Emotional vs. Conscious Eating


Today is the day I refocus my energy on conscious eating.  The holidays are over, my children are back in school and the decorations are safely tucked away.  My Pilates machine is back in place and quite stark in comparison to the twinkling lights of the Christmas tree.  It is such a different feeling than just three short weeks ago when I was eagerly anticipating the magic of Christmas.  But I am ready.   Photos remind me of the beautiful memories I was Blessed to share and the gift I was given of one more Christmas with the people I love.

If you are one of those people who have no emotional connection to food, then this may not resonate with you. But for most of us, emotional eating begins in our childhood years, frames the way we eat, and subconsciously determines our relationship with food for the rest of our lives.

The only real reason to eat is to provide the raw nutrients to build blood cells and fuel your body. If you grew up in a large Italian family like I did, the homemade preparation and sharing of food meant so much more than that and was associated with family, love, traditions, comfort and safety. A “chubby cheeked” child was a healthy child and anyone who didn’t have a good appetite and “mangia!” was promptly taken to the doctor. It didn’t help that the food was out of this world delicious! My grandmother catered Italian weddings.

I was the baby of the family and the only girl. I felt very loved by my three older brothers and my mom and dad. I was always singing Beatles songs, climbing trees, happy, and smiling. I had amazing imaginary friends!  People loved to pinch my chubby, rosy little cheeks and give me cookies and candy.

I went everywhere with my dad.  His family owned a cigar store across from the train station in Steubenville, Ohio.  I loved the smell of that store. It was a mix of cigars, candy, chewing gum, newspapers and perfume.  My aunt was always impeccably dressed in heels, cashmere sweaters, pearl jewelry, and lovely smelling perfume. I loved to watch her push the buttons on the gigantic cash register.  She would let me pick any candy that I wanted and sit in the big picture window out front and watch people at the train station come and go. When I grew up, I wanted to be just like my aunt and play with that cash register and wear make up and pretty clothes.

Another favorite place was DiCarlo’s Bakery.  Since our families were friends, sometimes, even after the downtown store would close for the evening, I was allowed to go in with my dad or uncle through the back door. In the back of the store, there were huge troughs of bread dough rising, and ovens filled with baking bread. The smell of freshly baked DiCarlo’s bread was beyond amazing.  Ask any person who grew up there years ago and they will inhale deeply and tell you the same thing. I loved eating warm bread fresh from the oven.

Ann DiCarlo would take me to the front of the store and give me these beautiful Italian Cookies. I always got to pick one to eat, and then she would give me a box to take home. They were so delicious and sprinkled with all the colors of the rainbow and tasted of vanilla, almond, and anise. The sights and smells are forever etched in my memory.

My dad passed away when I was in kindergarten. I still remember the exact moment I was told that he had died. I was listening to a silly song called, “Never Smile at a Crocodile,” and getting ready for school.  And just like that, he was gone. My first experience of pure, unconditional love; my big teddy bear of a dad, my favorite lap to curl up in, was gone forever.

Every time I went past DiCarlo’s Bakery and smelled that bread, I was instantly transformed to a four year old holding my dad’s hand in the dark alleyway and opening that back door to the warmth and smell of that bread. My mother died when I was eight and I moved away.  But every time I went home to Steubenville I would visit Ann DiCarlo and she would give me a cookie to eat and a box of cookies to take with me. I so loved those cookies. For me, they represented so much more than flour and sugar and colorful sprinkles. They represented a time in my life when I felt safe, secure, and loved.

Emotional eating is trying to fill a void that can never be filled with food. We all have our “voids”—loss, abuse, loneliness, boredom, pain—as well as our associations of food with celebrations, joy, coming home, and feeling loved. When I lost my parents, I lost the unconditional love that only your mom and dad can provide.  Being so young, I had no choice but to go live with my aunt, and absolutely no control over the situation. I had to leave behind everyone and everything that ever meant anything to me. Food, in the form of cookies, was my effort to hold on to, and stay connected to the happy childhood I was forced to leave behind. Cookies were my happy—my comfort—my connection.

It wasn’t until the birth of my first child that I finally felt unconditional love once again. And it wasn’t until my husband had cancer that I realized how good it felt to eat for nutrition; how amazing and energized and light and happy I felt when I became alkaline–and how unconsciously I had been eating all my life. Whenever I felt stressed or hurt or angry—I shoveled in the cookies. Or chips. It could have been cardboard.  The more I replayed the exchange of harsh words or feelings of  “what’s wrong with me—I ‘m not good enough,” the faster I shoveled in the food. Perhaps certain emotions trigger you to do the same.

It has taken me a long time but I am finally to the point where I don’t eat when I feel stressed. More importantly—I try not to allow myself to get stressed, even though, inevitably, there are days and times that I do. It was only by helping other people see this that I saw this in myself. Eating junk is easy. Doing the emotional work and looking inward is not. But you have to do the emotional work to heal.

This is why I believe in the concept of conscious eating—as opposed to any other one size fits all plan. In my experience, small yet powerful changes, made slowly and with grace, become good habits, which become a healthy lifestyle. Don’t make it a big deal or make some big declaration on some huge holiday. This sets up unrealistic expectations, which lead to feelings of failure if you don’t live up to those resolutions. Conscious eating allows you to find what works for you.

A simple change of habit like switching from coffee to Dandy Blend or Teechino will break the coffee habit without giving up the coffee taste.

A simple switch from white pasta noodles to zucchini noodles will satisfy your craving for pasta. I promise I never suggest anything that I haven’t personally tried or that doesn’t taste amazing. I never liked pasta or store bought sauce because it never tasted like my grandma’s. Zucchini noodles with sundried tomatoes, garlic pepper seasoning and olive oil come as close as you can get.

And even though I am very much against artificial sweetener—I have yet to find a natural one that I would recommend. The herb stevia is considered natural and I have tried to find a flavor I like—but honestly, it tastes sickeningly sweet and leaves a bitter aftertaste. I do like coconut palm sugar or honey. The point being—experiment and find what works for you. It is a learning process. Make it exciting! Imagine all the amazing recipes and new ideas to be explored. Knowledge is empowering.

Loving yourself is critical. This has been the most difficult lesson for me. You will never fill an emotional void with anything external and physical.  Remember, it’s not about dieting, giving anything up, or deprivation.  It is a lifestyle.  It is about choosing real food that nourishes you. It is about letting go of old traumas and chronic stressors that led you to poor food choices in the search for comfort. It’s about consciously choosing food that makes you feel energized and alive, and letting go of foods that no longer serve you. There will never be a perfect time. Start with today, with where you are and decide to make this the best year ever.


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Thomasina Copenhaver
Thomasina Copenhaver is a naturopathic doctor and registered nurse with over 30 years experience in the healthcare profession. Her passion is writing, researching, and empowering all humans with knowledge of healing at the cellular level; to enable them to make educated and informed choices regarding their health. For more information visit her website: notesfromanaturopath.com or to buy her book, "Notes from a Naturopath" visit Amazon or Barnes and Noble.