I write this for 2 reasons.  One, she wrote a great email to me that I’ll post below.  It may not mean much to readers since you don’t know her, but I found it fascinating. She has long disagreed that she eats “emotionally” – that is, she consistently states that she eats for hunger, as well as enjoyment, but not in response to feelings or emotions. This situation, as described in her email, convinced her otherwise.  See below.

The other reason I began this post is to discuss emotional eating.  I’ll leave an in-depth discussion for another time, but for now I’ll state emphatically: everybody who has emotions eats, at times, emotionally.  And the only people who don’t have emotions are those with lobotomies.

And, there ain’t nothing wrong with emotional eating.  This is probably the last think you’d think to hear from a “diet doctor” (except that I’M NOT A DIET DOCTOR!).  But I’m quite serious. Emotional eating is inevitable since we are emotional beings. What we do with it is the key…and this is a discussion I’ll return to shortly.

For now, here’s the email:

Subject: Stress Test, Or How I learned Emotional Eating is Real and Lived with it

There is nothing worse than being proven wrong. Ok, admittedly, there are many things worse than being proven wrong, but no one actually likes to be proven wrong. However, if you must be proven wrong, having the tools to deal with the situation makes the blow slightly less painful.

I was offered a job in a different city this week, a job that would have been a great career move, but not so much a great life move at this time. Since I’m someone that never misses an opportunity to over-dramatize a situation, the internal conflict brought about by this job offer caused me a very large amount of stress. Unlike a small portion of the general population, I do not thrive under stress; in fact, I avoid it. But this was unavoidable, it had to be dealt with.

I received the job offer on Monday, which also happened to be a major breaking news day. Because I work in the news business, breaking news means I’m in for a long, long day. Every time there is major breaking news work orders food for us worker bees because we are expected to work all day, preferably without getting up from our desks. Monday’s meal was pizza and I partook of two slices. I can’t say that I didn’t know what I was doing when I ate the pizza, I was fully aware that on Program A I shouldn’t be eating it, but the Osama bin Laden news was coming in fast and furiously and reaching for the filling, cheesy goodness was the easy choice. I would realize later, upon further reflection, that the stress from the job offer was also a contributing factor in my decision to reach for the doughy, cheesy and, frankly, delicious pizza. At the end of the day though, I was grateful I only had two slices and figured that was good enough. Just like that. No guilt, no beating myself up, just acceptance.

I figured sleeping on the job offer would be helpful; perhaps the spirit of my dear, departed mother would come and whisper the answer while I was slumbering, but typical of my mother, she did not tell me what to do. I woke up just as stressed as I’d been when I went to sleep. A trip to the gym was no help at all either. I spent the rest of the day speaking with several different people, getting advice on how I should think about the situation. With all the advice, some of it conflicting, I felt more lost, not less. All of this culminated in a truly spectacular show of tears at a restaurant … during happy hour.

By Wednesday morning, the decision had been made but I still faced the stress of calling the woman who would have been my new boss and telling her I was not going to take the offered position. I tried to do it as early as possible; better to get it over with as soon as I could. Once the deed had been done, I felt lighter but there was lingering stress. Several hours after I’d made the fateful phone call, I was asked by one of our prime time shows to help them because one of their producers had to go home sick. A show is always stressful to put on, it seems no matter how well you plan a live show, something will always go wrong. This night proved to be no different. About 10 minutes before the show started our computer system went down, including the site where the show’s script is housed. It was a mad scramble to get things re-set up in a different site. There’s nothing like total panic it to get the blood flowing before the show open.

By the time the show ended, I had been awake for 13 hours, at work for 11 and heavily stressed for over 48, a crash was inevitable. I made the conscious decision to buy food on my way home and I made a fully conscious decision, perhaps for the first time ever, that what I was going to order would serve specific needs:

  • The turkey and Swiss sandwich is my favorite, it’s always yummy and who can be sad or upset when eating turkey & Swiss? My one concession: going for regular size instead of large. Score one for the weight loss plan doctors.
  • The sea salt & vinegar chips are not only delicious, but the crunch they make is actually de-stressing. And did I mention they’re delicious? The upside of buying the small bag of chips is it comes with a natural stopping point.
  • Cinnamon & sugar cookie. This needs no explanation. It’s sugar, it’s yummy and sugar always makes me feel good. The plus, once again: one cookie; natural stopping point.

So the take away from all of this is simple: I was wrong. I do eat to comfort myself from time to time. While catching this can probably stop or heavily modify the behavior I also realize that on particularly difficult situations, it’s ok for me to eat what I want (provided I am aware of what I’m doing) and not beat myself up about. Just like that, no guilt, no recrimination, just being.

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