The Symbolic Eating Peril


Dr. Billi Gordon has written extensively about the conjunction of family and holidays, and about holiday binge eating, and about what he calls “intricate symbolic involvement in our feeding habits.” This is the root of both the beauty and the craziness of family holidays. Things that are carved into ancient grooves become exposed. Unwelcome surprises show up.

Some families traditionally go to the country club for Mother’s Day Brunch and to Vail for Christmas. Other families only have one big blowout per year — Thanksgiving or maybe Independence Day. So there are class differences. But a vast majority of the time, family holidays cause stress, and it is very much a shared experience among cultures. Who will host a certain event? Who is expected to, and who wants to? Who makes the decision not to travel to a family gathering, and why?

Dr. Gordon points out that “compulsive symbolic eating is global.” He gives the example of how, in American Thanksgiving tradition, a person’s position at the table is meaningful, and the privilege of carving the turkey signifies rank. But all types of cultures and societies have equivalent customs. A great deal of our behavior and interactions are symbolic during these holiday periods, and that’s not all.

We eat symbolically and we eat comfort foods for nostalgia because they have personal meaning. Sometimes comfort foods are comforting because of the neurochemical benefits of the carbohydrate or fat content. That’s a different discussion. Today, we’re talking about the foods that comfort us because of their symbolic association with people or events in our lives.

That drive is intense, and Dr. Gordon explored its origin in intricate detail for Psychology Today, describing the human brain as “a Walmart cashier on Black Friday.” He goes deep. Considering the roles played by different brain regions, he concludes:

Conceivably, symbolic eating is not processed as a hedonic experience that satisfies a goal-directed behavior, but as gestures (eating event behavior) and objects (food and related utensils and fixtures). This raises the question: when food or an eating event is used to symbolically communicate, is it processed in the anterior and posterior perisylvian language area as language?

Dr. Gordon then goes on to explain why any of this matters. Because in order to understand compulsive eating there are things that must be considered. He takes the reader through a logic chain to arrive at the conclusion that emotional eating is very closely tied up with a life full of aversive experiences:

Emotional eating is always symbolic eating and among the chief architects of compulsive and binge eating. The probable source of conditioned fear is the associative, collateral context of aversive objects and events. It’s also likely that compulsive overeaters have more conditioned fears than normal eaters because they have more aversive experiences.

In other words, this eating disorder is a sequel of abuse, or relentless ongoing misery of other kinds. It is one of the ways in which the body expresses post traumatic stress syndrome. Despite the grim subject matter, Dr. Gordon imbues this essay with lyrical language and a feeling of hope.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Symbolic Eating,” PsychologyToday, 11/23/13
Photo credit: PrescottFoland via Visualhunt/CC BY-ND

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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