You’d never know it from looking at me, but I love to eat. In fact I love food so much that I do have to often evaluate how I am eating. Food is a wonderful gift of God with diverse flavors, textures, smells, and combinations. Taste also comes with individualized associations, so that what we eat can often conjure up wonderful memories and increasing the joy of each bite. But, like all good things, food can be corrupted. It can become an idol in its own right that perverts the intent of food and directs consumers away from God. Eating becomes bad when it replaces the role of God in our lives.
Compulsive over-eating is different from simply over-eating. Many of us over-eat at times (like, Thanksgiving). This is not just eating more than we should have at a single meal because the food was just too good to stop. It’s not just failing to leave room for dessert but eating anyway. The key word here is “compulsive.” Instead of just the occasional feeling of being “stuffed,” compulsive overeating refers to habitually overeating when not hungry, feeling “out of control” around food, and eating without tasting or enjoying food.
When addressing over-eating most people tend to focus on the habit itself. If I over-eat, we reason, then I simply need to restrict my diet or portion sizes more carefully. This is a practical step that helps, but the issue behind over-eating is not simply the practice, it is the motive. Take for example Sandra. Sandra describes a lovely dinner party with family in which she ate a delicious meal, followed by chocolate cake. As the party was winding down she volunteered to gather up everyone’s plates and take them into the kitchen. There, on the counter, sat the remainder of the chocolate cake. She couldn’t resist the urge to cut a thin slice, after all it was just a thin little slice…and it was so delicious. But one thin slice turned into two, and two turned into a third large slice which she found herself eating over the sink, without fork. A sudden urge to eat the whole cake struck and then a sense of overwhelming shame. What happened in that moment? Was Sandra just over-eating? No. This was not merely an issue of misunderstanding her hunger, or enjoying the taste of the cake.
Take Mark as another example. Mark came home frustrated with work. He hated his job and now his boss was making the whole team come in on a Saturday. On top of that frustration somebody hit his car on the way home and didn’t bother to stop. His frustration levels seemed to be through the roof. Now, he stood in the kitchen looking into the fridge. He pulled out a container of left-over Chinese food and began to heat it up in the microwave. The bag of opened Doritos on the counter called to him while he waited and he began to eat handfuls of chips. This was followed by a bag of M&Ms, half of a sleeve of Oreos, and finally his Chinese food. Even this, however, didn’t seem to stem the tide of his consumption. He turned his attention to pantry and began to grab handfuls of dry cereal from the box. He ate so much that he made himself sick and spent the rest of the evening on the couch fighting his stomach. Was Mark really just super hungry? Was he just unaware of how full he was? No. In fact, Mark’s personal description of the event was that he ate despite not being hungry at all.
In each case the issue is not with the consumption itself. It is certainly gluttonous behavior, but it is behavior driven by a motivation. There is a logic to compulsive over-eating that must be understood. In each case food is used to meet some need other than biological hunger. Numbers 11 depicts a scene in which food and idolatry are closely related, even highlighting what it looks like to eat beyond desire. The people of Israel have complained for lack of meat, and lamented that they had to leave slavery in Egypt (where they had pots of meat). So, God grants their desire but with a warning:
You shall not eat just one day, or two days, or five days, or ten days, or twenty days, but a whole month, until it comes out at your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you, because you have rejected the Lord who is among you and have wept before him, saying, “Why did we come out of Egypt?”’ (Num. 11:19-20)
The scene contains parallels to many scenarios of compulsive over-eating. The Israelites eat well beyond the point of hunger – they eat until food is “loathsome”. They eat despite the negative consequences – it is coming out of their nostrils. In fact their craving has had serious negative consequences. Verse 34 describes the place where this all happened as “Kibroth-hattaavah,” which means “graves of craving, ” “because there they buried the people who had the craving.” The most important aspect of this text, however, is the relationship between the people’s eating and their rejection of the Lord. God says they will eat this way “because [they] have rejected the Lord.”
Food often provides for people’s emotional needs. Food can be a source of comfort, security, pleasure, distraction, etc. People eat in order to forget, to feel better, to find peace. In some ways food can serve to facilitate those experiences, but eating cannot fully satisfy those longings and when we attempt to make food fulfill those desires it will betray us. For Israel, food provided a sense of security. “Why did we come out of Egypt” is a question that turns them back towards the provisions of the lands. “We had food in Egypt!” But God was to be their security. He was going to provide for them, in fact He already had on numerous levels. But they still didn’t trust God; they wanted something more secure. Food became a means to achieve that security. It betrayed them, however, precisely because it could never provide that stability.
Compulsive over-eating is not about food consumption, it’s not about eating beyond being full, it is about emotional eating. Food and/or destructive eating habits can be a means of self-medicating against negative emotions. If I fear others, feel betrayed, feel rejected, or suffer from traumatic memories, then I might use food to make myself feel better. Food becomes a means of comfort, a respite from my anxiety, and a general mood regulator. This emotional use of food is serious issues which, where present, must be addressed before people can find lasting change in their habits. In fact, the emotional use of food is one reason that many people are never able to successfully accomplish diets, and one reason why physicians are often unable to help people control obesity. The emotional use of food means eating in order to satisfy an emotional need, not a physical need. We train ourselves to eat, or to perform a disordered habit, when we experience any negative emotion (even when we are not hungry). Sadly, the satisfaction derived from such behaviors is short-lived, if it comes at all.
Food is a great gift from God; it’s a gift I truly enjoy. Yet, even good things can become bad things when they are used to replace God. God has not created food to fulfill the deepest longings of our soul. Food can be a comfort, it can bring joy, it can help us to rest and relax, but only in small degrees. Ultimately when food meets some aspect of an emotional need it is intended to point us back to God. That is why Paul can urge us to eat “for the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). As food invites us to remember the God who provides for us, then we eat with thankfulness and longing for the “bread of Life.” When food replaces God and we use it to self-medicate against negative emotions, then we have perverted its original design. Good things can become bad when we use them for the wrong reasons, even wonderful gifts like food.