This is part 2 of my 6-part series on emotional eating, the perversion of food in our society today, and how to overcome it. If you haven’t, read Part 1: Food as a Symbol of Love first.
Dependency on Food
“Gluttony is an emotional escape, a sign something is eating us.” ~ Peter De Vries
My childhood conditioning made me very dependent on food. Every time I did something, I would need food as a companion.
For example, whenever I was stressed, I would reach out for food automatically. Be it finishing an assignment, studying at the last minute for exams or doing work, I would immediately reach out for food, which would then fuel me on my to-dos. If I didn’t have food, I wouldn’t be able to finish what I intended to do. I would either fall asleep or be stuck, like a deer caught in the headlights.
Even when I was not stressed, I would reach out for food too. I could be playing games, watching a movie, watching TV, chatting on the phone, or hanging out with friends, and I would feel the need to eat. I would feel weird, or even angsty, otherwise.
And the times when I felt happy, eating would come to mind as well. Say, when I received good news, when I got things done, or even when I just felt happy in general. Eating seemed like a natural activity to follow up those situations.
An Emotional Eater
I didn’t know this then, but I was eating in response to emotions, not because my body needed it. A part of me did notice I ate more (both in quantity and frequency) (a) than others did (b) than I should. But I thought perhaps I had a big appetite, or I needed more food for my fast metabolism, or something like that. I didn’t suspect anything.
The realization I was an emotional eater finally sunk in during Jan 2011. I had put myself on a raw food trial in Live a Healthier Life in 21 Days Challenge (21DHL), and I was doing well, in terms of my adherence to the diet. I was sticking to nutritious fresh fruits and vegetables, and it was increasing my mental clarity. I also needed less sleep as I would whenever I was on my raw trials.
However, I noticed I would subconsciously reach for more food, even though I was already full from the fruits and vegetables I just ate. While I would do this in the past on other diets, I never saw it as an issue as the food I snacked on was usually junk food, which were hardly filling. I thought perhaps I was still hungry.
But with fruits and vegetables, they were highly voluminous, and I would feel extremely full after eating for a while. Even though I had no intentions to eat anymore, I kept getting subconscious triggers to eat.
It was then that I realized my eating was outside of my control – as was a lot of my eating in the past. There were clearly subconscious wirings making me eat, despite me not wanting to. While in the past I thought they were under my control, because I would succumb to the intention to eat, it became clear to me that I would still have eaten anyway even if I tried not to.
My desire to eat had taken a life of its own, and it was no longer within my control.
In retrospect, all the reasons I made up to justify my eating in the past, such as “Oh, I’m eating this because I really want to eat this.” or “I’ll eat this one last time and restart a healthy diet tomorrow.” or “Why deprive myself of things I want to eat? I should do what makes me happy.” or “I don’t think I ate enough today – I better eat more.” or “Eating will make me feel better, so I’m going to eat now.” or “Since I’m working, I deserve to eat as a reward.” or “Since I’m watching a show/movie, I should indulge and let myself eat.” etc, were merely excuses to cover up my emotional eating issues.
So I would eat, in response to my emotions. Typically I would get triggered to eat when I had a lot of work to do, though my emotional eating would arise even in times of happiness or leisure. Whether it was boredom, stress, anxiety, excitement, or happiness, I would eat as a way of calming those emotional states.
After eating, I would feel happy and satisfied. If I didn’t eat in response to my eating urges, I would feel angsty and not be able to do anything else.
Eating… A Fleeting Satisfaction
Eating soothed me. It had a calming effect on me when I wasn’t calm. It made me feel content when I wasn’t contented. It made me feel happy when I was plagued by unhappy thoughts.
Before I ate, there would be anticipation as I thought about how I was going to eat soon. I would be excited about the food I was going to have.
Then as I consumed the food, there would be a surge of happy emotions, as I savored my bites. This was likely a combination of euphoria due to addictive agents used in the junk food (if I was eating junk food), and an illusionary fulfillment due to my warped beliefs surrounding food.
This satisfaction would last throughout the eating. For a while after I finished eating, I would be content.
But the satisfaction would be short-lived. It wouldn’t be long before I found myself reaching out for food again – even if I had eaten a fair bit. Sometimes I would feel like eating again after half a day, before meal times. Sometimes I would feel like eating after just a few hours. Sometimes the urge to eat would arise after a few minutes.
It was not quite right. It almost seemed like my desire to eat had little to do with physical hunger. How could I be hungry almost right away after I was done eating? Could I be going crazy?
I was exasperated.
From Emotional Eating, to Compulsive Eating, to Compulsive Overeating
I gradually evolved from being an emotional eater (eating in response to emotions), to a compulsive eater (where I would constantly feel like eating), to a compulsive overeater (where I would eat beyond the point of being comfortably full).
My emotional eating became bingefests, in my attempt to calm my emotional states.
While my emotional eating could be triggered by anything (from happy emotions, to negative emotions, to boredom), I found my binges (deliberate attempts to eat to the point of extreme fullness) were usually triggered out of anger (at myself) or feelings of depression (usually stemming from low self-esteem).
For example, if I fell offtrack in my diet by eating something I shouldn’t have, I would retaliate by eating obsessively, as if I was punishing myself. I would think, “Since I already ate that cookie (for example), how does it matter if I ate 20 more cookies? Might as well just eat myself to death while I’m at this.“.
I would also binge when someone gave me credit for doing well on my diet, even though I wasn’t (such as if I overate the night before or if I ate something I shouldn’t have). Or if the person commented I was eating little when I knew it wasn’t the case (with my secret binges). I would feel that I didn’t deserve the comment and I was living a facade, and then retaliate by bingeing.
Another example would be when I felt conscious about my looks. If I ever felt fat or ugly, I would drown myself in food. I would think, “Since I’m already so fat, what’s the point of being conscious of my food intake? Might as well overeat to oblivion.” or “All these efforts are pointless. I’m never going to achieve my ideal look. Let’s just eat and forget about this. The fatter, the uglier, the better.”.
Even comments that I was thin, if made in a period when I had binged or fallen offtrack on my diet, would make me binge. I would think that I would have been way ahead in my diet plans if I hadn’t gone offtrack, and turn to food to mend my sorrows.
As you can see, my emotional eating was heavily compounded due to issues with body image. This was because eating, weight, and image were tied to one another – a slip in my eating habits would trigger a domino effect.
However, even if I had no issues with body image or weight whatsoever, it still wouldn’t erase the fact that I had emotional eating issues, due to the way I was brought up, as I shared in Part-1: Food as a Symbol of Love. Emotional eating was a very serious problem that was causing me a lot more anguish than I realized. To live a life where I was at the mercy of food, constantly thinking of eating – and feeling angsty if my desire to eat was not met – it was no different than being a slave of food.
Bingeing… Alone, and During the Night
Bingeing wasn’t something I was proud of. It represented a loss of control, a moment of weakness, incompetence, an emergence of a dark side of me I never knew was there (or didn’t want to know).
Hence, my binges typically happened at night, when I was by myself, safe in my room. I would secretly plan for time alone so I could binge to my delight.
There was a warped perception in my mind that if I ate alone, *and* if I ate at the end of the day (say, late at night), the food wouldn’t count into my daily caloric intake. The bingeing and “loss” of control would also not count as my “real” self, or my “real” life, whatever that meant.
The bingeing was a part of my life which I saw as totally separate. There were times when I would be satisfied with myself for sticking to my plan in the day, then eat freely at night.
So in the day, I would be extremely “well-behaved” in following my diet plan. I would eat proportionately, sometimes even lesser than others. Sometimes people would even comment I was eating little, that I was very “disciplined” in my food intake.
Of course, that was not true at all. They didn’t know what was happening behind closed doors.
Night time, when I was by myself, was when things would change.
Massive Eating Sprees
During my binges, I would eat like crazy, no holds barred.
There would be all kinds of food in my home, so getting food wasn’t a problem. Even if there wasn’t enough food, I would even go out, late at night, just to buy food to binge. There would be provision stores open till late. Even if not, there was a 24 hour McDonald’s less than 10 minutes’ walk away from my home back in Singapore. Or in worse case scenarios, there were always 24 hour food delivery services, though I never had to turn to that.
My binges had no limits. I could eat all kinds of food, from snacks, to small bites, to proper meals. The objective was to eat as much as possible, in a bid to offset my unhappy emotions. I could easily finish up the food at home during each bingefest (which would be a whole lot). It was as if there was a bottomless pit in my stomach.
Food-wise, my binges were typically of crap food. The crappier, the better. Some examples would be chips, chocolate, ice cream, bread with peanut butter, pastries, cake, fries, fried food, fast food, and highly acidic coke/diet coke to top it off. These food would be dense in calories, nutritionally empty, and perfect as a tool for self-punishment. Even when there was healthy food in the house, I would deliberately avoid them and go for the unhealthy food.
Clearly, I was abusing my body terribly with the bingeing. I would stuff as much as I could until I couldn’t take it anymore. At the end of it all, my stomach would hurt from all the food I had eaten.
Intense Feelings of Shame, Anger and Self-Hate
After each binge, I would feel massively grossed out. Sick would be an adept word to use.
A lot of times I would go to sleep right after I was done because I didn’t want to face myself or the world anymore. I would be deeply ashamed of the atrocity I just committed. I would want to hide in my bed and disappear into my dreams.
Many times, I would tell myself the upcoming binge was the last one, except it never was. It would somehow continue the next day or after a few days, after something set me off into eating again.
In the period I was a compulsive overeater, I had an intense phobia of weighing, especially if I had binged in that period. No matter what the scale would say, I would berate myself for it, because I knew it could be so much better if I had not binged at all. Weighing was akin to judgment day.
I would avoid social outings and appointments sometimes, especially if I had binged the day / few days before. Beyond being conscious about how I looked (I would feel I was growing too fat from my binges, even though I probably looked no different than usual), I felt I could not face the world because I had let myself down by bingeing. I would cook up some excuse and not go out.
I was ashamed, self-inferior (where my looks and weight were concerned), sorely lacking in self-esteem, angry, and intensely in-hate with myself.
These feelings of shame would trigger me to binge further. It was a self-enforcing cycle. I would binge out of self-punishment and self-hate, which would lead me to feel utterly disgusted with myself, which would then lead to more bingeing.
I felt I was living in some kind of nightmare that would never end.
Longingness For It To End
Towards the later years of my emotional eating journey, I just wanted it to end.
Physical Implications of Overeating
Physically, it was worrying. Extra calories and implications on weight aside, overeating was clearly detrimental for the body.
There were times when I would observe myself bingeing and feel genuinely worried, because my eating was clearly out of control. After each binge, my stomach would feel pained. My stomach walls would feel stretched from the excess food that I ate despite being beyond comfortably full.
I couldn’t help but think I was going to die from bingeing someday, unless I did something about it.
Mentally, I was worn. I was tired of playing tug-of-war with food.
To constantly be triggered into eating, then resist myself because I didn’t need to eat, then cave in and eat later on, then feel bad for eating more than I should – it was tiring. It was as if I had a wiring that was loose in my mind, because I couldn’t stop my desire to eat. There was a voice that kept telling me to eat. It was as if I was a robot on crack.
Towards the later years, I got so tired that I didn’t even care anymore. I would just let myself binge when the triggers came, then deal with the aftermath the next day.
An Emotional Drain
Emotionally, it was draining.
While my bingeing started off gratifying, I would feel highly unhappy after that. As I shared above, I was feeling intense feelings of self-hate, inferiority and disgust from my actions. I was utterly miserable.
I also became less happy during the binges. The eating was no longer gratifying like in the past. If anything, I felt more and more miserable with each bite I took.
The yoyo-ing of emotions from up to down, and from down to up, and the constant resorting to food to sustain a feeling of happiness which was fleeting to begin with, was not working out for me.
Spiritually, I could feel the bingeing episodes were eating away at my soul, bit by bit. It was clearly an action that was not in line with my highest vision for myself.
There were times when I was bingeing, when I could feel a little girl inside, weeping and pleading for me to stop. I could hear her saying I was going to die soon if I didn’t.
Even while I was inside my warped reality with food, I could see I was more obsessed about food than others around me, and the obsession was abnormal.
I wanted to get out of this loop of eating, waking up and feeling bad, then eating again, and repeating that cycle the next day. I wanted to get out of this hellhole.
It would take a while before I finally worked through my issues with food and broke out of this decade-long struggle.
Read on in Part 3: Becoming at Peace with Food, on how I overcame my struggle with emotional eating.
This is part 2 of my 6-part series on emotional eating, the perversion of food in our society today, and how to overcome it.
- How I Overcame Emotional Eating, Part 1: Food as a Symbol of Love
- How I Overcame Emotional Eating, Part 2: Deep Entanglement
- How I Overcame Emotional Eating, Part 3: Becoming at Peace with Food
- 12 Signs of Emotional Eating (and Why It is Bad For You)
- How to Stop Emotional Eating, Part 1: Tackling the Causes of Emotional Eating
- How to Stop Emotional Eating, Part 2: Rebuilding a Healthy Relationship with Food