Earlier this week, I read a blog written by a friend of mine who is battling an eating disorder, in which she examined the emotional and psychological motivations behind her exercise routine. As someone who struggled for years to overcome an eating disorder myself, I completely relate to the experiences my friend conveyed. In the blog, my friend wrote about a recent conversation in which an acquaintance asked her why she exercises so much. She didn’t have an immediate response, but pondered the question on her own all day. She concluded that, up to a point, she works out to be healthy – but she also exercises to keep her insecurities about gaining weight at bay. Trust me, I’ve been there, too.
Interestingly, the next day I saw a graphic posted by another, very athletic friend on Facebook. It said something like, “I don’t work out because I hate my body, I work out because I love it.” I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of these two very different emotional states – and I have experienced both myself. During my eating disorder days, I certainly had a love-hate relationship with exercise. I lifted weights, took spin classes, cardio kickboxing classes, step aerobics classes, and did circuit training all because I hated my body. But I ran because I loved it. I’ve been a runner since I was 12 years old, and running has always come from a place of love and happiness for me. It has been a way for me to regain balance with my life has felt out of control. As with so many things in life, there is nothing inherently bad or good about working out – it’s how we approach it that makes all the difference.
The same can be said of eating. We often hear that emotional eating is unhealthy, but Marc David of The Institute for the Psychology of Eating in Boulder, Colorado doesn’t think so. Rather, he suggests that it is the particular emotional function that eating serves for us that determines whether the practice is healthy. Just think about Thanksgiving and you’ll understand the concept that there are positive emotional benefits that food can bring us. A nourishing meal shared with friends and family creates all kinds of warm feelings and memories. But coming home from a bad day at work and eating a pint of Ben and Jerry’s – not so much. And to be sure, denying yourself food in order to curb insecurities or feel in control is certainly a form of emotional eating.
In my mind, the question is whether we are using food to fulfill emotional needs that should be met by other things, like healthy relationships, self-acceptance, and the like. Food has its own emotional role to play in our lives – like bringing us the kind of enjoyment we experience at Thanksgiving. When we use food to fill those emotional needs, we’re allowing food to do its job. But when we eat because we’re lonely or depressed and we want to feel better, then we’re asking food to fill a need it wasn’t intended to fill. That is when emotional eating becomes unhealthy. As with exercise, it’s how we approach eating that matters. Allowing ourselves to benefit emotionally from food is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, it has amazing positive effects. It’s when we start asking food to fill inappropriate emotional needs that we should probably take a step back and examine what we’re truly hungry for in our lives.
Of course, eating and exercising often have different effects on our bodies depending on the motivation. If we exercise because we are unhappy with our bodies, we’re likely to overdo it and injure ourselves or fail to maintain a healthy body weight. Similarly, when we try to fill an emotional void with food, we tend to make less beneficial food choices. However, exercising because we love our bodies and enjoying food as it is intended to be enjoyed contribute enormously to our physical and emotional well-being.
What about you? Do you take out your emotions – positive or negative – on your body through food or exercise?