A few years ago, I was interviewed by a talk show host from a military radio station. She wanted to know about emotional eating during stressful times. Like deployment, she said. Like sending your husband off to war and not knowing if he'll come back. She said that military wives feel as if they need to hang tough and buck up since, despite their hard work at home, they're not the ones fighting the war.
She said that although women on their own find themselves having to do the work of two people, they believe they can't ask friends for help and support because everyone's in the same boat: stressed, exhausted and alone. So food becomes their pleasure and solace. It becomes a way for them to have something that's all theirs. Then she mentioned that Fritos were her comfort food and that nothing but the entire bag would do.
"How is that working for you?" I asked. "How well do Fritos provide comfort, love, reassurance?"
"They work," she said. "For exactly five minutes."
For the five gleeful minutes before she starts to eat—those five minutes when it occurs to her that, "Oh goody, I can open up a bag of Fritos"—she has something to look forward to, something she knows will give her a bit of peace. And then, of course, there are those other 30 seconds—the first few bites, when everything disappears but the crunch and the salt and that soothing feeling of something filling the mouth. But then the magic of the Fritos disappears, and soon she feels terrible about herself for eating the entire bag.
"So what would happen if you didn't eat the corn chips?" I asked.
"I'd walk around feeling exhausted and drained," she said.
"And—the million-dollar question—what if you decided to give yourself something different, something pleasurable that wasn't
salty and crunchy? What could that be?"
Even if you're not a military wife, I'm sure you've asked yourself this question. And the usual answers—take a bath, take a walk, take a nap, soothe yourself with music—don't seem to cut it, especially with children underfoot and/or a life with many challenges. From that vantage point, it's easy to feel that eating is the only option. So what's a girl to do?
A girl can think again. And look harder. There is always at least one thing you could do besides eating, something that would take better care of you than food does. (How do I know this? Because food is a physical substance, and a physical substance can only fill physical hunger. It cannot—and was never meant to—provide the things that only other people can provide, things like love and contact and comfort.)
I asked my radio host why she wasn't turning to her neighbors for help. Why, if they were all in the same boat, couldn't they support one another by trading off childcare? She said that asking for help was just not something they did.
"Why not?" I asked.
The only answer she could give was, "Because."
That would be a fine answer, I said, but only if you were perfectly happy and didn't want to change. Only if you prefer to keep using food as your drug of choice. If you want to change your relationship with food, you need to change the way you think and the way you act.
The simple thing you can do today to change your eating habits