Lifestyle

A year of emotional eating? Don’t feel guilty. We need comfort, not ketosis

You know how people fill online baskets with clothes they never buy? I do that now with food. I see something advertised, compile an extravagant order, then don’t follow through. In the past few weeks, I have almost ordered hand-pulled noodles, oysters and something described as a “pistachio black forest gateau” (I am still thinking about that one).

It’s a new iteration of emotional eating, still apparently my main hobby and way of marking the passage of time. Friday is pizza, Saturday is jumbo Hula Hoops, Easter Sunday was fistfuls of Mini Eggs, anticipated then enjoyed with the abandon of one of the worst Roman emperors. Most evenings, my husband and I stand in the kitchen rationalising that it’s perfectly reasonable to have what he calls “a proper apéritif” (he means crisps with our drinks, but wants to sound sophisticated).

This long haul of repetitive living has me in thrall to taste and texture; to sweet, salt and spice. Wedged in my roomiest trousers like a giant boat in the Suez, I am reduced to issuing warnings to people I am finally seeing in real life. “I haven’t stopped eating in a year,” I plead. “Please pretend you haven’t noticed.”

Many of us are emerging, sheepishly, into the spring sunshine in suboptimal condition. In an international study, UK citizens reported the highest levels of weight gain compared with other countries. The usual “shape up for spring” advice seems supercharged by collective shame at our long locked-down months of crumb-covered inactivity and alarm at the prospect of in-person socialising. Diet tea adverts are bursting out everywhere like spring flowers and Paul McKenna is back on daytime TV, trying to persuade women they don’t like cake.

How bad should we really feel? “One maladaptive way to cope with stress and negative emotions is unhealthy eating patterns,” says another recent study on pandemic weight gain – rather judgmentally, I feel. Obviously, it would be better if we all managed stress with regular exercise, hydration and wholegrains – and the way the food industry exploits our weakness for sugar and fat has real public health implications – but we need compassion, not ketosis.

We were delighted when the German compound noun kummerspeck – literally “grief bacon”, meaning sadness-induced weight gain – entered our vocabulary, but coronaspeck gets surprisingly short shrift. Can’t we treat it as what it is: a hunt for comfort when many sources are off limits?

Food has done some very heavy lifting for many of us. As a veteran of two thankfully long-distant spells of treatment for eating problems, I know how intimately food and feelings are enmeshed. Part of my recovery was understanding how food becomes an unhelpful proxy for other emotions, but an equally important part was accepting that eating is, and always will be, a true and important pleasure.

It’s no surprise that we have needed that pleasure in the past year. Some people have a strictly functional relationship with food – how weird much of the world must seem for them – but the rest of us find divorcing eating and emotion impossible and wrong-headed.

Imagine being Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter and a notorious bio-hacker, for whom calories seem to be merely another route to self-optimisation. His recent broadcast from his monastically bleak kitchen sparked delighted hilarity, including a jolly thread on his own platform that speculated what he might feed you if you went round for dinner: “delicious mountain air”, “room-temperature alkaline water” and “one organic quinoa grain on a burlap strip” were three suggestions.

We feel bad about the visual record of our fear, frustration and sadness – but it’s OK, honestly. Other longed-for delights are here, or are tantalisingly close. Soon, maybe, I will be able to see my sister, or the sea, and empty my online baskets of their ghost meals.

For now, I will keep eating my feelings, which are evolving, but still delicious. Fragrant alphonso mangoes are back, tissue-wrapped like Christmas presents, and a nearby cafe has soft-serve ice-cream with roasted pistachios and morello cherries. I am looking forward to sitting on a sun-warmed wall and dragging a spoon through the layers, cool and sweet, tart and crunchy. Is that emotional eating? Yes, but sometimes the emotion is pure joy.