If you’re just joining us today, this is post 3 on the topic of weight loss and veganism, one that I’ve postponed since having the blog in order to dedicate some time to it because it really is such a complex issue. Before reading on, I highly recommend you take a look at our first two posts on the subject, especially number 1, in which I debunk some myths and tell you my story regarding weight loss and being vegan. In the second post, we discussed some of the tips and resources that have helped me maintain a healthy weight and that can help you on your journey if weight loss is a concern and you’re on your way to getting healthy. Today, we’re going to be talking about the little pebble in my shoe so to speak, and that of so many others out there: emotional eating.
When I talk about emotional eating, I don’t only mean drowning the sorrows of a break up or loss in a pint of ice cream which is what we usually imagine. For me, and today as usual I’ll be talking from my personal experience, emotional eating is a complex little creature. It can be more ingrained in us than the way we tie our shoes, and more often than not, other than a conscious intention of sitting down to eat something because we’re sad, it surrounds our automatic relationship to food, and our not being ‘present’ at the table. For many people who are trying to lose weight and battling weight related illnesses, emotional eating often sits with them at the table, often steering us to unhealthy choices. Let me tell you a story…
My 6 imaginary siblings syndrome or going back in time
By now you know (and you can read a bit more in part 1 of this series and in my journey to veganism post here), that I became vegan because I no longer wanted to contribute to the pain and suffering we cause animals. I wasn’t born vegan or raised vegan, I ate anything that was put in front of me and was always praised for this, which partly fuelled me to eat with gusto and more often than not ’til stomach ache. I had records for being the biggest eater in my family in spite of the fact that I was the only child in my family, gobbling up more than even my big bellied grandpa. I have no idea why I wasn’t overweight as a kid, probably because of all the swimming my mom made me do every day after school. I certainly ate in a completely disproportionate way when taking my age and size into account. I was also born into a family that LOVED food. Celebrations were always centered around food, dessert was always on the menu, prizes for getting a good grade or winning a sports match or getting a new job were always celebrated by going to our favorite restaurant. When I look back at how I ate back then and now occasionally this creeps up again, I find myself giggling at the fact that my eating habits would have made strangers believe that the 6 siblings I have never had were sitting across the table. As if we were all competing for the food my mom had put in front of me and you simply had to take as much as you could when you had the chance before twelve other hands were reaching for the grub. I did not become aware of this until fairly recently, when after having a third giant piece of a vegan mixed berry coffeecake (after already being full with a huge dinner), I began tracing back my overindulgent steps to try to find out where this started. Three pieces of coffeecake is not a regular occurrence, but that day it gave me a stomach ache, and an idea. I wanted to travel back in time to see where this all began. I wasn’t having a weight problem, but I did want to continue developing the new healthy habits I was learning since I became vegan, and more than anything I wanted to finally be a conscious eater, I wanted to listen to the signals my body was actually giving, and stop paying attention to the six imaginary food stealing brothers and sisters that always seemed to sit in front of me. Time machine in first gear.. 3…2..1…
I went straight to the first few memories I had of food, and after remembering the flowery curtains of the kitchen in my first apartment, and the dark lighting and green plants in the window of our second home, I found it.
You’ve heard me talk about my incredible mother time and time again. She was an incredible woman who overcame unbelievable obstacles. She gave me a magical childhood in spite of all the sadness that came with it because of a chronic illness that had plagued my mom since she was 11 years old. Because of the fact that it was just the two of us in our family, and because she was often very ill, my mom tried to raise an extremely responsible daughter (that’s me!). In regards to food, this meant following the rules: no chocolate or soda during the week. The soda thing wasn’t really a problem for me, I could wait much longer than a week to have some, but chocolate… well that was a horse of a different color. My mom was not the punishing or regulating type, so she gave me the chocolate, a huge bar of the yummiest chocolate and said “I know you’ll be responsible, remember the rules”. Do you think I rebelled and ate the whole thing while she was at work? Nope! At age 5, I took that bar of chocolate and placed it in my little toy fridge, in my little toy kitchen, and there it stayed every week until Saturday. This way of creating an overly responsible child helped us survive for most of our lives and I know my mother did the best she could, but every time I passed the hallway in which I had my little kitchen (which was every time I went in and out of the house), I thought of that chocolate, and of cheating, and of being ‘bad’. I imagined what it tasted like and even reached for it, and then I thought of disappointing my mom (she kept proudly telling everyone about my will power and the little toy fridge filled with chocolate). I always waited for the weekend though, and was proud I wasn’t causing trouble. Our household had enough real problems to deal with. I guess the ‘six little siblings’ were all hiding in there with that chocolate, and eventually decided to join us at the table while I scarfed down food and proceeded to have horrible stomach aches for most of my childhood. The minute I remembered this I knew I had found the origin for my eating mindlessly even when I was already full. But it didn’t explain the bad choices when I was sad, tired, or especially scared. Time machine in first gear… 3… 2… 1…
The day I got the chickenpox. I must have been about 6 or 7, I came home from school and the woman who took care of me while my mom was at work noticed a few red spots on my forehead, and called my mother to tell her I had the pox and to get me some of that horrible pink stuff they slather all over you. The pink bottle was the least of our worries though, because my mother had an extremely compromised immune system due to the medications she was on for her illness, contact between us was immediately and completely forbidden, and so it was for the next 3 weeks of a horrible case of the pox, and the first time in my life I was going to be without my mother, the only family member I had ever lived with. For 3 weeks, when I was missing my mother or was sad or bored because I didn’t have anyone to play with, my nanny made me a very sweet and creamy shake made with some kind of cereal for babies. I loved it. It was creamy, silky, sweet and she sat with me while I drank it with a striped white and pink plastic straw I loved. Suddenly, I was hooked on emotional eating, eating to soothe, and eating to comfort. Don’t worry, my mom was back the minute my last pox was gone and everything went back to normal. Eating, however, became an even bigger priority and source of momentary serenity and calm.
We all have these memories no matter how wonderful or well intentioned our parents were, and if we have an addictive, or emotional relationship with food (other than the of course normal ‘food is delicious and joyous’ reality), we need to find a way to make our eating conscious, and as healthy and nourishing as it can be. It’s so important to find where it all began for you (this was the absolute game changer for me), and to learn some tips and resources that can help you slow down and have the awareness to make healthy choices. What has helped me the most has been yoga and meditation, two activities that really connect you to your body and quiet the mind. Being outside when it’s sunny, walking for a bit in the woods or in the mountain, being around animals, all provide wonderful stress relief for me so that lunchtime isn’t therapy time but the wonderful and fun nourishing experience that it really is. When you take out the guilt or often the physical discomfort of overdoing it that comes after we eat mindlessly, eating becomes even more fun and a simple way to nourish your body so that it can go and have fun in other ways and do what it needs to do for the rest of the day. Keeping a journal is a wonderful tool as well, I’m not only talking about a food journal which many people who are trying to lose weight are already doing, but a place where you can just write anything that’s going around in your mind. Putting worries, plans and dreams in paper is a powerful thing, and it can also leave us feeling calm and present when we sit down to enjoy our food. The ‘gratitude grace’ tip in part 2 of the series is also an incredible tool for quieting the mind and getting centered before a meal.
Of course, my top recommendation is seeking help if managing these issues on your own has failed one too many times. Whether it’s as a support to your weight loss efforts, or if you have anything from unhealthy habits towards food to an eating disorder, finding help is mandatory. Find a qualified therapist that you connect with if you have the financial means to do so, if not, join a support group that deals with your specific issue or illness. Having healthy habits in relation to food is not only important for maintaining a healthy weight, it’s absolutely essential for having a healthy, joyous and well balanced life, and finding your balance is a true gift. I found mine partly through veganism because it suddenly became something bigger than myself and I felt so good about this new lifestyle I was trying out, but it wasn’t until I dealt with the underlying sources of the issue that I became much better at making healthy choices.
I cannot recommend two resources highly enough, Victoria Moran’s book Fit From Within, filled with tips that guide you away from dieting and towards eating consciously, and especially, Julie Simon’s book The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual, filled with incredible tools to help you find the sources of, and overcome, emotional eating.
I had a happy, sad, joyful and also scary childhood, eating just in case there wasn’t more later was present in every meal I sat down to eat (and of course, and fortunately, this never came), but by dealing with the painful memories that led me there, and by being the joyful vegan that I am now, knowing that my food choices imply much bigger issues, I can now notice when my six siblings have come to dinner and I’m able to share or kick them out, whichever works on that day. However, every now and then I find myself being a ‘bad girl’ and taking that piece of chocolate out of the toy fridge, and I revel with excitement. There’s a big difference between ignoring the issue and feeling guilty while you do it, and laughing for a bit and being naughty with intention, honouring your past, and knowing that that’s ok too sometimes.
Our next post will be the last of our weight loss and veganism series, and we’ll be discussing love and acceptance of our own bodies and the ridiculous standards by which beauty and weight are measured these days. Stick around!