Can’t self-soothe instead of eating?

coachingSmall1Q: Hi Isabel! I read your coaching emails periodically and have been introduced to [fill-in-the-blank “non-diet” approach] for some time now. I’ve worked with many professionals to try to change my behaviors, and I would say I have all the tools I need to stop overeating/binge eating. BUT when I’m in the thick of it, all that goes out the door and I feel like I actively choose to continue or start eating instead of using my skills. I want the easy way out and I’m having a really hard time doing the work, because… well…. it feels like work. I want so badly to change my behavior, but I’m feeling super frustrated. 

So, the first word that jumps out at me in this question is the word “instead;”

It sounds like you’re trying to “take a warm bath instead of eating,” or are trying to replace emotional eating with some other “superior” coping mechanism.

This strategy (the “do-XYZ-instead-of-eating-strategy”) usually doesn’t work long-term…likely because it’s inherently restrictive, and relies on willpower to work.

Willpower rarely overcomes emotional or binge-eating urges longterm, especially when we’re dealing with emotional stressors or fatigue, which weaken our resolve.

Additionally, when you tell yourself not to do something (e.g. “don’t eat emotionally—do something else instead!”), food often becomes more seductive…like a lover you can’t have, or the toy you’re not supposed to touch—resisting it just makes you more obsessed.

So, first off, eliminate the word “instead” from your attempts at self-care. When we aim to take an action instead of eating, the implication is that emotional eating is wrong, not allowed, or otherwise not a valid choice. We’re effectively on the “don’t-eat-emotionally diet,” which ironically makes food more tempting.

INSTEAD (lol), can you try practicing your new self-care skills without making yourself wrong for eating emotionally as well? Believe it or not, journaling still counts as self-care even if you also eat a cookie—and in the long run, self-care practice WILL make you less dependent on emotional eating, even if right now you still want/need the food sometimes. More on this here…


It’s important to realize that ending binge-eating permanently is not something one does by making the “right” choices in the moment, but rather, is a natural result of a profound shift in thinking around food—away from dieting and towards food and weight neutrality. 

What really sticks out to me about your use of the word “instead” in this question, is that it signifies whatever shreds of diet-mentality you’re still holding on to (e.g. the belief that self-care skills should be used to help you resist food, rather than just enjoyed in and of themselves because they make you feel good!)

As long as you’re trying to resist or control food (even emotional eating), you’re probably gonna keep bingeing in rebellion. You’ll be much better off practicing self-care skills in the context of emotional allowance around emotional eating—

since resistance is what turns one cookie when you’re lonelyinto ten cookies, because, “fuck, I fell off the wagon…

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When I learn “Intuitive Eating,” will I lose weight?

coachingSmall1Dear Isabel,

I understand that trying to eat intuitively while focusing on weight is impossible, and I also know that weight is not an accurate measurement of health.

But I’d still like to know: if I do get it “right-ish” with food (e.g. heal my binge-eating, and learn to eat “normally”) can I expect weight loss as a result? In other words, will I lose weight in the *long run* through practicing Intuitive/”Normal” Eating?

Good question. The truth is, you might lose weight and you might not.

It all depends on where your body weight currently falls relative to your natural “set point” weight. Your set point weight is the weight that your body naturally tends towards in the absence of interference (e.g. diet-binge cycling, or intentional meddling with your size), and everyone’s set point weight is different.

While a “normal eater” may naturally fluctuate around their set point by 5-10lbs, a dieter (or someone struggling with diet-mentality) may fluctuate more severely—leaving you farther from or nearer to your natural set point weight (up or down) depending on where you currently are in your personal yo-yo cycle.

To use myself as an example—at my lowest weight in the diet-binge cycle, I was about 35lbs less than my current natural set point weight (that is, the weight I naturally maintain without effort); and at my highest weight in the diet-binge cycle, I was about 20lbs heavier than my current natural set point weight.

When I chose to stop dieting for real, I happened to be somewhere in between—about 10lbs above my current set point weight, and therefore lost about 10lbs when I healed my relationship with food. That being said, had I stopped dieting at a different point in my weight cycle, that number might be completely different.

It all depends on where your weight is now, relative to your natural set point weight.

**It’s also worth noting that when I first stopped dieting, I initially gained weight in the first few months, and then lost weight over the following couple of years. Not only is everyone’s “end result” different, the road to our set point is not always a straight line—likely because recovery from our “food issues” doesn’t usually happen in a straight line either. It usually looks more like this.**

Also, for those of you dying to know, the only way to find out what your personal set point weight is, is to work towards developing a healthful relationship with food (both physically and mentally) and see what happens.

Don’t bother assuming or trying to guess your set point weight while you’re still struggling with food—as that’s a trap that will surely keep you in the cycle. Guessing creates expectationwhich fast-tracks you to self-judgement around food (aka emotional or subconscious restriction; which almost leads to binge-eating, emotional eating and continued swings for those struggling with diet-mentality).

Guessing your set point is also pointless because your set point weight can change over time. In other words, just because you were 140lbs when you first started dieting, doesn’t mean that you’ll necessarily go back to that pre-dieting weight after years of restriction. Some factors that may affect your set point over time include things like age, pregnancy/child-birth, hormones, and diet-history.

Yup—dieting can push up your set point weight over time—as restriction that leads to temporary weight loss, can also lead to permanent changes in your metabolism in the other direction. This is likely why dieting is the number one risk factor for increased weight over time. 

Ultimately, you will likely always bounce around your set point weight over time, because your body is constantly fighting to get there, and it’s a lot stronger than your will power (for literally 95% of people—hence the phrase, “diets don’t work”). Most people are not capable of “changing” their set point weight, or dieting below it for very long before they inevitably rebound. In other words, your set point weight is your “sustainable” weight by definition

Given this information, the real question is, do you want to embrace your set point weight, stop diet-binge cycling, and eat relatively “normally?”

OR do you want to keep trying to suppress it against all odds, experience more dramatic swings around it (in both directions), with a likelihood of pushing your weight up further and further over time?

I personally chose to cut my losses on attempts at weight suppression—a side effect of which, was that I stopped bingeing over time.

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The Most Common “Emotional Eating” Mistake

Emotional eating, at the end of the day, is just a coping mechanism.

I’m all about “feeling your feelings,” and there is no doubt that getting in touch with your emotions is incredibly important for reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not you eat over them,

but unless we practice new coping mechanisms, we will continue to eat when emotionally uncomfortable.

Thinking we can live a life without coping mechanisms is totally unrealistic — it goes against our biological instincts to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Not to mention that coping mechanisms are what allow us to function during times of emotional duress. We need breaks from crying when trauma occurs. Feelings can’t be processed every moment of every day. We have to get out of bed, go to work, pick up the kids, do our laundry…coping mechanisms take the edge off so we can show up for life in the midst of discomfort.

Now the problem for most “emotional eaters” is that they focus on “not eating” instead of focusing on developing new ways of dealing with their feelings.

Of course, the more we try to resist food, (i.e. the more we think about food), the more practiced we become at leaning on food as a coping mechanism. (I know, catch-22 from hell…)

Eventually, we fall out of practicing other coping mechanisms altogether and become dependent on food to take care of all our problems, especially as we obsess, worry and generally freak out about our bodies.

So here’s a new way to think about emotional eating…

instead of telling yourself “don’t eat emotionally,” I want you to start thinking about all the other ways you could possibly “cope,” and start practicing them…regardless of whether or not you eat as well. 

Ultimately, diversifying and expanding our coping mechanisms without worrying about the food is far more effective, than trying to resist (and therefore binge) over it later.

BTW – If you’re not quite sure the difference between “emotional eating” and “binge-eating,” this is something I cover in my free video training series, which you can sign up for here. All three videos of the series are out, so the videos will be emailed to you immediately after you enter your name and email at the bottom of the page. Enjoy!

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Reality check: ALL eating is “emotional”

IMG_5097People often ask me,

do you really never eat emotionally anymore?

To which I usually reply something along the lines of, “of course not, everyone eats emotionally sometimes…and anyone who tells you differently is either lying OR pretty f’ing crazy around food (read: restrictive).”

As my friend Wendy Shanker once said, “there are only 6 people who eat food righteously as fuel, and all six of them are Kenyan Marathon runners.”

More on that here…

Lately, however, I’ve been re-framing my answer to this question, because at this point in my eating career, I don’t really categorize my behaviors as either “emotional” or “for physical hunger” in my mind anymore.

The truth is, my food choices are rarely, if ever, either “emotional” or “physical.” They’re almost always both, just in differing degrees and combinations.  

Everything I eat affects me physically AND emotionally, by virtue of the fact that all food both affects my blood sugar and gives me sensual pleasure (i.e. makes me feel good).

And like all other evolutionary processes designed to make us feel good (cough *sex* cough), it’s incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to separate food from emotion entirely.

My relationship with food, like my relationship with sex, is always a dance driven by both physical and emotional desire. And labeling our food choices as motivated by one or the other is not generally practical or realistic in the long run. 

That being said, in the beginning of one’s anti-diet or “intuitive eating” journey, labeling our choices as being either “physical” or “emotional” can be helpful when trying to learn the language of our bodies — a practical tool for early non-dieters to re-learn what they’re bodies are actually calling for, particularly after years of ignoring them.

In the long run, however, we must acknowledge that this way of thinking about food is elementary at best — an oversimplification of a biological process that is much more complicated and nuanced than that.

Food is not “just fuel.” Just like sex is not just reproduction.

And honoring both our physical and emotional desires in all of our eating choices is an important part of not falling into the “hunger and fullness diet” trap.

My suggestion? Let your physical and emotional hungers work in tandem. Let them inform one another, rather than overpower one another. Don’t deny either — as that may easily lead to rebellion — but rather, explore different ways of satisfying and honoring both, in food and in life.

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