As far as I can remember, I have always relied on food to be able to make it through the day without breaking down. I have always been overweight, and I was affected by severe obesity for much of my adult life. I reached out to everyone and tried everything I thought might help me, even the most exotic techniques.
As I now work with people who also have a difficult relationship with food, I have noticed a few patterns many of us seem to share.
This is the story I used to tell myself. Afterall, why shouldn’t I believe this? I had excellent reasons:
My weight has always been a problem. I was six years old the first time I was placed on a diet. My childhood was definitely not perfect. Adulthood has not been either. But honestly, who does not feel misunderstood? Who never gets hurt? Many people don’t end up affected by severe obesity. Why did my story develop this way?
Emotional eating is a form of compulsive eating. I eat when I am not hungry, and I cannot stop. Emotional eating is also a coping mechanism. I eat in response to positive and negative emotions. Food is a mood regulator in itself, and I increase what I eat to compensate for what I feel.
Eating is a refuge that allows me to avoid uncomfortable emotions. My well-being depends on what I am eating and the size of my plate. A difficult day at work? A comfort-food dinner will help me get over it. A conflict with a loved one? An ice cream and a bag of cookies allow me to keep my cool. A restless night worrying about a life issue? A bag of chips usually soothes my anxiety.
Yes, I do gain weight because I eat too much, and I don’t move enough. Every expert I meet logically tells me that the solution is to eat less and move more. Duh. Wow! Like I never thought about it myself. The thing is: I can’t. When cravings hit me, there is no way I can resist them, and no one provides me efficient guidance to solve that dilemma. I am alone with my pain – and with my shame.
I don’t enjoy overeating. I don’t like the way I feel when my cravings are finally satisfied and leave me alone, only to be replaced with guilt. I don’t like being overweight. I tried many diet plans. Obeyed to the letter the advice of a dozen nutritionists. I left several sports coaches bald from pulling their hair out. I even went through bariatric surgery. I did lose some weight… for a while. And gained it all back, with some extra, just as quickly.
I learned several healthy ways of eating and safe ways to exercise. I know a 10-minute method to manage my anxiety. I am involved in several fun activities to keep from getting bored, and I own many weight loss meal plans. It is important, but it is not enough. These methods never worked for me.
To me, emotional eating feels like having a friend in my stomach. I start off with this friend, thinking they have my best interests in mind. They are going to help make my life better, and they are going to be there for me when other friends might not be.
When in a really vulnerable position, I latch onto this friend. As I spend more time with them, I become bigger and bigger, and my life gets smaller and smaller. My friend gets meaner, and their demands get harder. Yet, I am trapped with them and feel as if I cannot survive without them. I can’t let them go.
One day, I find myself basically as big as two people and living half a life, denying myself a lot of the experiences that would bring me happiness and joy. It’s an awful way to live. It’s a way so many of us live in silence, thinking maybe it is normal.
Today, I am not living with obesity anymore.
I stopped treating food as the villain. I faced my issues for what they were and made the decisions I was scared to make. I am finally able to stick to a healthy lifestyle, not as a primary change but as a consequence of my emotional eating recovery.
I face every new day without carrying the weight of years of untold pain buried under food. When something upsets me today, I just have to deal with today. There is nothing to silence anymore, nothing to hide, nothing to keep control of, no friend to appease. I am at peace. Inner peace makes it so much easier now to stay on track and keep making healthy choices.
I know exactly how it feels to be stuck with emotional eating and many extra pounds. I know life and its challenges as an overweight emotional eater because I was one most of my life. I was still affected by severe obesity when my first weight-loss coaching client chose me to work on their weight issues.
I could not understand why they would want to work with me, as I had even more weight to lose than they did! They simply said, “I want to work with you precisely because you are overweight. I know you can understand me.”
I indeed understood their point immediately. As I have since worked with many emotional eaters, it always strikes me how, even if our stories are different, our pain and how we deal with our wounds are the same.
In my own personal experience as an overweight person trying to lose weight and reaching out for professional help, I never felt understood. I went to doctors, nutritionists, dietitians, sports coaches, psychotherapists, and diet counselors. They were the experts, though it appeared none of them had weight issues. They did their best to help me, but their perception of what I was going through and what I needed to do to overcome my weight issues never matched my reality.
As I could never trust them to understand me, I never fully opened either. I have discovered with my clients how simply being able to genuinely tell the truth about our situation makes a big difference. Being real and honest with ourselves about what we are truly going through is essential to a successful emotional eating recovery.
I know how vulnerable we feel to open totally and how difficult it can be, especially when we have not allowed ourselves to put our masks down for years, sometimes decades. That’s why when I work with other emotional eaters, I focus on letting them feel they can speak freely to me and will always be understood.
If you are not sure you are an emotional eater, you can take the quiz here.
Can you relate to my experience with emotional eating? Is yours completely different? Let us know in the comments.
Yes I can relate. I was 365 pounds now 239 still working on my weight. One thing that gets me past the junk food is, what am I doing to my insides. Asking them to distribute the junk I just ate and where are they going to dump it in my inside. I know that is a little nutty but think about it.
Thank you for your insight, Ann! I really like the idea of imagining what is going on inside our bodies. It may help us realize our eating behavior is not a reward or a positive way to find comfort, but more of a self-destructive behavior.
Thank you so very much for sharing your experience. I am an emotional eater. Through Sixtyandme I have slowly learned to love myself. I am currently learning to eat better and taking care of my self for the first time. You article let me know I am not alone. Because of the weight I often feel embarrassed & isolated.
It is my journey. I am praying. Making better choices. Thanks again for sharing and your compassion. Ana in NC
Thank you for your comment Ana. I decided to share my testimonial because we often feel so alone and misunderstood dealing with emotional eating. But we are not. All of us emotional eaters have a lot in common and I try to raise awareness about what we share, from how it started, to how we feel and how we can feel judged sometimes.
So grateful to you for your article at this point in my life. The first time I’ve felt someone else understands my situation. I’ve eaten myself into type 2 diabetes and my very thin doctor looked at me as she entered the exam room the other day and said “well, if you don’t want to lose weight…” Thank you for understanding how hard we try and how alone we can feel.. I’ll begin my “new” efforts by following you starting today. Hugs!
Thank you for your comment Sherry. I am so glad this testimonial was helpful to you. I sure can understand how you feel and where you are, and I have realized, working with other emotional eaters, how crucial that aspect is.
Your article is moving and your struggle is so rawly, and honestly explained. You give me a new compassion. Thank you.
Thank you for your comment Maggie. Emotional eaters often feel misunderstood and I am so glad you can understand the struggle through a new perspective!
I’ve been fat my whole life. In my thirties, I threw out the diet books and decided to learn to love me the way I was. I found happiness, a husband who adored me, and better eating habits. After my husband died, I reevaluated my diet. Because of his diabetes, we had regular mealtimes. I found I did not like or need three meals a day. Switched to late breakfast and early supper. No snacks after supper, as it aggravated my GURD. I consulted a dietician when I discovered I had chronic kidney disease and learned a lot about eating healthy. I would urge anyone to find a good dietician in concert with your doctor…it is amazing how much better I feel and how eating better has slowed the progression of my disease. I’m still fat, but I am much more in tune with what and how I eat.
Deb, I am sorry you’ve had to deal with such a judgmental professional and such a difficult time in your life. I am so glad you are feeling much better now, and I wish you the best of luck on your journey.