So I’m sitting here on my 50th birthday, thinking about life.
That’s partly to avoid writing a health and fitness column all about lots of cake and not quite enough working out—the story of my life in a nutshell.
For more than a year I’ve been working hard to get fit, and for most of a year I’ve been writing about it in this column. It’s fairly repetitive.
It’s repetitive because changing habits is hard. It’s not enough to know that a person really shouldn’t eat cake for breakfast; it’s important to follow through, and, ahem, not eat cake for breakfast. Unless it’s your birthday. Then you get a free pass. At least that’s what I told myself this morning when I ate cake for breakfast.
This week I’ve been thinking a lot about emotional eating, and substituting food for love. It’s a weird thing that people do, and I’m one of the people who does it. For me, it is a complicated and fraught issue.
I raised four children, mostly by myself, and food was a huge part of that: Shopping for food, preparing food, serving food—all of those things were absolutely an expression of my love for my children. I’m a good cook. I cook from scratch, and I buy good quality ingredients. My family was “eating clean” long before it became a thing in fitness magazines.
Still, special occasions like a birthday have always meant special meals, and lovely things like birthday cake. This year my daughter made a fruit tart, and a chocolate cake with buttercream frosting, both at my request. Both cakes were fantastic, and she made them for me because she loves me.
Christmas for my family means posole and all the New Mexico trimmings, home-made tortillas and biscochitos, red chile, the whole shebang. A special Christmas food from the other side of my family is baklava, or as it was called by my Armenian great-grandfather, paklava. That’s a whole lot of butter, sugar, nuts and pastry. Delicious and no doubt hundreds of calories per piece.
When I was a kid, I got to set the menu for my birthday, something I did with my children as well. When my son was a year old, we had mashed potatoes and broccoli, his two favorite things to eat at the time, for his birthday celebration.
It’s one thing to say that food is not love, and it’s another thing to separate that idea from the ways that preparing and offering food is an expression of love. For me, the issue comes down to how I am feeling when I eat the food in question.
When it is my birthday, and I’m eating cake for breakfast, I’m enjoying that “breaking the rules because it’s my birthday” feeling. I don’t eat cake for breakfast every day, and most days I’d prefer not to have anything sweet in the morning anyhow.
When it’s 11 o’clock at night, and I’m eating cake because I’m having a sweet craving, it’s a whole different story. When it’s midnight and I’m scouring my cupboards looking for something with sugar in it because I’m feeling like mugging an old lady for a donut—that’s a whole different scenario. It’s when I have the crack-addict-I-gotta-have-it feeling that I work hardest not to indulge the sugar craving.
Most of the time I can master that impulse and I have developed strategies for that, also. For example, I don’t buy sugar. So I can scour my cupboards all night and I won’t find any.
But other times I’m eating without thinking. Eating whatever is in front of me whether I’m hungry or not. Eating to pass the time. Eating because somebody else is eating. In those cases, maybe I’m bored, or missing my kids, or anxious about whatever—not hungry. Eating when I’m not hungry has long been an issue for me and it’s a part of my journey toward better health that I haven’t written about as much as getting exercise. The two things go hand-in-hand, of course. Common sense tells me that.
I’ve been on this planet 50 years, and I’ve learned first-hand that addictive behavior is avoidance behavior. So when I feel the addictive behavior rear its head is when I try to look at my emotional state and what feelings I might be trying to avoid.
The analogy I have in my mind is picking apart a knot.
You loosen it over here, it tightens over there—but if you’re good at taking apart knots and keep working at it, eventually the loose ends will all come free.
I don’t actually know what would happen when all the loose ends come free, since I’ve been picking this gigantic knot apart for 30-plus years! I’m at a point in my life where I’m starting to see the individual strands, and how they wrap around each other and around deep-seated beliefs (like, “I can’t do this. This is too hard!”), and I feel ready, for the first time in my life.
Maybe it’s because I’m 50. Maybe it’s because for the first time in three decades I have only myself to care for. Maybe some strands came loose from the knot.
Are you an emotional eater? What are your strategies to pick apart that knot? You can reach me at 505-286-1212, firstname.lastname@example.org, or by joining the conversation in my Facebook group, “I’m Losing It!” I’d love to hear them.