At War with Food
After a little over a year of what seemed to be a blissful marriage, 19-year-old Deena Khaled* got a phone call that would change her life forever. Her husband, who was temporarily 6,500 miles away, told her he wanted a divorce. Yes. He gave her the news over the phone.
“His decision came out of nowhere,” recalls Khaled, who was pursuing a degree in Arabic studies at the time. “I was so young and confused, not knowing who to talk to or where to turn.”
Coming from a culture where divorce carries a major stigma for women, Khaled suppressed her emotions and resorted to the one comfort that she knew best: food.
“After I realized what had happened, the first thing I wanted to do was eat,” shares the now 41-year-old teacher. “That was my go-to reaction. I didn’t cry in front of anyone. I just laughed and ate,” she says.
This response to turn to food caused Khaled to gain over 150 pounds over a six-year period. Food became an addiction for her, as she felt she could eat away her problems.
According to Milwaukee resident and marriage and family therapist Sana Mohiuddin, food soothes the soul.
“Food and drink won’t talk back to you or criticize you,” notes Mohiuddin, who is a mother of four. “It’s easier to eat than to talk to someone about your problems. Food will make you feel good without any judgment, whereas sharing your issues with others may make you feel worse or bring about emotions you don’t want to face.”
Khaled refused to admit her emotional state, and no one in her family addressed the issue at hand. Everyone constantly kept the focus on her obesity and told her that she needed to lose weight.
“No one realized that my weight gain was a reaction to something—not the problem itself,” says Khaled. “They just thought I got over my sudden divorce without ever dealing with it. For me, it wasn’t even about enjoying food, because I was eating without thinking. I was angry and hurt, but nobody wanted to face the truth—not even me.”
Once Khaled realized that food was not the answer, she began to see things more clearly. Tipping the scales at 300 pounds, Khaled decided it was time to face her problems. After finally losing the weight, she sought counseling for the trial she had suffered 17 years prior.
“I was emotionally addicted to food,” Khaled shares. “Once I conquered that battle, then I was able to focus on my emotional health and evaluate the person I had become. Everything had been affected by me neglecting the issue as a whole: my relationships and interactions with others as well as my personality and temperament. I had a lot of healing to do.”
So why did Khaled’s body succumb to overeating? It may be that obesity associated with stress-related eating is more common in women than men. Persistent stress triggers the adrenal glands to release a hormone called cortisol, which increases an individual’s appetite as well as his/her motivation to eat.
“If you’re not managing your stress well or sleeping enough, cortisol levels tend to rise,” says Lara Zakaria, a nutritionist and pharmacist based in New York. “Cortisol also affects our cravings for sugar and alters the way our body processes sugars and stores fat causing us to gain weight. When you are stressed, you crave more sugar or fast-acting energy because you are trying to satiate that need. It’s based on our bodies’ natural way that we are set up to handle stress—a type of coping or survival mechanism,” she notes.
According to Khaled, her body was doing just that and mainly motivated to eat junk foods and foods rich in carbohydrates. Surgical oncologist Dr. Sonia Cader had similar symptoms when she was pursuing her residency and fellowship programs. She gained excessive amounts of weight due to the increase in stress she endured.
“All I wanted was sweets,” notes the 38-year-old from Vancouver, British Columbia. “I was a major sugar addict and ate a lot out of stress, boredom, or my hectic schedule. You would think as a doctor I would know better, but eating is not a mindful act. When patients began mistaking me as pregnant, I knew it was time to make a serious change. I decided to reduce the stress in my life as well as conquer my food cravings,” says Dr. Cader.
In a six-month period, Dr. Cader was able to lose 30 pounds with diet and exercise. She states that anyone can conquer their cravings and fight that mindless drive to eat whatever and whenever, it just requires discipline, structure, and accountability. Dr. Cader suggests finding a support system to help you overcome your struggle with food.
Support is important if food turns into an addiction. However, we connect with food in a completely different way than other addictions. Mohiuddin correlates it to our past.
“There are so many memories linked with food,” she says. “We associate so much to eating: family, community, and good times. Those memories bring us comfort and ease when we are troubled or stressed. The past suppresses the present, so we eat to make ourselves feel better.”
For 19-year-old Sameera Abdulkareem*, however, food had an opposite effect on her. She began to detest it and avoid it at all costs. What triggered her to stop eating? It was when her friends mocked her for putting on a little bit of belly fat.
“I was mortified,” shares Abdulkareem, who was a freshman in college and dealing with the stress of a new school and accompanying workload. “Something just triggered inside me, and I couldn’t even look at food anymore.”
Over the next 10 months, Abdulkareem ate around 1,200 calories or less a day and endured a rigorous exercise regimen. Although she managed to lose the weight, she developed other physical and emotional health issues, which she is still struggling with at this time.
“No matter how much weight I lose, it’s not enough,” says Abdulkareem. “I’ve become a slave to these thoughts where I need to constantly have control over my weight. It gives me a sense of self-worth, since I feel like I don’t have control over anything else in my life. However, I realize that this idea of wanting to control my weight is technically taking control of me. It’s like an ugly cycle or a never-ending catch-22.”
Simple things like outings with family and friends are difficult for Abdulkareem to face since she has restricted herself from so many foods. She has developed social anxiety and finds it hard to even leave home sometimes. This is an on-going battle for Abdulkareem, and she is trying to find support.
“I know this is a problem, and I need to fix it,” admits Abdulkareem. “Our communities are still not ready to address these types of issues, but insecurities with body image are a real sickness. For me, I’m trying to accept that God has given me this body, and it can’t look or be like anyone else’s. But it’s taking me time to reach this reality. Food is a blessing for us to gain energy, and our bodies were designed to move. Slowly, I’m trying to make smarter choices on what to eat and keeping myself active, but it’s not easy to undo the damage I have already done.”
Dr. Zakaria states that there is a relatively new category similar to anorexia or bulimia called orthorexia, where a person becomes too obsessed with what he/she is eating and when to eat, and it becomes detrimental to the individual’s health.
“Food is meant to be enjoyed; it’s not meant to be a punishment,” says Dr. Zakaria. “You need to find a balance. If you are struggling with this, then seek help. Find a nutritionist, many of whom are trained in positive psychology to help people manage the emotional part tied with food. There are also therapists who can work you through these serious issues as well, and our society needs to be more accepting of this option.”
The first thing Dr. Zakaria recommends is to recognize the stress in our lives and work to combat it. She suggests options like meditation, slow types of exercise, yoga, coloring books for adults, breathing exercises, and prayer.
“When you handle and manage your stress better, you won’t necessarily reach for sugar or caffeine to temporarily boost your energy,” says Dr. Zakaria. “The more we are present when we eat, the better our lifestyles will be. When you are in a good mood, you will make better choices, as our emotional state has a lot to do with what we eat.”
If you see yourself at war with food, do seek help from a professional right away. We are all human and finding a solid support system is a key component in our overall well-being.
*Some names have been changed to maintain privacy of the interviewees.
Tayyaba Syed is an award-winning author and journalist whose work has been featured on numerous publications including NPR. She recently co-authored four children’s books and lives with her husband and three children in Illinois.