Emotional Eating, Christianity & HAES
Updated: Sep 11, 2019
If you’ve ever felt shame around emotional eating, you’re not alone. In Christian circles there’s a lot of shame around turning to food instead of God in our moments of need. It’s not talked about much in public. Which suits Shame just fine, since shame thrives in silence. There’s a lot of reasons why we eat emotionally. That’s not what shame and diet culture want us to believe though. I’m sure they’d prefer we blamed ourselves and just tried harder.
A quick and simple self-condemnation suits them best. “BAM! Emotional eating… tut tut. What's the matter with you?” The surprising truth is that there’s actually a lot more going on behind the scenes. More than I can cover here, but there are some important things we all need to know about ourselves and emotional eating.
First a quick definition. What exactly is "emotional eating"? It's not feeling an emotion around food. We're made to feel emotions around food. Emotional eating is when we eat disconnected from our physical hunger cues and instead eat for emotional reasons. Being excited to eat dinner after a long day isn't emotional eating.
There is also no shame and condemnation for emotional eating. I'm gonna say that one again.
There's no shame and condemnation for emotional eating.
God took all our shame. It was one of the many sacrifices Jesus has made for us. Any and all shame was nailed down with Jesus. Now there is loving compassion, freedom and connection. This isn't the place to expand on shame, but suffice it to say that we don't need to cower to shame when it comes to emotional eating.
Chapter 2 of Health At Every Size; the Surprising Truth About Your Weight is all about emotional eating. This post approaches that chapter from a Christian perspective. When it comes to shame, it’s helpful to start from the very beginning. “What’s the context and what’s contributing to our vulnerability?” In this case, Linda Bacon, PhD gives us good insight here...
Diet Culture has us disconnected from our internal cues so that we eat for every reason other than hunger.
It’s the primer. It’s setting the stage. We’ve become detached from our own body’s inner hunger, fullness and satiety cues. We’ve submitted to external rules of what, when, why, how and how much to eat. Aka food or diet rules. And our ability to sense hunger and fullness gets dulled a bit. We stop paying attention to it. From there it’s so easy to eat for every reason other than physical hunger. In this case… emotional hunger.
"We no longer allow the process to work. We don’t trust our own judgment anymore. External rules, such as belief systems about good foods, bad foods, or appropriate amounts or times to eat, drown out our innate ability to respond to setpoint cues”.
Understanding even just that one piece is hugely helpful for us to have some compassion for ourselves. External food rules disconnect and disempower us. Our own body trust can erode so much that eventually we become afraid of letting go of those rules. How would we even eat without them? The good news is that we can learn to. It’s a slow trust building process, but it’s definitely possible. That’s at the core of Intuitive Eating Coaching. Re-empowering you to connect with and trust your body and your dormant inner Intuitive Eater.
Here are some things I wish I had known about emotional eating a long time ago.
1. You are not alone.
Emotional perfection is a common byproduct of a diet culture. Eat perfect. Feel perfect. Be perfect.
2. You might actually be hungry.
When we’re on restrictive diets (or healthy lifestyles) we believe we “shouldn’t be hungry”, but we aren’t getting enough food. We actually are hungry. But when we violate that “shouldn’t”, we eat more than we would’ve otherwise because 1) we feel so bad for breaking that rule and 2) when we’re extra hungry we tend to eat more food and faster. It’s a biological safety mechanism. Plus… we don’t really have “brakes” or “yield signs”, because we’ve disconnected from those cues in order to follow external food rules. See how it all fits together?
2. You have the freedom to feel whatever you feel.
This is another major cause of our emotional eating vulnerability… the unrealistic expectation of "emotional perfection". I think this is a big one… especially in Churches. It’s definitely been my experience.
Emotional perfection is believing that there are certain right (and wrong) ways to feel.
Any wrong feeling is a crime punishable by harsh criticism and shame. Both of which can be overwhelming and isolating. And of course we're bound to feel "the wrong feelings". We feel the whole spectrum of emotions.
A lot of the time, until we have the tools and support to address this shame, we turn to distractions like food. With all of this shame flying around, it’s hard not to succumb to it. After all, Brené Brown says shame is one of the most painful human experiences. But thankfully...
God doesn’t shame us about our food or feelings, so nobody else has the right to. Not even ourselves.
I’m free to feel whatever I feel with God. I don’t have to try to sneak away, pull myself together, and then come back to God all bright and shiny. And neither do you. The next post will show how feeling the desire to emotional eat can be an opportunity for so much goodness and healing.