My mother always described herself as an “emotional eater.” In my mind, I suppose I equated that to someone who ate when feeling sad—a stereotypical girl who would devour an entire pint of ice cream after an especially tough breakup—and I became proud of the fact that I had not succumbed to the female tendency to gorge at the drop of a tear. I was still a teen. And despite knowing everything, as do all teenagers, I would inevitably learn more.
Pregnancy and Emotional Eating
After my first son was born, I left the hospital in my pre-pregnancy jeans. In truth, they were also technically my “pregnancy” jeans because I never stopped wearing regular clothes. I hadn’t upheld a strict diet. I had just worked on my feet until the Monday before he was born. So when my second pregnancy rolled around, I thought I was solid. I still had a job that required me to be on my feet all day, so I figured I could eat anything I wanted. After every dinner, I enjoyed a dessert of my choice (and sometimes after lunch too).
By the end of my pregnancy, in the midst of a heat wave, four days late, and chasing a toddler, I was completely miserable. Despite my previous logic—you know, the one where I claimed I could eat anything I wanted—I had gained forty-five pounds. Once I gave birth to my second son (my largest baby at birth and now, coincidentally, my skinniest kid), I began the transition from pregnant, snacking woman to nursing mother. And I won’t lie, I felt like crying. I had used food for comfort in the evenings after long, tiresome days and I had come to realize that emotional eating was not a habit held exclusively for the blubbering. It was the very simple act of using food to comfort myself.
Food IS a Primitive Comfort
That realization led me to rethink the things my mother had told me about herself. She was an emotional eater, yes. But why? I decided to look deeper… She was fed by Greek immigrants who told her stories of how their fathers had left for America to find work years before they would make the long boat ride with their mothers and siblings. They reminded her of how desperately they had searched for food in the old country while their fathers were gone, how seldom they had found it, and how shameful it was to waste while sitting at the dinner table. She was raised under the premise that food was to be eaten if it was in front of you because your next meal was uncertain. And even though my grandparents always had the means to provide my mother with regular meals throughout her entire youth, the idea was embedded into her being:
Here is food. It is a blessing. And I will somehow make sure you always have it, even if we have nothing. To my mother, food was love.
Looking farther back to all of mankind, why should this lesson be much different? As social beings, eating is an act of community. We come together to break bread and share our blessings. Each member at the table is given a place. And from the dawn of time, being present in this social engagement is also an act of survival. It is no wonder we look to food to remind us, however subconsciously, that there is still a place for us in this world. There is no fighting such a strong, primitive need. There is only redirection for the sake of health.
How I Found Comfort in Healthy Foods and Life
After my second pregnancy, a sense of panic had arisen. I can’t eat my precious brownies anymore! I need to start eating healthy again! I have to admit, this had more to do with my weight than caring about my health. And I no longer believe this to be a healthy mindset. I don’t think I should have ditched the brownies the minute I was no longer pregnant. I should have considered my emotional health in a time of recovery and redirected my habits, slowly. In hindsight, that strong emotional connection I had formed to sweets in just ten short months was worthy of addressing: some part of me is seeking comfort.
On my quest to rediscover a sense of comfort, I realized that I needed:
- To get outside more. Gardening not only encouraged me to exercise (which always encourages me to eat healthier), it gave me an outlet for creativity, knowledge, and a source to wonderful fruits and vegetables.
- To communicate my emotional needs better with those I loved.
- Hot tea or coffee. Something about a nice drink is very comforting and low in calories (unless, of course, you order a coffee milkshake).
- To eat fruit when I feel like snacking or eating a dessert. I don’t care what the new, trending diet says. Fruit is nature’s candy and satiates the need for sugar that, if ignored, can lead to gorging on sweets for many people.
- To make sure the first thing I eat in the morning is high in protein. If I start my day with eggs or a piece of bread with peanut butter, I am far more likely to crave healthy foods throughout the rest of the day, than if I had eaten cereal upon awakening.
Break Bread, Even If You Don’t Plan to Eat It
So for those of you trying to get through the last of the festivities while maintaining your healthy lifestyle, don’t hesitate to sit down at the table with family (despite the many temptations). Pick out a plateful of the healthiest foods available, eat slowly, drink more water than you think you need, and remind yourself that you are loved, cherished, and worthwhile. Remember that a huge part of what makes soul food soul food is eating while surrounded by the people you love.
By Aly Brown
Aly Brown is a wife, mother, author, runner, and a lover of probably just about every vegetable you can find. She believes that, to achieve external beauty, one must first pursue health for the mind and body.