All posts by Isabel Foxen Duke

Isabel Foxen Duke

My ultimate take on emotional eating

I’m often asked how I help women overcome “emotional eating,” and I thought I’d take a moment to explain my point of view on this topic, as I’m sure many of you are curious…

First off,

The term “emotional eating” can be used for both good and evil. 

On the one hand, realizing that we use food – both restricting it and consuming it — for emotional reasons, rather than physical reasons, is an important step towards making “healthier” choices with food after we stop dieting.

When we understand that we’re being driven to eat by emotional triggers, we have an opportunity to do something about deal with our real feelings and address what’s actually going on. 

That being said, our cultural obsession with controlling and manipulating weight, has lead us to villainize emotional eating. We’ve turned a relatively benign form of coping into a crime — another way in which women’s desires are wrong and not to be trusted.

This is incredibly problematic, and probably my greatest criticism of how emotional eating is treated by conventional wisdom.

When we turn emotional eating into a sin — another behavior to be avoided at all costs — we fall into the same diet mentality that almost always leads to binge-eating and other dysfunctional behaviors with food. 

My mission as a coach is to offer another perspective: a way to heal our emotional relationship with food, without shaming and judging women’s instincts around food.

The goal here is not “to eat or not to eat—”

The goal is to connect more deeply to what we truly need, and make empowered choices accordingly. 

I hope that gives some insight into my position on the topic 🙂

I discuss this in far more depth in my free video training series, Stop Fighting Food. If any of you are interested in more advanced work with me, you’ll also learn about my Master Class when you sign up for the vids. The Master Class is the single most comprehensive program I offer in ending the crazy-around-food-cycle.

Hope to see you there!


Coming down from the drug of dieting.

I can think of fewer drugs (and I’ve tried some) quite as intoxicating as the pursuit of weight loss.

Planning a new diet used to literally soothe me of my greatest feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.

Whenever I believed I was ‘on my way’ to weight loss,
or perceived myself to be ‘winning’ at its pursuit,

I felt safe
like I could finally get some ground under my feet,
like everything was going to be okay;
I felt powerful
like I was gonna be someone,
like life was gonna do my bidding.

For all the hullabaloo about emotional eating (my thoughts on this here), emotional eating doesn’t even compare to how mind-altering, and ultimately habit-forming, the pursuit of thinness really is.

And if you don’t believe me—I dare you to give it up.

Stop trying to make yourself thinner…stop trying to make your body look a certain way…and then tell me how dependent you really are on this drug called “weight control.”

The highs, and the come-downs, are intense;
lest we forget about the come-downs…

the painful rebounds,
the excruciating feelings of failure,
the anxiety of needing to ‘keep it up,’
of slipping, of hanging on by our fingernails,
and the increasing and progressive hopelessness
we feel with every spin round the cycle,

like most addicts…we too often forget about the come-downs when in the grips of a trigger.

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Don’t “trust yourself” with food? Read this.

I often hear clients say they have trouble letting go of restrictions around food, because they don’t “trust themselves.”

The implication here is that they don’t trust themselves not to eat “too much” of whatever food they’ve been restricting, essentially making “self-trust” synonymous with “self-control.”

The thing is, in all of the literature I’ve read about self-trust, I’ve never once heard it compared with self-control—in fact, these intentions are often described as fundamentally incompatible.

If successfully controlling what you eat—or consistently making some mythical “right” choice—was a requirement for self-trust, no one would trust themselves;

in fact, I can’t think of anything more anxiety-provoking—I can’t think of anything that would spur on more self-doubt—than the pressure to control or create a certain “acceptable” outcome.

Self-trust guru, Sheryl Paul, says frequently, “the minute we decide that there is a “right” thing that we “should” do—trust becomes impossible; from that belief, there is nothing but fear.”

In practice, self-trust is only possible when we reject the notion of “right choice” or “right outcome,” and instead, focus on being in authentic relationship with ourselves—focus on the present-moment process of self-connection—without the blinding pressure of needing the resulting outcome to look a certain way.

Self-trust flows freely when we practice letting go of outcomes with food and body, and instead, commit our attention to:

…our intuitive, present-moment needs (more on this here);

…the ongoing process of exploring and being curious about ourselves and our desires;

…getting to know ourselves—checking in with ourselves;

…being in ongoing relationship with with that very thing we so badly want to trust—with no goal in mind other than the joy of relationship and connection itself.

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The Biggest Misunderstanding about Emotional Eating

One of the many symptoms of dieting or food restriction, is an increased desire for food in moments of emotional discomfort or distress—otherwise known as “emotional eating.”

Researchers have found a strong correlation between “restrained eating” (e.g.  restriction, diet-mentality, etc.), and a person’s likelihood of turning to food when dealing with emotional stressors. This correlation is so strong, in fact, that researchers have found the exact opposite effect—loss of appetite or interest in food—when those who have no diet history are faced with difficult emotions. You can check out this research in this important book.

Of course, there are several theories as to why we see this correlation—perhaps our ability to “willpower” dwindles when managing emotional challenges? Perhaps we learn to associate food with relief after having been deprived nourishment in our past? Or perhaps another reason altogether?

Irrespective of the reason, the fact remains that our previous assumptions that “emotional eating” is learned from a parent or during some traumatic event, or that we’re simply “born that way,” is an incomplete recall of the likely sequence of events. More likely, we learn diet-mentality—perhaps even the simple belief that “thin is good” and “fat is bad”—and our behaviors follow suit.

This new research has seriously challenged conventional “treatment” for emotional eating, which typically employs some form of diet-mentality (e.g. “don’t eat emotionally!”) to help people “recover” from what are misguidedly considered pathological behaviors.

The problem with this way of “treating” emotional eaters is two-fold:

  1. When we apply diet-mentality to resist emotional eating (e.g. “Emotional eating is bad! Don’t do it!”) we’re actually contributing to the very physical and psychological mechanisms that pre-dispose us to emotional eating to begin with. Additionally, villainization of emotional eating (or any food behavior) is a classic trigger for binge-eating episodes…which is why “I’m bored, I want a cupcake,” so often turns into “I-fell-off-the-wagon-and-I-can’t-stop.” In other words, this way of treating emotional eating doesn’t usually work long-term and will probably spur on more compulsive behaviors around food in the long-run. (Also, if you’re confused about the difference between “emotional eating” and “binge-eating,” make sure to check out Video #2 of my free video training series here.)
  1. Diet-mentality, weight stigma, or villainization of certain food behaviors, is almost certainly more painful and damaging to the psyche of emotional eaters than emotional eating itself. After all, the primary reason that people are so concerned about emotional eating to begin with, is almost always fear of weight gain or fear of “failing at the thin ideal.” If the thin-ideal didn’t exist, it’s unlikely anyone would care! All the self-loathing and self-judgement that makes emotional eating so painful for folks, would literally evaporate if we didn’t attach thinness to love, acceptance, power or self-worth. Outside of the context of diet-mentality, emotional eating is actually a pretty benign form of coping. I can think of a lot more problematic and “unhealthy” ways that people deal with their feelings—like, compulsive comparing, worrying, obsessing, or even food restriction or dieting. In fact, I could easily argue that the worrying, shaming, judging and stressing about emotional eating is much more damaging to our mental and physical health than the simple act of eating over feelings.

This all to say, that in many ways, emotional eating is a product of diet-culture—and not so much a separate issue. The only way to not be tortured by emotional eating, is to let go of diet-mentality around it—not to think too much of it, not to give it so much power. 

This isn’t to say that we can’t practice mindfulness, or listen to our bodies when making decisions about food (those things are great too!), but if our practice of doing so is motivated by fear of weight gain, a belief that emotional eating is “wrong,” or a hyper-vigilance about emotional eating beyond what may be rational if the thin ideal did not exist…you’re probably not doing yourself any favors.

On that note, if you’d like to work with me more deeply around these issues—without contributing to diet-mentality and shooting yourself in the foot along the way—make sure to sign up for my wait list for private coaching. I’ll be sending out details in the next few days—exclusively to those on my wait list here.