What do sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and food all have in common?
They all stimulate the reward center of your brain, of your body, of you.
On a day that I have great, sensual, connected sex and also get to listen to Pearl Jam play on MTV Unplugged, I don’t need much else. Really. I certainly don’t need any potato chips.
Seriously, imagine the feeling of eating some chips.
Now imagine the feeling of being at a concert with your friends or doing something else you really enjoy doing. Have you ever been having such a good time that you basically forgot to eat? Then you get the idea. This is your reward center doing it’s thing. At our most basic level, we need food, we need people, and we’re here to enjoy the whole experience. We’re here to be alive. When we’re meeting these essential needs and feeling that good, all we want to do is keep it going. Of course, even when we’re having the time of your lives, we eventually get hungry. Even kids making forts in the woods eventually come in to eat.
On the other hand, have you ever been so lonely, stressed, and/or bored that all you wanted to do was eat, even when you weren’t hungry, even when the food stopped tasting good? That’s “emotional” eating. A better name for it is reward-center eating because calling it “emotional” eating makes it seem irrational and unchangeable. It actually makes perfect sense and is really easy to fix. Here’s the straight truth: When you’re not meeting your needs for connection and overall enjoyment, most likely because you don’t feel you deserve them, your reward center drives you to eat. Eating when you’re hungry is life itself. Eating when you aren’t hungry is a poor substitute for what you really want and need.
Appropriate eating is hunger eating. That is, you eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. All animals on the planet do that, and have done that for all of history and pre-history, except for the most modern humans. Why is that? Because most people aren’t meeting their needs for connection and overall enjoyment. We’re a people made for living with our tribe, our possy, our peeps. We’re a people made for fist bumps and hugs and pats on the back. For massages. For great sex. For concerts and dances and adventures of all kinds. But we settle for chips. Chips that never satisfy. How could they?
“Emotional” eating is so common because so many people are chronically lonely-stressed-bored. That’s what happens when you do a job you don’t actually like to make money to buy things you don’t actually like to impress people you don’t actually like. Welcome to the United States, where materialism* and industrialism** are the gods; chronic boredom, loneliness, and stress are the fallout; and “emotional” eating is the dirty-little-not-so-secret coping mechanism.
Many people (I meet several every week) are stuck in years-long dysfunctional relationships with “emotional” eating. They’re all using the wrong tool for the job: willpower. They believe their life is just fine as it is and the reason they eat junk food when they’re not even hungry is because they lack the willpower to stop. So they “abstain” for a few days, while the desire to eat junk food builds and builds and builds and builds, and they eventually “indulge”. Our reward centers need to be stimulated and they’ll get what they need one way or another. If you don’t allow yourself to have the connection and overall enjoyment you truly desire, your reward center is going to keep asking for chips and cookies. You can’t resist nature. There’s no better example than the Catholic church. Catholic priests take a vow to live without having sex and what happens? They have sex, in secret, with boys and girls. You can’t put nature in a box. It’ll always escape.
This is what “emotional” eaters do too. They hold it together, hold it together, hold it together with “restraint”, then bam, the floodgates open and they’re binging on junk food again. Why do they fall apart? Because they’re using the entirely wrong tools for the job: willpower, abstinence, restraint.
I help my clients overcome “emotional” eating every week. It’s quite simple, and quite easy because we use the right tools for the job: sex and rock ’n’ roll.
Great, sensual, connected sex truly does work well. As does any deeply intimate, deeply harmonious connection. Our brains’ reward centers love connection. With a lover. With a friend. With anyone we’re close with or becoming close with. Connected people have satisfied reward centers.
Rock ’n’ roll works really well too. So does jazz or hip-hop or ambient music. Or anything you enjoy. Rock ’n’ roll, in this case, is a facsimile for enjoyment, for fun, for pleasure. A person living a truly fun-filled, pleasure-filled life has little need for chips.
When a wellness professional’s only tool to help you overcome “emotional” eating is willpower, they’re showing that they slept through both their physiology and psychology classes. My clients put “emotional” eating behind them for good because together we do the work to help them meet their needs for connection and overall enjoyment. Here’s where this gets really good. Most people who are failing to meet their needs for connection and enjoyment don’t believe they deserve connection and enjoyment. They think loneliness, stress, and boredom is all they deserve. Their relationship with themselves has become corrupt and we do the challenging, meaningful, life-changing work together to clean up and restore their relationship with themselves. That’s true wellness coaching. That’s true transformation.
Frankly, it’s the only way to get the job done. Trying to curb “emotional” eating with willpower is like trying to drain Lake Erie with a spoon. A woman who’s in a marriage in which her husband doesn’t pay any attention to her, who’s running around from morning to night shuttling her kids to activities, and who’s come to the realization that having the trendiest sports-utility vehicle doesn’t fulfill her, isn’t going to stop binging in the afternoon using willpower. Her brain, her body, every ounce of her being needs those cookies. The reward center of her brain is starving because she’s lonely, stressed, and bored. The reward center of our brains has evolved over millions of years. It needs stimulation and it will get it. Your measly willpower doesn’t stand a chance against millions of years of evolution.
You were made to rock (to enjoy the sensory, sensuous, sensual nature of life), and you were made for vibrant community, friendship, and sex. If you’re not living in alignment with the vary fabric of your being, your reward center has an obligation to inform you. It’s not working against you with those after-dinner cravings. It’s working for you. If you listened closely to the cravings, you’d be able to tell that junk food isn’t what you really want and need. When you allow yourself to have what you really want and need, that’s when your life will really take off. This is when you’ll start to thrive. Yes, you’ll put “emotional” eating away quickly and easily. And you’ll get so much more! Because when your relationships improve, everything in your life will get better. And when you start allowing yourself to enjoy your life, it’ll have massive ripple effects for how you approach your work and all of your life. You’ll shun drudgery and embrace play. You’ll be truly happy and healthy. You’ll thrive.
I challenge you to ask yourself if you believe you deserve a life you love, full of the kind of connection, fun, and pleasure you were made for. If you hesitate at all to say “Yes!” I challenge you to do the work, with help if you could use help, to be able to say “Yes!” and to walk your talk. Because, then, and only then will you be able to fully step into a life that meets your needs. And when you do, “emotional” eating will stop being a monster. It’ll be pesky fly you don’t even notice. “Emotional” eating isn’t even a thing for a thriving person.
*The word materialism, as it is used in our culture to mean a reverence of meaningless things has a negative connotation and it should. It’s true, 3,000-square-foot homes for four-person families and cheap plastic goods aren’t serving anyone. Contemporary materialism is pornography of true materialism which is actually a wonderful perspective. A true materialist finds the rocks and the water (in lakes, rivers, the ocean, etc.), the clay and the trees, and all of Earth’s “material” as simultaneously gorgeous and perfectly useful. As such, he/she appreciates the material word, respects the material word, reveres the material world, and stewards the material world.
**The word industrialism, as it’s used in our culture to mean growth and expansion of economies for any reason at any cost has created a faulty, useless, destructive abstraction. People now value the moving of money around for the sake of moving money around and the selling of anything for the sake of selling and not for actually enhancing the quality of life for anyone. It’s rare that anyone’s life improves through abstract growth and expansion or selling anything some fool will buy. For example, is the life of an ordinary United States citizen better today than it was 25 years ago? The wellness metrics say it’s worse. As one example, far more people, including far more children, suffer from both depression and type-2 diabetes today than they did 25 years ago. But, of course, the United States and world economy has grown and much more stuff is being sold. True industrialism is the perspective and actions of of an individual or group who use their talents and abilities to make the day-to-day experience of life better for themselves and others. They use their life to create that which matters.
Author’s Note: Drugs light up the reward center of our brains like magic too, but they also fuck your life up faster than Hollywood stars fall from grace. I don’t recommend them.
Remember your mantra for today: NOURISHING MOVEMENT, NOURISHING FOOD, NOURISHING LIFE.
There’s a place below to share your feelings on this article if you’d like. I’d love to hear from you.