Every holiday season, we're hit by a storm of friends, family, food, stress, and dumb trend pieces about how to eat during this festive time. But as hackneyed as those "How To Avoid Getting As Fat As Your Christmas Ham!" articles are, they touch on an issue that doesn't get taken as seriously during the rest of the year: stress-eating. We don't talk that much about stress-eating because it's one of the ultimate rom-com tropes — look, another adorably clumsy girl who will never find love sobbing into her pint of Ben & Jerry's! — and it can be especially embarrassing to open up about private actions that reinforce gender stereotypes. What's a person with a legitimate stress-eating problem to do?
"Legitimate stress-eating problem" — that sounds so silly and pathetic, doesn't it? Just typing it makes me cringe, and I've been a stress-eater my whole life.
I don't know exactly why I stress-eat, but I've been trying to figure it out since I was a little kid. In high school, I would eat entire boxes of crackers in the middle of the night when I had a big test the next day, because snacks made studying more tolerable. Sometimes, when I'm working on a complicated article, I'll order and eat an entire pizza within fifteen minutes of its arrival. Often, when I'm feeling anxious, I'll start envisioning some random type of food and become so obsessed with tracking it down and eating it that I won't be able to think about anything else until I buy it and scarf it down, barely tasting it, finally calm.
I don't abuse alcohol or other drugs because that would mess up my relationships with my friends and family and affect my work. But binge-eating only hurts me. And because I'm not overweight, no one — friends, family, therapists — takes me seriously when I try to talk about stress-eating without poking fun at myself, which is rare. (I don't know any women who would ever brag about how much food they threw up or how many days they had gone without eating. But almost all of my friends, regardless of body type, regularly joke about how much food we're capable of consuming: "OMG! I just ate an entire baguette! Again.")
Some of the few people I've opened up to are sympathetic, but I don't think most people really believe me when I talk about the large quantities of food I feel compelled to eat in a hurry, as if it'll disappear if I don't cram it down my throat. A therapist once told me that I should "pack healthy snacks" when I'm feeling anxious so I won't binge on Cheez-Its and such when I'm out. I told her that every time I try the healthy snack method, I eat everything the second I leave the house and instantly crave something else, but she didn't have any other ideas. I stopped seeing her.
My therapist may not have been able to help me stop stress-eating, but the media sure as hell thinks it can. Since mid-November my work email inbox has been inundated with press releases babbling about the 10 best ways to avoid eating too many pigs in a blanket this holiday season, and I can't click on a link or pick up a magazine without reading another story about what to do to cut down the Christmas calories. These trend pieces aren't very helpful; one CBS post says you should eat foods you can't get at other times of the year ("Grandma's homemade pie" trumps "store-bought cookies"), while, conversely, HuffPo instructs readers not to eat "once-a-year" treats.
Ladymag articles are particularly useless. They're not trying to help you curb your stress or question why you want to stuff your face when you're anxious — they're just there to tell you how not to eat. Cosmopolitan, for example, suggests sitting near meat instead of mac and cheese, or getting drunk instead of having a snack. (Which is a bad idea for multiple reasons, but also because, if you are anything like me, you'll just get wasted and then consume twice as many snacks as you would have if you'd stayed sober.)
"Forget everything you've heard about stress-eating being a bad thing," says Women's Health. Yay! No, wait — they're just saying that "stress-eating" is fabulous so long as you stick to almonds or oatmeal or salmon. While binge eating can involve pretty much any food, unsalted nuts and bland fish filets are not typical go-to stress snacks. And Glamour gets super cutsey about it all: "I confess that I indulged this holiday season more than I meant to. I swear, some days it was like I forgot what a vegetable was (or maybe I just confused brie for broccoli?)." It's the Manic Pixie Dream Stress-Eater!
Some articles are slightly more useful, like this Self piece that quotes an expert who says, "The oral sensation of eating delicious food cuts off all other brain circuits, so pleasure overwhelms every other sensation" (+1000 to that). But, the solution is almost always, as it is in this case, to ask yourself if you're hungry and wait 10 seconds before eating whatever it is that you're craving. What a brilliant, groundbreaking idea. Just kidding. If I could count all of the times an article told me I should wait X amount of seconds/minutes to "decide if I'm hungry," I would...still be counting. And probably eating at the same time.
The main problem with all of these articles is that most stress-eaters don't binge on food because the food itself is so delectable. At least, I don't. I love food — I love cooking, I love trying new restaurants, I love reading food blogs, I especially love events with free hors d'oeuvres — but when I eat because I'm stressed out, it doesn't really matter what I'm shoving in my mouth, as long as it's within reach and relatively tasty.
I'm sure that CNN is right in saying that "eating disorder treatment professionals frequently see an increase in eating-disordered thoughts and behaviors and lapses in recovery during the holiday season." Indeed, I will probably stress-eat my way though the holidays this year. But I'll also be stress-eating my way through the weeks after that.
I'm so used to overeating when I'm stressed and the self-loathing I feel afterwards that I've normalized it somewhat in my mind. But now, writing this, I realize how much I hate it, all of it — how I stress-eat so quickly that I hardly taste whatever I'm eating, how I feel overwhelmingly guilty from the moment I take my first bite, how I stress about how fast I'm eating whatever I'm eating, and about how whatever I was originally stressed about will still be bothering me once I'm done. It's stress upon stress upon stress upon stress. I also hate how uncomfortable it feels to write about this. I'm nervous people will either think I'm gross or foolish, like one of those vacuous rom-com heroines eating ice cream straight from the carton with a spoon.
I know that the only reason my stress-eating hasn't led to more serious physical health issues is because I'm still pretty young. Do I have to wait until my metabolism slows down to figure this out? I hope not. I also hope that none of you clicked on this thinking it was another "Top 10 Ways to Beat Holiday Stress Eating" article. Because, unfortunately, I have zero tips for you.
Image via FlavoredPixels/Shutterstock.