Recognizing Our Emotional Eating: An Interview with Therapist Sally Baker
By Kritika Narula
Sally Baker is a licensed and accredited therapist based in London, England. With over 20 years of experience seeing clients for a wide range of complex and challenging issues, she works with people to alleviate their anxiety, depression, anger issues, eating disorders, and conflicts within relationships and the family.
As an avid observer of human nature, she finds reality television programmes to be a compelling rich stream of material. In her own words, “it strips off the veneer of perfectionism that celebrities and influencers work so hard to maintain.” She observes the pauses in conversation just as keenly as the words that are spoken, the facial expressions, and the body language. Popular culture is a subject of endless fascination to her as a therapist, which she refers to as a “master class in the art of hiding one’s truth – sometimes even from themselves.”
IndigoBlue Magazine talked with Baker about the mind-gut connection, and how we can fix our relationship with food.
IndigoBlue: What’s the connection between our gut health & our mental and physical health? Is there a correlation or causation?
The Gut-Brain Axis is a way of explaining the symbiotic relationship whereby gut health is affected by mental health and mental health is affected by gut health. The various aspects of digestion are controlled by a complex set of neurones embedded in the oesophagus, stomach, intestines, colon, and rectum. The brain sends messages to all the nerves in your body including the neurones that control digestion.
The process of digestion subtly begins when you look and smell the food you are going to eat. The peeling, chopping, and preparing of your meal help trigger neurological messages to be sent to your digestive system to prepare your body to receive nutrition. This is why the practice of mindfulness is so valuable about eating and digestion. It is also a powerful counterpoint to the habit of eating food while distracted at your desk or eating while driving, or in a zoned-out state when you are barely aware of what you are consuming at all.
When you’re anxious or stressed, you might notice physical symptoms in the form of a queasy stomach. It’s because such negative emotions decrease brain activity and in turn, suppress the efficient functioning of the nervous system for digestion.
This essentially causes a physical chain reaction:
Reduction in pancreatic enzyme production →Reduction in gall bladder function →Reduction in the production of stomach acid →Slowing down of peristalsis – the involuntary muscle movements essential for moving food efficiently through the intestines for the absorption of nutrients →Reduction in blood flow to the intestines →Suppression of the intestinal immune system.
We’re increasingly acknowledging the gut’s role in our well-being. You cannot be fully well if your digestion is out of kilter. However, you may not be aware that your digestive functioning is impaired due to commonplace factors in our busy, modern lives like poor quality sleep, stress and anxiety, processed and/or fast foods, stimulants such as alcohol and recreational drugs, some medications, including antibiotics – these all take their toll.
You do not need to have had a medical diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) to be experiencing the symptoms of digestive disruption. How about occasional, mysterious abdominal pain; fluctuating between diarrhoea and constipation; indigestion and heartburn; flatulence? Many people live with these symptoms for decades without ever consulting a doctor. It is as if they are resigned to feeling below par, and that this is what they should expect to feel like.
Ageing is also a primary consideration, as well as adrenal failure, and our ever-present old foe of chronic stress. Optimum levels of stomach acid and healthy digestive enzymes can be encouraged by eating a wide range of different foods. Just remember to eat the rainbow and you can’t go far wrong with eating a wide range of vegetables and fruit. Different foods have different enzymes so variety is key to a healthy gut and its beneficial effects on the mind.
IndigoBlue: What are the unhealthy eating patterns we should watch out for?
Orthorexia is a type of disordered eating that can make a person severely limit the type of foods they eat. A recent client of mine who suffered from the distressing symptoms of IBS such as bloating, diarrhoea, and abdominal pain tried to manage his condition by eliminating foods that he thought might have triggered an episode of IBS. In the end, he had eliminated so many foods that for months he only consumed freshly squeezed orange juice, white sugar, and grass-fed steak. His unhealthy eating pattern developed from his desire to eat healthier for his condition but had become counterproductive as he became underweight and his gut health was further compromised through not eating enough variety of foods.
Then there’s anorexia, that can start gradually from just skipping the odd meal until it becomes habitual to feel hungry and override feelings of hunger. At the other end of the scale, bingeing, seemingly helps manage difficult emotions with food. Often accompanied by purging, it can be very damaging to the metabolism and digestive system. Unhealthy eating patterns tend to start gradually and can easily become more restrictive.
IndigoBlue: So, how can we retain a balanced view of our eating habits?
It’s worth being your own detective to find out what’s happening with you and food. One way to do that is to make a note of your food intake and your moods to see if there is any correlation about how you feel and what you’ve eaten. It’s also useful to chart how hungry you are when you feel the desire to eat. Do you wait until you’re ravenously hungry before you eat, or do you graze all day never actually feeling hungry or knowing if you’re full?
An easy way to tell the difference between physiological and emotional hunger is that the former tends to come on slowly whereas emotional hunger – because it is often in response to a feeling – tends to come on very quickly as a trigger response.
Most people who are in the throes of developing an eating disorder already know something is out of kilter. Keeping secrets about food – either avoiding eating or eating too much – are early warning signs that you need to get help.
IndigoBlue: How can we fix our relationship with food?
Too much on your plate?
Swallowing down your anger?
We can recognise an emotional element to eating. It’s why unexpressed or locked away emotions can lead to disordered eating. There is a strong correlation in my work between the incidence of trauma and eating disorders. Being underweight or morbidly obese are often outward signs of great emotional distress.
My therapy approach is to resolve and release the trauma so that disordered eating is no longer used as self-punishment. I use revolutionary therapy modalities such as EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique), BWRT (Brain Working Recursive Therapy), and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming). Once the trauma is resolved, people can eat for nourishment and feel relaxed about food.
IndigoBlue: What’s a holistic way of looking at our bodies, to be kind to our bodies?
From my therapy work with clients, it seems clear that morbid obesity and anorexia are opposing ends of the same spectrum of disordered eating. These serious conditions are nothing to do with food; lack of will power or attention-seeking. Often both conditions can be traced back to trauma or loss and these are strategies, albeit flawed, have been developed to cope with almost unimaginable anguish; low-self-esteem; feelings of undeserving; and being overwhelmed.
I believe our bodies shout and scream to bear witness for us. This is especially true for those who are too afraid to say their own truth out in the world. In my work, I facilitate my clients to ask their rolls of fat or their jutting-out skeletal bones what they need us to hear. These physical signs of distress never fail to speak eloquently of the pain they have lived through. The emotional triggers to overeating and undereating are the missing piece of the jigsaw for bringing the body into balance.