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Blog: The science of emotional eating

Emotional eating. What is it?

Emotional eating is using food to make yourself feel better—eating to satisfy emotional needs, and not to satisfy physical hunger.

It is also known as stress eating.

Ever found yourself at the end of a block of chocolate, king size, and known in your head that this is not right, but rationalised that you have had a huge week, are super tired, so this mass eating is ok? I mean, it tastes so good, and I feel relaxed, right now.

Yeah, me neither.

It was two blocks and a bottle of red wine.

And I rationalised I had done a massive weights session and 2 HIIT classes in one day so could afford the calories… because you know, booty growth.

Straight afterwards comes the guilt.

Heard something similar? Told yourself the same story.

This is emotional eating.

I think we all know that this type of “binging” is a signal that all is not fine, something is not right, and there is generally some significant emotional attachment to the anaesthetising through food.


So why has the fitness industry started to make this style of mass consumption and obsession with emotional eating ok, and even applaudable?

At the bones of emotional eating, if you were to look at it pragmatically, it is one step away from bulimia, a very serious eating disorder. This is where the victim will eat, on mass, and then purge the contents of their stomach in the hope to not digest or absorb the calories.

We all know of anorexia, a severe illness when a person does not eat or eats minimally.

There is a “buzz” or “high” feeling that is experienced when the person achieves their goal of only eating an apple a day. The feeling of reward, known as the firing of your neurotransmitter dopamine, comes from the restriction.

How is this different from someone who gets a “buzz” in their brain from only eating 1200 Calories, generally from a shake, some green veggies and maybe some “light” meat, egg whites or seafood? The buzz experienced is still from the restriction and not the food. The feedback mechanism in your brain fires because you are literally “getting off” on the self-control. God, I love dopamine.

Of course, I am not even doing the seriousness of these disorders justice in these very brief descriptions, or also considering the psychological aspect, which sufferers describe as an evil troll sitting on your shoulder controlling all thoughts around food, emotion and guilt.

My question is: has the fitness industry cultivated the acceptance of emotional eating and orthorexia all in the name of good health?

How has simple, real food and wholesome eating turned into a combination of fasting, cheating, juicing, IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros), nutritional cleansing, you name it? Are you really gluten, dairy and wheat free for health or is it an obsession?

Is keto and juicing the best thing for you or are you masking a disordered emotional relationship with food and this is the new method for you to make it socially acceptable not to eat and chew as your mouth is intended to? Is an obsession or eating disorder being cultivated and then masked by whatever is on “trend” or the next big paleo?

What do you mean, Nats? Put it this way….

If you said, “sorry, no, I am choosing not to eat food groups today,” you may get frowns of disapproval. But saying “Oh, sorry I am cleansing,” as you post on IG (Instagram) and sip on cold pressed but fibreless sugar hit with a beauty additive (for extras) is acceptable, even celebrated.

Are you someone who eats incredibly well but goes on a fast (for non-spiritual reasons) to give “your digestive system a break” Aye? What the?

It is our digestive system. I don’t think it clocks in and out for work.

To be fair, there are times when you are truly allergic to something, and your body will swell, or your gut health is out of balance due to extreme stress from toxins and lifestyle.

Generally, a health practitioner or nutritionist may recommend a more straightforward and easier meal plan so your system can digest nutrients. I guarantee there is still food, however, and the food has a mineral and vitamin purpose.

The macronutrients and food groups consumed may be decided on what your blood tests show is best for your body. If you have been diagnosed with an allergen or condition, it is a frustrating, investigative process. It is not eliminating whatever the latest “naughty thing” is. Professionals are not saying, “Hey you, stop eating food altogether and drink this chemical shitstorm” for the greater good of your health.

But what about the cheat meal. Even the label ‘cheat’ makes the mind think it is doing something illegal. I love a nutritionist who spouts the goodness of whole foods, talking of a re-feed, or nourishment meal, even the phrasing psychologically works better for me.

I have also heard diet “secrets” from trusted industry and revered sources that see them eat the desired food and then spit it out. Aye? Yes, eat for taste and then spit out the bolus (food ball) so they do not once again digest the calories. How is this not bulimia? Of course, there are many rumours of “users” on “product” touting their results under the banner of all natural and following the #healthylife. No wonder we are messed up when the relationship between possible outcomes and effort has been so skewed.

I have seen gorgeous people who have well-honed machines destroy their metabolism by cutting out one food group after another, or minimise calories in the name of fitness and aesthetics only to set up a savage cycle of en masse “cheat meals” which sees their poor confused bodies balloon from inflammation and destroy their gut function.

Other alternate methods witnessed to make the cheat meal fit in with IIFYM is to eat nothing all day…. aka as intermittent fasting and then gorge oneself on treats and delights over a 2-6 hour window of eating. Likewise, I will watch people refuse to let a morsel of sugar pass their lips but happily consume entire days’ worth of calories in a binge on “healthy treats”. Because they are healthy, the mass quantity is justifiable.

What? Is it just me or is this disordered by another name?

Remember, food is ultimate to be enjoyed and a source of nourishment. Every food group and macronutrient are serving a purpose.

Every micronutrient is designed to offer an essential vitamin or mineral to serve your body – not control your eating habits. Times together of celebration, joy and communication are perfectly acceptable cultural reasons for eating decadent foods once in a while. The key is to enjoy the time and realise these foods, though rampantly abundant now, were historically eaten dependant minimally on seasonal availability, not weekly, let alone everyday occurrence.

My point in this blog is to consider the behaviour of eating patterns and decide if it is THE new diet you need to try, or should you process some deep seeded issues.

Obsession is obsession no matter what title you give it to mask the orthorexia.

You will know deep down if you need help. You may or may not be surprised to know a lot of people who suffer this same pressure and obsession – whether they are aware of it or not.

Call it what it is, emotional eating, an obsession – not health, so that you can realistically tackle the problem or more importantly, not deceive anyone who thinks these obsessive ways are the healthy choice.

Honour your body, not your obsession.

Nats Levi
Fitness Guru and Tall Girl Nats Levi is a 6"2 award-winning fitness professional. She hails from Ranui and is always hungry.
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