Q: First, I’d like to say congratulations on your new baby, he’s absolutely adorable! I hope everything’s been going well with your family. I’m writing to you because I’ve been reading your blog for a while and realize that you have a lot of advice on healthy eating, but I still have some questions to ask. To give a summary of the situation: I know that my eating habits are unhealthy and have been worried for a while because my family has a history of diabetes and high blood pressure, but the diabetes is a much bigger problem. I’ve been trying to eat healthier, but I lack control over my eating habits. At first, I thought that I had an emotional eating problem so I brought it up to my therapist, but she told me that my eating patterns were a way of creating a “safe space” for myself and gaining control over my eating habits. This is because my little sister and I are chunkier than my tall and thin younger brother, and even though all of us are unhealthy eaters (and my brother is by far the most unhealthy eater), my sister and I get the most criticism from our parents because we’re overweight. I don’t like to eat in front of my parents because they criticize what I eat if it’s not healthy and they’re not the ones that offered it to me; their criticism makes me feel resentful and I end up sneaking into the cupboard/fridge to eat what they said I couldn’t, just to prove that I still have control over what I can eat.
I know that this kind of eating is extremely unhealthy and can’t go on, but I honestly feel that if I were living by myself I could easily become healthy. Unfortunately, I don’t have the means to leave my childhood house, and I don’t want to infringe on anyone else’s eating choices. How can I raise my concerns to my parents and respond to potential criticism? What strategies can I use to resist the urge to eat unhealthy foods if I can’t get rid of them and I can’t control where they are in the house? Are there any strategies that I can use to become a clean eater? I’ve tried to lose weight before, but if I go too fast I lose an appreciable amount of weight, I become complacent and gain it back, and if I go too slow I become more self-loathing and stop trying because it doesn’t feel like anything’s happening, and I feel miserable. I realize that losing weight is hard and I’m not trying to get out of doing the work, but do you have anything (phrases, mantras, etc) that I should keep in mind as I try to lose weight?
I realize that this is a lot to sort through, and I understand if you can’t answer everything. Please answer when you can, and thanks for reading.
Hmmm…I suspect that your therapist and I may differ on the understanding of what emotional eating is. From where I’m sitting, you literally described an emotional situation that results in a compulsion to eat. That’s a pretty textbook example.
Food is about hunger, about fueling life, and about community. It’s not something you engage in as a form of retaliation, out of spite, out of fear, out of depression, sadness, shame, isolation, or embarrassment. It took me a lonnnnnnng time to realize that, but that’s an undeniable reality. You said, “their criticism makes me feel resentful and I end up sneaking into the cupboard/fridge to eat what they said I couldn’t, just to prove that I still have control over what I can eat“—it’s something you’re doing out of spite, but I’m sure that, once the ‘meal’ is done, you have a self-serving sense of satisfaction that you’ve exacted this kind of revenge on your metaphorical overseers. You showed them, and it left you feeling good. If you ask me, this falls under the scope of emotional eating, and comes perilously close to other forms of disordered eating. Your therapist might disagree—and she could be right and I wrong, depending on the information we have and the lens through which we view it—but all I’m saying, here, is to not shut yourself off from helpful writing on emotional eating, eating for “control,” and other forms of disordered eating. I fear that much of your progress might be hindered without it.
As for the rest, I’ll put it like this: I’m a firm believer in hard boundaries. Hard boundaries.
People you love will constantly try to snark on what you’re eating, even though it makes you uncomfortable and frustrates you, often times because they think – by virtue of being thinner than you – they know better than you. Never mind how they achieve or maintain their size—meaning, if they have some disordered eating habits and patterns of their own that need addressing—and never mind whether or not you’re eating the way you are because you’re on your own path towards finding what works for you. Certainly never mind whether or not it hurts your feelings. All that matters is that the Authority Figures are talking. Sometimes, you have to put people on front street—politely, of course—and ask them what’s really going on.
“What’s with all the criticism?”
When they [expectedly] ask you what you mean, you tell them in a straightforward fashion. “It just seems like every time you see me eating something you disagree with, you criticize me in a way that leaves me feeling really frustrated.”
Whatever the response, try to reiterate how much you love them, but also remind them that you are still working on it and learning how to eat and live in a way that works for you, and that the constant criticism only makes it worse for you. If they double down on their right to criticize, tell them this isn’t about you trying to pick a fight, you just want to let them know your feelings and how this can hurt, and leave it at that.
If you’re a non-confrontational person or you just don’t feel like being bothered, it’s this simple: leave the room. If they start up on you, just leave the room. Put your food in the fridge, and leave. Keep it simple. You might not be able to push back on someone saying unpleasant things to you, but you certainly don’t have to sit there and take it. Either they’ll ignore it, or someone will approach you about why you keep leaving when they mention something about your eating habits, and that’s your opening to discuss it in a non-confrontational way. They obviously care—they put forth a bit of effort to find out the deal. Use that time to have a heart to heart… but ultimately, you need to defend yourself. You have a right to learn and make mistakes. They need to let you, and do so with encouragement and support.
There are strategies to help you become a clean eater, but they’re challenging. The first of which….is to leave the house. Often. Snag yourself a bike, go for bike rides. Pack a backpack, ride to the library, do some reading/writing/whatever there. Go to the park. Scour Instagram for free or cheap fitness classes, go and enjoy yourself, make friends there—they’re far more likely to want to do fitness-centered things for fun since they’re in the same boat as you.
Find yourself inexpensive things to eat for meals that are both filling and enjoyable. Find things that are big-batch meals, so that you can cook one time and get several meals out of it, and you can store them in the back of the fridge pretty easily. Take your time and find out what works for you, what makes you happy, and what you can do long term.
I think you need to remember that this is something you do for YOU, not for THEM. Not to spite them, not to make them happy, not to avoid their criticism, not to incite a fight. This is something you are making a part of YOU, and if they cannot accept that, then they are teaching you where to re-draw those boundary lines. Discover what fits you personally, not what you want your parents to see you doing so that they are happy. Learn what foods you enjoy that are good for you; don’t just eat carrots for the rest of your life because it’d get your parents to stop picking on you. When you find ways to lose weight that also contribute to your emotional well being – activities and meals you enjoy, being social and sociable, stress relief, letting go of this aggravation—this weight loss will come so much easier, and you will be better able to stick to it. Dive head-first into what you love, and keep at it. If it feels like you’re losing a lot of weight, do a tiny bit of tweaking to your routine, slow it up a tad, but keep going. Don’t stop.
I know that it’s hard to do all this when you’re sharing your space with others who get so deep inside your head, but remember: having them in your home doesn’t mean you have to host them in your head. Your journey, your eating, your active life should be about you, and no one else. Draw your boundaries, find things you enjoy in your neighborhood or city, and listen to your heart. You will go in the direction meant for you and, with any luck, you’ll enjoy it much more.
For more on emotional eating and family woes: