Kummerspeck is the word the Germans use to describe overeating as a result of emotional distress such as grief, loss or trauma. It literally translates to “grief bacon.”
Although the word is pretty fun and silly, the feelings and actions associated with it are not. Emotional pain and conflict have many physical symptoms and can vastly affect someone’s relationship with food, appetite and how they feel hunger.
I believe how someone approaches food and eating can tell you a lot about that person. How they chew, the pace at which they eat, if they savor every bite, the quality of food they select. One of the most distinct ways our bodies speak to us is through hunger and cravings.
How many times have you failed at dieting or trying to improve your eating habits or know someone who has? Maybe you’ve just given up all together because nothing works sustainably.
Despite what you’ve been told, it’s most likely not a lack of motivation, not laziness, lack of nutritional knowledge or cooking skills and it’s not gluttony.
Those who really struggle with food, eating and controlling their weight, are often struggling with other things too – stress, depression, grief, working too much, lack of mindfulness, self-esteem issues, stress, smoking, alcohol.
It’s very unlikely that those who are struggling with their weight consistently over eat because they are physically hungry all the time. They are struggling because food and eating issues are a response to distressful circumstances, a side effect or symptom, if you will.
Anything from relationship issues (whether with a significant other, co-workers, family members, etc), life circumstance changes (moving, having a baby, divorce, starting a new career), loss (of others, of a pet or of self-identity, losing a job, loss of direction in life) or social deficits (feeling isolated or lonely, misunderstood or unable to establish meaningful connections with others) are the most common challenges those who struggle with food are facing in their lives.
Eating can act like a drug in these situations. It’s a powerful coping mechanism that allows us an escape, a release, comfort and security. A hit. We’re looking for food to somehow change the intolerable emotions we are feeling right now.
But once our hit, or rush wears off, our emotional problems are still looming, except now we’re left with the additional messes that over-eating and mindless eating bring.
Our cravings, desires and urges to eat are all controlled by hormones, neurotransmitters and other “messengers” within our nervous system.
Two significant neurotransmitters are serotonin and dopamine. I’m sure you’ve heard of them. Serotonin is responsible for feelings of “zen” or tranquility, and dopamine is what urges us to seek out novelty, rewards, highs and other quick, cheap thrills (think gambling, obsessive shopping, drugs etc).
The most commonly prescribed anti-depressants work by increasing levels of serotonin. Our bodies also release serotonin and dopamine when we eat – providing us with a brief hit and a feeling of release.
Often, those who struggle with overeating are simply trying to boost their levels of serotonin and dopamine.
When we think of “comfort foods” – foods we commonly seek and consume to soothe ourselves – we think of things like macaroni and cheese, creamy mashed potatoes, a pint of Ben and Jerry’s or fresh baked cookies. Foods higher in carbohydrates, such as these typical comfort foods, tend to be our go-to’s because carbohydrates, particularly the simple sugar/starchy kind, help release serotonin.
Wanting comfort foods is not wrong and it doesn’t make you a lousy person. As far as our brain chemicals go, it makes perfect sense and it works – at least temporarily.
When we pursue these comfort foods, we’re really searching for a feeling, whether it’s happiness, security, fulfillment, or pleasure. Or we use foods to numb and distract us from whatever discomfort we are feeling in our current situations.
But this isn’t sustainable and in the long run we end up feeling worse, yet we do it again and again, because the things we keep trying to fill or numb are still there, growing. And it becomes a habit.
Unfortunately, no diet, meal plan or weight loss trick is going to help you if you haven’t dealt with the root cause of overeating.
The good news is that we can change habits. We can address unmet needs and icky feelings, build self-awareness and live more in line with our bodies without bingeing, overeating or being stuck in disordered eating patterns.
Eating should bring us satiety, pleasure and a wholly satisfying, enriching experience.
What Do I Expect This Food To Do For Me?
Hit the pause button and check in with yourself next time before you eat or feel an overeating/binge episode approaching. Develop an honest inner dialogue about what’s going on around you and what you are hoping to fulfill with your next few bites.
• What am I feeling right now? Identify your emotions, be aware of them. Are you feeling lonely, anxious, gloomy…?
• What do I want to feel? How am I expecting food to provide this feeling for me?
• What could I do instead, to obtain that feeling? Could you take a warm bath for comfort? Go for a walk as a distraction? Write in your journal or call a friend to vent?
• What “hit” or instant gratification am I searching for in this food?
• What’s going on in my life right now making me feel this way?
Keeping a food diary is another helpful tool. Write down how you’re feeling and what you’re thinking around your times of eating, snacking or bingeing. See if you can identify any patterns over time and work on breaking them.
Allow Space for Your Discomfort
What if instead of seeking to fill, numb, run or hide from those emotions, feelings and discomforts using food, you leaned into them and explored them.
CRINGE, I know. The thought of sitting with all of your feelings is super uncomfortable, icky and overflowing with resistance. But the longer you resist, the longer you keep those emotions and circumstances alive and well, the bigger and more persistent they grow and hold you back.
If you have become so accustomed to filling emotional holes, numbing and distracting, you may not even realize you are habitually doing so. Stress, pain, loneliness, anxiety – our knee jerk reaction is to get away from these feelings ASAP – not look them face to face. That’s way too uncomfortable.
Unfortunately we can’t numb these feelings forever and expect to live healthy, authentic and fulfilling lives. At some point we need to stop hoping for external things (food, mindless TV, alcohol, etc) to fix us and instead, face our feelings, soak them in and dig right into them.
It’s not comfortable, it can get messy and chaotic and takes a lot of courage, but your physical and mental health are on the line.
Use the discomfort as an opportunity to grow and expand, embrace whatever lesson it is teaching you and become more fully engaged in your life and in line with your body. Distractions and numbness will only drag you further away from your true self and your intentions for your health and well-being.
You owe it to yourself to communicate with and honor your body outside of extrinsic circumstances. You deserve to have a balanced, harmonious relationship with food and for it to add positively to your life.
Remember, you’re not alone. You’re normal and you can make positive changes and keep nurturing and cultivating your greatness. None of this makes you “broken” – it makes you human.
Please feel free to reach out to me: Erika@HurstStrength.com
**While I don’t expect a simple blog post to solve anyone’s problems, especially since psychological health is obviously very outside of my licensed scope of practice and you should absolutely consult a professional in that field – I do hope that this post helps provide some “food for thought” and a new perspective. I also hope it provides you some hope – that it’s not food, it’s not lack of willpower, it’s not because you haven’t discovered the “secret” to eating right yet. It’s something deeper.
If you are having constant, overwhelming cravings, you may have a hormonal imbalance or nutritional deficiency, please consult with your doctor.