Is Emotional Eating a Myth?

This is the first time I’ve been triggered by an episode of the Maintenance Phase Podcast. But, after several over-generalizations, including about PTSD research ironically, or maybe pointedly, I found myself so upset, I turned it off.

It’s disappointing, because I think they are usually pretty mindful of their words and how they might impact different communities. And yet, my needs were definitely not met by this conversation, and it took two weeks for me come back and give it another listen to be sure I was getting the message they were sending and not projecting too much of my own bullshit on it.

In case you haven’t given it a listen, the gist of the last episode of Maintenance Phase was to promote Aubrey’s new book, You Just Need to Lose Weight and 19 Other Myths About Fat People. Mike and Aubrey discuss a few of the themes of the book, beginning with the topic of emotional eating, which they say is a myth about “why fat people are fat.” I haven’t picked up a copy of Aubrey’s new book, and my concerns will be based on what I learned from this conversation. I acknowledge that it’s possible and even likely that there’s more nuance within. And this is an influential podcast, especially in the anti-diet and body positive space, and it concerns me when they promote ideas that may make that community more insular and extreme in their mindsets.

The major challenge I had with this conversation was the excessive over-simplification of the idea of emotional eating. Within a handful of sentences, Aubrey jumped from calling emotional eating a myth to generalizing it to mean anyone who identifies as fat must have major trauma.

What is emotional eating, and is it a myth?

The coaches I work with define emotional eating as “any eating done outside of hunger.” It isn’t only a traumatic response, although it certainly can be.

Emotional eating can also be:

  • Eating due to boredom (which Mike inexplicably says isn’t emotional eating?!)
  • Eating to procrastinate
  • Eating to celebrate
  • Eating because it is pleasurable
  • Eating to avoid feeling rude
  • Eating to avoid the discomfort of feeling wasteful
  • Eating to calm down
  • Eating to energize and wake ourselves up

Don’t see yourself in there at all? Run this experiment. Take one day and tell yourself you’re only going to eat when your stomach grumbles and you will stop as soon as you feel satisfied but not full. What comes up for you?

Many of us, maybe most of us, will find some point in the day that we start eating or keep eating to either pick ourselves up (to feel good, celebrate, energize in the afternoon slump, connect with a spouse while watching TV at night) or to settle ourselves down (to ground ourselves after stressful events, settle in before bed, or avoid the discomfort of not eating). THAT is emotional eating. Those are emotions.

This definition doesn’t pathologize emotional eating–it’s not some extreme case of binging on all the things while weeping inconsolably into our tub of ice cream. It can also be daily acts of habitually meeting other needs besides hunger with food. And in some ways, it sounds like we are in agreement about this definition, but where we diverge is that Aubrey seems to interpret it as judgement rather than an observation.

Back to Aubrey’s point, is it reasonable to assume that larger-bodied people have more emotional eating episodes than other people? Not necessarily, but we do have research that shows that we tend to be less connected to our hunger and satiety the larger we are and less aware of how much we’re eating. And we cannot deny the fact of physics that it takes more food to maintain a larger body. All people must eat enough to maintain their body size, or their body size will change. So, one way or another, we must explain variation in our body sizes at a general level on the energy we consume,(1) and emotional eating seems like a potentially important piece of that puzzle.

I say this with no intended shaming or blaming. And I truly do not care if someone is larger and decides they aren’t interested in or capable of doing the difficult task unlearning these eating patterns. I don’t think we have to change something just because we observe it. And Aubrey isn’t wrong that we are often looking to the individual to create a solution to a society-level situation. And yet, I find it unfortunate that there was little attempt at defining the full diversity of eating that humans do outside of our hunger in the conversation between Aubrey and Mike.

So, what about trauma, fatness and emotional eating? Coincidentally, I have been rereading Besel Van der Kolk’s amazing book on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score, and his discussion of the ACE studies and body composition came up just as this episode of Maintenance Phase was posted. So, I had two descriptions of the research in my mind at one time.

On the one hand we have a second-hand description by a researcher who noticed a pattern between traumatic childhood experiences and body composition and dug deeper to suss out the intricacies of how those patterns interplay. On the other hand, a few sentences jumping to the conclusion that if the pattern was noticed, it must thereby be mostly motivated by disgust at the fat bodies involved rather than a sincere concern for the underlying emotional needs that may play an important role in that outcome.

By the time I was in high school, I had an ACE score of 5 or 6. When I came to this realization in a training on trauma-informed education, I had to walk away and process the significance of that reality for several minutes before rejoining the group. Here was an objective measure of the level of emotional challenges I had faced in my formative years and a hint of an explanation for the ongoing mark it has left on my reactions, emotional experiences, and behaviors, including eating behaviors, up to that point in my life. I don’t know if the researchers were influenced by fatphobia or diet culture at the start of their enquiries, but the results of their observations and the many important studies that have come out of it since have been illuminating and life-changing for many of us who live with trauma. And frankly, I found the conversation between Mike and Aubrey to completely lack any nuance or recognition of this possibility. Sometimes research comes about for reasons we don’t like, but we can still glean important information from it. And something doesn’t need to be true for everyone in a population for it to be an important piece of the puzzle for some of them.

Moreover, coming from a place of compassion and personal autonomy for persons with trauma histories who may also be fatter informs us that we can empower individuals with the information necessary to make decisions for what is best in their own lives. Trauma treatment may improve the success of weight loss efforts. It may independently result in folks eating less and ending up at a lower weight range. And it might not. But recognition of the tool doesn’t necessitate the expectation that everyone has to use it or that everyone will define success in the same ways.

My PTSD has become exceptionally disruptive in my life these last 4 years since my hysterectomy. The combination of previous trauma, whatever happened in that operating room, and how my body interpreted it has left a deep mark on my nervous system. My sleep has become unreliable, with many nights much shorter and more interrupted than they used to be. My relationships have become more frayed as I struggle to manage my emotional reactions consistently. Work has become harder, as I’m exhausted before I even begin each day. And yes, my eating behaviors have changed as I will reach for anything to ground me in hopes that it will help me sleep better, calm down before getting unreasonably upset with a loved one, or help me push through the workday.

This eating behavior isn’t good or bad; I’m not sitting in constant judgement of myself, adding to my stress when I realize I’m using food as a tool once again. However, I do recognize that it gets in the way of me living my best life. I want other tools to regulate my emotions, to ground myself, and to help me stay present. I want to learn to navigate my PTSD internally as much as possible, so that I have what I need wherever I am and I’m not reliant on external supports like food or finding a quiet room to settle down. It is possible to accept something about ourselves and still want to change it, just as I’m making-do with my old Honda for now until I can figure out what vehicle I want next.(2)

Emotional eating is a normal part of the human experience. It can be so common and habitual that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. It isn’t good or bad, although it may become so frequent that it keeps some of us from our best lives. If we want to change the frequency that we eat for reasons outside of our hunger, there are tools we can use to learn new strategies and habits. Emotional eating can be real, and it can still be wrong to weaponize it against fat people. And I agree with Aubrey’s conclusion that most people begin with the assumption that there are too many fat people and we “need to do something about it.” I agree that is a harmful belief of diet culture and that we put the onus on the individual to “fix” this “problem.”

In this conversation, Aubrey and Mike project words like “wretched” and “pity” onto the views of fat people, and Aubrey says that it was used against her when she was growing up. In that context, I can’t help but wonder if the discussion of trauma, emotional eating and fatness doesn’t trigger something for Aubrey as well. She’s usually better at seeing the nuance in a conversation and at recognizing the potential impacts of what she’s suggesting. I hear her when she says that these narratives can have a disproportionately negative impact on fat people, and this is the complicated work we’re all doing to create a more just society, balancing and threading the messy middle spaces of our individual needs.

(1) This is not to say everyone who eats the same amount of food will end up the same size. Nor does it mean that emotional eating is the only determinant of how much “extra” food we eat. I recognize that these are complex systems–our bodies, our environments, and how our behaviors are influenced by them. This is a both/and situation, not an either/or.

(2) And in case an avid Maintenance Phase listener calls me out and says I’m doing precisely what Mike rails against–assuming that what is true for my body must be true about everyone else’s–let me say AGAIN that the point I’m making is that something can be true for some of us and a useful piece of context as we navigate the complications of life. I talk about my experience to provide context for my perspective and to personalize my understanding of the research, not to project my reality onto everyone else. And for what it’s worth, I experience in my PTSD something very similar to what Aubrey describes when she says that she feels that fat people are expected to explain why their bodies are so fat. I encounter folks who want to know why I have PTSD, what is the nature of my trauma, and the truth is, you don’t need to know that, and it might literally retraumatize me to go into it. But people are curious, and it puts me in a very awkward place of trying to justify why I’m so impacted rather than starting from a place of accepting that I am and asking me what they can do to help me better navigate the world.

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