On peanut butter, emotional eating, and taking a break.

When you notice a food has become a coping tool

Leeeeet’s talk about emotional eating.

When people talk to me about eating disorders I am quick to let them know that I’ve had ’em all. Anorexia. Bulimia. Compulsive exercise. Body dysmorphia. General freakiness around food, numbers, and tabulations that don’t exactly have a name, but also aren’t exactly “normal”. I have struggled with food and my body in every way possible. From starving to binging, I know just exactly what it’s like.

Despite this, something I haven’t talked so much about is emotional eating. It’s not because I’m ashamed of it, or because I think it doesn’t feel important. It’s just that emotional eating is just so fucking normal, so culturally ingrained, that it feels strange to wax poetic about it. I feel that most people, in some way, eat emotionally. Holiday dinners, birthday cake celebrations, going out to dinner on a date, bringing casseroles to the gathering post-funeral. These are times when messages are directly conveyed via food and because we have been in these situations again and again and again, they are habit. Food is many things, and a conduit for feeling is definitely one of them.

While in recovery, I generally had a lot of judgements about myself and my food. I judged my inability to just “be really healthy”, instead letting various restrictions whittle me down to a bag of bones in an inconvenient husk of a body. I judged the rage I felt when I couldn’t get on an elliptical machine every single day. I judged the purging, how disgusting and violent it seemed. I was a feminist for fuck’s sake. What was my head doing in the toilet?

Paradoxically, I also had a lot of judgements around the actions that were necessary to take in order to physically recover. For every time I chastised myself for my restrictions, I also felt waves a disgust when I consumed sugar, oils, breads, or baked goods. I judged when I couldn’t deadlift more weight on a particular day. I judged overeating, even without the purging.

Slowly, I began to realize that I was truly setting myself up for failure. I was a perfectionist about my recovery, as I had been about my eating disorder, and truthfully, it was keeping me from restoring mental clarity, fixing my overtaxed immune system, restoring my metabolism, and just generally having a cool life. I was keeping myself in eating disorder jail even in my recovery, and- lucky me- I realized that in order to truly feel good and in order to completely recover, I needed to change. I let myself off the hook with occasional overeating, I took months of only walking and doing yoga. I stopped weighing myself and I stopped counting calories and I stopped generally being such a dick to myself. Basically, I unlocked my own cage.

I’d love to say it was beautiful and I felt 100% satisfied and free, but that’s just not life. It waxed and waned, as most things in life do. My body changed a lot, and very quickly. I still didn’t like what I saw in the mirror, but I did generally have a free-er and more full life, which was enough for me, even if just for a minute. (Nothing is perfect, in recovery or out. Body feels are usually constantly shifting for most people, but especially for those in recovery).

The past two years have been super transformative for me, because after loosening my reigns and staying there for awhile, I took the next step in my recovery. First, I just tried to learn to eat and to restore my weight. Next, I put effort toward learning to actually like myself, which is where I believe the big shifts happen. My goal became not only about my body, but also about my mind. I wanted to feel proud of my accomplishments and to assume that on a base level, I was a good person. The more I practiced eating enough with eating mindfully, the more I listened when my body said yes, the more I figured out about what foods actually work for my body (as opposed to what foods I thought should work for my body)- the more I felt actually good. In turn, I also started to like what I saw in the mirror. My metabolism returned to what felt normal for me (with consistency around eating enough years. This change doesn’t happen over night.) Today, I genuinely like and respect what I see in the mirror, which is nothing short of a miracle.

Despite the peace and satisfaction I feel with food and my body, I’ve felt something uncomfortable creep up in the past six months or so, and that uncomfortable thing comes from good ole’ reasonable and normal emotional eating. Peanut butter is my one true love, for reals, and I had found that the way I was eating peanut butter was making me hate it.

Let me explain: When I was restricting, I had a mortal fear of fats. I did not eat peanut butter for most of my 20’s, and when I did add it in, it was by the carefully measured teaspoon. When I finally gave up the crutch of measuring, I had a complete and total peanut butter liberation, eating it happily and with abandon. On apples, on carrots, in smoothies, whisked with some rice vinegar and tamari as peanut sauce. I loved that I felt free to eat this food that I had so feared, and let’s be real- I loved the way it tasted.

Even with all the love,  I noticed something unpalatable happening over the past few months. I was stressed out about work. I was stressed out about passing my personal training test (which I did!) I was stressed out about planning my wedding, getting my training in, being a good friend, recording my podcast, and the upcoming move to Portland. I was stressed  about what relocation meant for my identity and my life and my finances. I was stressed out about the details of just about everything and my stress marched me, pretty much on a nightly basis, straight to a jar of peanut butter.

There is something about slicing up a nice crispy apple, spooning some peanut butter onto a saucer, and slowly enjoying the awesome goodness that plant-based snacking provides. There is also something about standing in your kitchen at 11PM in your pajamas, feeling exhausted but somehow unable to sleep, and dipping your finger again and again into a peanut butter jar, eating it really quickly. One thing is extremely pleasant, and the other feels straight up bad. I bet you can guess which is which.

The gist of this story is that I started eating so much peanut butter before bed that my stomach was hurting. I was tossing and turning with a gut ache, and returning to the peanut butter jar-thinking just a little more would help me fall to sleep. My relationship with peanut butter- something I loved!- had turned into something that was stressing me out. On top of all my other stress. When I was just trying to soothe my stress.

My body is curiously smart and curiously consistent. Although I was going through more than a whole big jar of peanut butter per week, my weight stayed the same, and my clothes continued to fit. I was uncomfortable with what peanut butter was doing to me not because it was making me gain weight (which I think is important to say given my history) but because eating it all bleary eyed until my guts ached just seemed like a punishing move on my part. Emotionally eating peanut butter wasn’t the celebration of birthday cake or even soothing like ice cream after a bullshit day. It was sad, and annoying, and taking the joy out of something I loved. And so, with great hesitation, I decided to take a break. From my beloved peanut butter. For thirty whole days.

Despite being a very even-tempered, let’s-find-the-middle-way health coach, I can still be prone to black and white thinking when it comes to myself. When I do something, I do it with enthusiasm (ahem, crossfit) and when I don’t I have tended to have a “never again!” attitude about it. Taking a break seems like a simple and obvious reaction to a scenario that was making me uncomfortable, but I have to say, I am impressed that I thought of it for myself.

I’m not having peanut butter now because it has occupied an uncomfortable role in my life, I am going to take a month to utilize some other coping tools (writing-in this blog even!, meditating, reading, etc.) , and then I will likely have peanut butter again. How novel! How simple!

So that’s what’s new lately.

Here are some things that have informed my decision:

Matt Cutts: Try something new for 30 days

Why I’m NOT an Intuitive Eating Coach by Isabel Foxen Duke

Is Emotional Eating Really So Bad? by Golda Poretsky

And with that:

How do you cope with stress?

Seriously, please tell me! I want to learn your skillz.