Food is not love: an end to emotional eating

I’ve always had a mildly unhealthy relationship with food. Nothing that would set off any alarm bells or draw any attention, but enough to make me feel out of control when it comes to the food choices I make. I’m a glutton, you see. I am pathologically unable to leave food on my plate. It doesn’t matter how full I am or even how average the food is. If it’s in front of me, I will eat it.

You wouldn’t know it to look at me. I am not overweight and I am not underweight. I am just the right size to slide through under the radar. I exercise regularly and I cook and eat healthy food most of the time. But I’ve always had a problem with knowing when to stop, and I’m self-aware enough to know that I equate food with love and comfort.

As a kid, if my mother was going out for the night, she would buy us takeaway before she left – food was the literal replacement of my mother’s love and attention in my mind. No thank you, I don’t need therapy – I’m all over this. And I’m fine, honestly.

Even though I have long understood where this urge to over-consume comes from, it has taken me most of my adult life to figure out what to do about it. I managed it as well as I could during my teens, twenties and thirties – with varying degrees of success. Because moderation was just not happening, I found the easiest way to control what I ate was to cut out entire groups of food.

In my teens I tried to get into the whole anorexia/bulimia thing but I couldn’t do it. Anyone who has seen me with food poisoning or gastro will know I will do just about anything to avoid vomiting. At the time, I hated myself for being too weak to get into it but now, of course, I am incredibly grateful for my squeamishness.

In my twenties, I was vegan for four years. I pretended – even to myself – it was about animal welfare. But really it was about control (sorry, cows). But I still found ways to eat badly – mostly involving hot chips and mashed potato sandwiches (what, you’ve never thought of that?) – and I would never stop at one.

emotional eating hot chips
Mmmmmmm, chips.

When I was travelling, also in my twenties, I found other ways to limit my food intake, and/or punish myself for my lack of control. At my worst, I allowed myself to eat one meal every two days while living in Edinburgh (actually, that was probably smart – the Scots aren’t exactly known for their haute cuisine). Of course, that one meal was a no-holds-barred binge (hello, macaroni cheese pies!). Hmmmmm, healthy! Not uncoincidentally, I was a pretty miserable individual during that period.

Since then, I have found reasons to give up groups of food – bread, dairy, ‘ch’ foods (this was my own, self-imposed rule that basically involved giving up chips, cheese and chocolate – champagne wasn’t really part of the equation back then – obviously today this rule would be unacceptable).

The most recent one for me has been sugar. Now, there are some great reasons to give up sugar (which I will leave to Sarah Wilson or David Gillespie to tell you about), and after about 18 months I still remain largely sugar-free, but I am aware that it is the most recent in a long line of taboo foods. And giving up sugar theoretically means I can still eat loads of bread and butter, chips and barrels of dripping (okay, I haven’t really done that one).

I gave up sugar but it didn't make me look like the gorgeous Sarah Wilson.
I gave up sugar but it didn’t make me look like the gorgeous Sarah Wilson.

What I have discovered is a balance of sorts. Instead of creating rules around food and then proceeding to find the most dastardly items I can still eat within those rules, I now weigh up each mouthful and assess: is this a net gain or a net loss for my overall health? This strategy is working so far. I know deep down whether the food I’m eating is healthy, and food is no longer tied up with emotions in my mind (well, not too much, anyway, but I still don’t leave food on my plate).

I try to think about food as I’m eating, rather than shovelling it in while watching TV or surfing the net. I try not to hoover up the baby’s leftovers because it’s easier than emptying it into the bin. I try to be present as I eat.

And I’ve decided I don’t care if I sound like a wanker about it – because I reckon a whole lot of us have a weird relationship with food, and many of us don’t like to admit it. I’m spending a lot more time focused on what I should be eating for my overall health, instead of what I cannot eat. This means I eat a lot more of the good stuff – especially leafy greens.

What my dinners look like now ... sort of.
What my dinners look like now … sort of.

The unfortunate thing is that this idea won’t lead me to writing the latest diet book and making a gasquillion out of sad, overweight people. The fact is, since having my little epiphany, I haven’t lost a pound. But I feel a whole lot better – emotionally and physically. For the first time in my life I truly feel in control of what I eat (and that includes the odd holiday ice cream, above). And that, to me, is worth a whole lot more than a smaller pair of pants (although I’d still quite like that book deal, if any publishers are reading).

How do you feel about food? Are you in control?

Written By

Carolyn is the editorial director of Champagne Cartel and a freelance writer. In her spare time she is a long-distance runner, peanut butter enthusiast, and single mum to three incredible humans.


  • Good on you, Carolyn. Feeling good is the most important thing. Usually if we feel good it means our bods are healthy and therefore able to facilitate that awesomeness our families expect from us 😉 xx p.s loves me a hot chip, too – potatoes are my biggest weakness…

  • Well put! There is always a substitute when we put limits on certain areas aren’t there. I like your ‘ch’ rule, that’s a clever one.

  • Fantastic post! I agree, a lot of us are in the same boat. I am a sugar quitter too, and I’m glad about it, but I can totally relate to your concern about it being another one on the list of control options. I must say I haven’t tried the ‘ch’ diet, although the sugar one probably helps ditch a couple of those anyway. I don’t know why it is that human beings have to totally complicate the most basic necessities of life – food, love, sex, they’re all fraught with trauma! Hmm. now i feel like hot chips.,..

  • Great post, Carolyn! This year I developed a new strategy for thinking about food. I, like you, never used to leave food on my plate and I used to feel guilty whenever I ate something I ‘shouldn’t.

    The thing is, there’s a LOT of junkie food that I don’t actually like and so, by being intentional about what I’m eating, like you also suggest, I started remembering BEFORE putting it in my mouth how I feel about it.

    The other thing is that if I DO eat something a little bit naughty (self-confessed cake fiend, right here), I REALLY appreciate and enjoy it because I’m convinced that feeling guilty about food causes your body to have difficulty processing it. I enjoy every bite I take (and make sure to stop eating when I feel like it) and I think this makes all the difference.

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