Are you an emotional eater and a Greek-American? Read on to see how the two relate and what that means for you and your immediate family.
Emotional eating is learned
A few months back, my 3 year-old accidentally hurt himself. He’d asked me for a piece of organic chocolate prior to the incident, and I was about to give it to him. Of course, my immediate instinct was to comfort him and ask him if he was ok. Sobbing, he responded no, while at the same time taking the chocolate out of my hand and placing it in his mouth. A few seconds later, he stopped crying, ate his chocolate, and then proceeded to state, “Thank you mommy, I feel much better now that you gave me chocolate.” To my disdain, his “feeling better” had nothing to do with my intentional actions of ‘holding space’ for him to cry, acknowledging his emotions and/or my soothing behaviors. Chocolate trumped all. At that moment I realized that I unintentionally helped my child form a connection between eating chocolate and feeling better. The thought of fostering the formation of a potential “emotional” eater quickly settled in my mind and still daunts me to this day.
What is Emotional Eating?
Currently it seems to be a catch-all phrase characterizing individuals who eat to satisfy and/or avoid their feelings rather than eat for true hunger. The negativity associated with the term tends to imply the avoidance of negative feelings rather than positive ones. The medical definition of emotional eating is the practice of consuming large quantities of food — usually “comfort” or junk foods — in response to feelings instead of hunger. Experts estimate that 75% of overeating is caused by emotions.(1)
In today’s society, eating as a response to both negative and positive emotions is prevalent. Food shows, restaurants, food magazines, products, experts, social and family gatherings are ALL food-centered and makes “eating in response to emotions” easy for the average individual. This focus on food and food-related behaviors has been around for a while, so the question arises; at what point did this focus become problematic?
Food as love in Greek culture
This preoccupation with food is definitely not new to Greeks, who have have long been prized for the love that they “include” in their cooking and serving of food to others. Offering guests food, whether strangers or good friends, has been a practice originating in ancient times. “Philoxenia”, or “xenia”, meaning “guest-friendship”, is a concept dating back to ancient Greece.(2) It’s the concept of hospitality, “the generosity and courtesy shown to those who are far from home and/or associates of the person bestowing guest-friendship.”(2) This hospitality was created and expressed between guest and host, in both material benefits (e.g. food) as well as non-material ones (such as protection, shelter, or favors).
Modern day, westernized philoxenia seems to have shifted to mostly the offering of food. Recent documentaries like Food is Love highlight this.(3) This documentary is about Greek moms and how regardless of their children’s age and/or whereabouts, they always send food to their children.
This form of nurturing is just one of the “old school,” traditional behaviors that’s transferred over to modern day living. There are other “old school” food-related behaviors and/or statements that can still be seen and heard today. Maybe you’ve heard some of these:
- the directive of emptying your plate completely or “God won’t love you,” (yes, I’ve heard this)
- tension and frustration by the host when guest(s) deny food offered
- statements like, “eat the heel of the bread loaf or your mother-in-law won’t love you” (yes, I’ve heard this one too many times)
- grown “kids” still being spoon-fed by either their moms or grandmothers
- the chasing of children/adolescents around the house (and even out the door!) with a forkful of food so they finish their meal
As evidenced by all of the above, when it comes to our traditional mothers and grandmothers, there is no way around it; food is love and love is food. So once again, the question remains: when does this turn problematic (the onset emotional eating) and why?
Culture Clash: the perfect recipe for emotional eating
Studies show that new immigrants were initially insulated from Western body norms.(4) That, however, quickly changed. Western body norms place a strong emphasis on thinness and external physical characteristics — starkly different from the stoic internal characteristics so well-prized in the Greek culture. This culture clash (one of many) seems to have possibly put Greek-Americans at greater risk for issues like family conflicts, higher levels of perfectionism, and ultimately “internalization of the thin ideal.”(4)
In addition, family environments failed and/or continue to fail at the fostering of expressing emotions and/or the displaying and teaching of proper conflict resolution skills. Greeks are well-known for their animated and dramatic dispositions and while viewed as crude or “unfiltered” by some, technically, it’s still a form of emotional expression. Modern day American culture tends to look down upon this form of expression and instead teaches us to withhold our opinions if negative or “swallow” our feelings. Even worse, many times in today’s world, we’re told we shouldn’t feel the way we do to begin with.
Add in modern day chronic stress, that many Greek-Americans experience (quite different from the stress their parents experienced) and it’s not surprising that women are the ones who usually overeat and/or emotionally eat. It also seems that women who restrain themselves regularly (e.g. diet) are more likely to do this than those who don’t.(5)
Did you know that when we have a “stress response” certain hormones activate within our bodies? One of the main stress hormones released is cortisol. Elevated levels of cortisol can actually be blunted and or reduced with, yup, you guessed it, food! These foods actually induce an opioid release within the body (feel good chemical) and this mechanism is thought to protect the body from the detrimental effects of chronic cortisol exposure.(6)
In other words, eating when “stressed” may actually be beneficial from a hormone regulating perspective! The problem arises when it’s chronic and when it leads to mindless “over eating” each time. (6)
The recipe for emotional eating is obviously highly nuanced and by no way means limited to the 3 ingredients above. Poor foundational diets that don’t allow for optimum brain function (unlike our ancestors’ whole real food diet), overall poor quality food that fails to provide necessary micronutrients for optimal health, (abundant in previous generations), along with more and more experts and/or expert gadgets ultimately leading us even further away from our own food intuitiveness, all play a role in emotional eating. Add in the cultural rifts mentioned above in families and between generations, and you now have a perfect recipe for adult onset emotional eating.
The problem: when food replaces love
Ultimately, emotional eating is a soothing problem and not a food problem. Emotional eaters eat to avoid feelings and/or replace them with “good” feelings stimulated by food. And while initially we may have full intentional control over it, eventually it turns into a habit making it even harder to control.
Can this cycle be stopped? Absolutely! Awareness is the first step in the process. Emotional eating is a response that can be changed with daily intention and awareness. The science is out there. (7. You can “rewire” your brain from what you’ve been “taught.” It just takes time, effort, and commitment — there’s definitely has no quick fix (another part of modern day culture prevalent in our thoughts).
Without laying blame to our mothers and grandmothers, their well-intentioned expression of love and nurturing through food, in modern day America was and IS bound to backfire. The overall diet mentality and obsession with thinness does NOT blend well with the constant eating of yiayia’s galaktobouriko (custard pie) and/or mom’s koulourakia (cookies). Add in a culture that actively promotes emotionally numbing behaviors (immediate gratifications) rather than active expression of feelings, traditional Greek feeding habits, are in this case, more detrimental than good.
Awareness of the cultural and societal differences between generations, along with the ongoing encouragement of respectful expression of feelings between generations can allow for a healthy integration of old school food behaviors. Complete assimilation into modern day American culture, on the other hand, will unfortunately ultimately result in the loss of traditional Greek hospitality; a disheartening consequence. Keeping the above factors in mind can help both parties come from a place of love which is yiayia’s and moms original intention; that food is love and love is food.
Questions? Want to learn more? Contact me today.
- Medical Definition of Emotional Eating
- Documentary on Mother’s Love Expressed in food
- Encyclopedia of Immigrant Health
- PUBLIC HEALTH NUTRITION AND EPIDEMIOLOGY: Stress management can facilitate weight loss in Greek overweight and obese women: a pilot study
- “Why You Overeat When Stressed and How to Change It”
- Switch on Your Brain. The Key to Peak Happiness, Thinking and Health. Dr. Caroline Leaf
More from Roula Marinos Papamihail, MA, CHHC, FDN-P:
She trained at Functional Diagnostic Nutrition, the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. and holds a Masters in Clinical Psychology from the University of Indianapolis. She’s also the proud mom of 4 little boys. Roula is currently accepting new clients in her office, at home, over the phone, or via Skype. Visit her website at www.myhealthysoma.com.