Emotional Eating in Quarantine

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Despite the major life disruption that the coronavirus quarantine has been for us personally, Jonah and I are lucky enough to be able to still work, as we are telehealth providers. While all of my patients are struggling in different ways with quarantine, one theme keeps on popping up consistently: “I feel like my emotional eating is out of control.”

Many of my patients are working on becoming intuitive eaters, and the current pandemic is making it extremely difficult for them to heal their relationship with their bodies and food. Living in these strange times is like nothing we have ever experienced before – being confined to our homes, socially distancing, and the near constant underlying fear of illness are exhausting and emotionally draining.

Some of my patients are working on the front lines of the corona crisis, taking care of patients who are severely ill. Some of my patients have lost loved ones to the virus. Others are struggling with the loneliness of isolation. In short, the past couple of months have been really, really rough. And the fact that there is no definite end point for this pandemic, that this state of limbo could continue for months on end, leaves many of us feeling hopeless and trapped.  

So when my patients tell me that they are emotionally eating, I am not at all surprised. Emotional eating in times of stress and uncertainty is normal and, honestly, to be expected. From the time that we are born, food is a source of nourishment and comfort. Food is a basic human need. From the very beginning, whether we start out nursing or bottle feeding, drinking breast milk or formula (or both), food is necessary for survival. It is designed to make us feel satiated and safe. Food is one way that our caregivers take care of us when we are babies, providing comfort when the feeling of hunger arises. This is all to say that turning to food for comfort is a completely normal thing for humans to do – it is programmed in our DNA. And feelings of comfort and safety are paramount to developing love and attachment.

The phrase “emotional eating” has been around for many years, and it always seems to be presented as a negative thing. Many of my patients characterize themselves as emotional eaters and wish that they could stop. In most cases, these patients feel as though they have “no control” around food, that they will overeat on certain comfort foods, and they inevitably feel shame after they do this. Of course, many of these patients are consumed with fears around gaining weight and feel that by engaging in emotional eating, they are likely to become larger.

To me, “emotional eating” is a phrase that was created by diet culture because at the root of it is fat phobia. Our culture is a completely fat phobic one, and one of the underlying themes is that engaging in emotional eating is a dangerous habit; if one emotionally eats regularly, they will gain weight, become fat and be unhealthy, unattractive, and unlovable. Emotional eating is seen as problematic by diet culture, and those who engage in it are deemed weak-willed and less than.

In my work, what I have found is that the amount that a patient engages in “emotional eating” is almost directly proportional to the amount of restriction (both mental and physical) in which they also engage. In other words, my patients who feel like they are emotional eaters and cannot control themselves around food are often the ones who are the most restrictive with their intake.

If you think about it, it makes sense on a biological level. Our early ancestors were often subjected to famine and food scarcity, and in order to survive during those times, their sole focus became about finding food. It is one of our most basic survival mechanisms, and it is deep within our genetic code. When we are deprived of food (whether it be deprivation imposed on us by others/circumstance or self-imposed), our primal brain is designed to focus solely on procuring food. And not just any food, mind you, but food that is calorically dense and will give us quick and lasting energy, specifically foods that are high in carbohydrates and fat. Is it any wonder that many of our “comfort foods” are often comprised mainly of carbs and fat? It is our ancient genetic code’s way of keeping us alive.

This is all to say that when we are in times of stress, anxiety and fear (like during this pandemic), it makes perfect sense that we might turn to food for comfort more often. This behavior in and of itself is not problematic; it is one of the many ways that humans cope during difficult times. Add on top of that feelings of deprivation around food (with many grocery stores running out of supplies and access to restaurants reduced), and it is no wonder that we have food on the brain more often as well. The most important thing we can do right now is not to judge ourselves for “emotionally eating” during this tough time, but to have some compassion for ourselves. We are all just trying to take care of ourselves in the best way we know how.

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