All posts by Isabel Foxen Duke

Harm Reduction for Emotional Eating

I’m at my desk trying to meet an important work deadline…with the worst writer’s block of all time.

All I want is snacks—especially chocolate—which I know won’t make me feel physically *awesome* while I try to get through the rest of this day…but, c’est la via. That’s just where I’m at.

My reality, in this moment, is that chocolate is probably going to happen.

Thankfully, I can whip out some handy-dandy “harm reduction” tactics to balance my blood sugar, so I don’t fall asleep at my desk afterwards.

For instance, I can *add in* fat, protein, or fiber-filled foods to slow down the absorption of sugar into my blood…and minimize the blood sugar spike-and-crash I might otherwise experience from eating chocolate by itself. It’s blood sugar magic!

But seriously, harm reduction—that is, the practice of taking actions that reduce the effects or likelihood of harm when engaging in other-wise “risky” behaviors—is life-saving magic…particularly for folks recovering from dieting while managing nutrition-related health conditions. More on this here.

Although emotional eating is a relatively safe (or harm-less) coping mechanism in the absence of food-related medical conditions—I hesitate to even use “harm reduction” language in this context to avoid creating unnecessary fear around food—I feel strongly that we consider alternatives to “abstinence-only” policies for behavioral modification…even in cases when coping mechanisms *do* objectively come with more risk. 

For another example, you can read how harm reduction policies have saved thousands of lives in the opioid epidemic here. Methadone clinics, needle exchange programs, even condom use and safe-sex education, are all examples of “harm reduction” policies.

This all to say…

Sure…we can keep trying to white-knuckle ourselves into “abstinence” from emotional eating…probably failing and almost certainly beating ourselves up along the way (and maybe even falling into hard-core binge-mode, because, fuck it…I already screwed up, so might as well eat everything that isn’t nailed down and try again tomorrow…)

OR

we can accept the reality that “emotional eating” sometimes happens to humans…and acknowledge that there are lots of ways to take care of our bodies that don’t require we meet unrealistic expectations of perfection or “abstinence.”

Lastly, if you’re personally recovering from an “abstinence-focused” approach to emotional eating, I highly recommend listening to this podcast interview where I share my experience in 12-step programs for “food addiction” and why I made the shift to a judgment-free, allowance-focused approach to food instead.

How to do “health” without dieting

“How do I make ‘healthy’ choices without falling back into diet-mentality?” 

This is a big question (which I cover at length in my coaching programs), but here are some key conceptsto consider when addressing this important question, as well as some of my most popular blog posts on this topic:

#1 – CHECK YOUR MOTIVATIONS

The most common reason that attempts at ‘health’ fall apart, is that people confuse—or commingle—their desire for healthwith their desire for thinness

Making ‘healthful’ choices for the sake of actual health(e.g. balanced blood sugar, increased energy, improved digestion, etc.) is a very different biological and psychological process than making ‘healthful’ choices for the purpose of weight control (a.k.a. dieting).

Confusing these two motivations—or letting hopes of thinness interfere with your health decisions—is one of the most common causes of rebound, obsessive thoughts, binge-eating, and/or “falling off the wagon.”

More on this here.

#2 – “HEALTH” must include “MENTAL HEALTH”

Diet culture trains us to focus on food choices as the predominant determinant of health…when in reality, food choices are only a sliver of the pie.It is widely evidenced that stress, stigma, and our emotional world play an enormous role in our physical health outcomes…not to mention our general happiness, which in my opinion, is the whole point of pursuing health, to begin with.

If your pursuit of health is making you stressed out or unhappy, it’s time to seriously reconsider your definition of health—to one that includes *mental health* and quality of life.Our pursuit of health should support our happiness and well-being, not compromise it. This may mean having a cupcake for no reason sometimes, and it will definitely mean learning to let go “imperfect” health choices when (not if) they occur.

More on this here.

#3 – HEALTH IS NOT A MORAL ISSUE

Even if you are approaching health from a *truly* weight-neutral lens (which is unlikely…I have yet to meet a client who wasn’t struggling with some form of fatphobia), you may still fall into “on-and-off-the-wagon” thinking if you feel emotionally attachedto performing health “correctly.”

In other words, if you feel anxious or badly about yourself when you make “unhealthful” choices…be prepared to feel stressed out around food frequently…and possibly rebound as a result. 

More on this here & here.

#4 – HEALTH IS A SPECTRUM, NOT A BINARY

Approaching “health” as a binary—
that is,

a thing we can achieve or failat,
a thing that is black or white,
a wagon we can fall on or off of,

is not a useful or realistic paradigm. 

It’s more accurate to understand health as something that’s constantly moving and changing on a spectrum basis—a continuous gray area that we’re swimming around in all the time.

Learning to live comfortably “in the gray” is critical for both sanity and sustainability. 

More on this here.

#5 – DOING “HEALTHY” THINGS IS EASIER THAN NOT DOING “UNHEALTHY” THINGS. 

If you’re in early recovery from what I like to call “post-diet-stress,” restriction for any reason (including weight-neutral ‘health’) may not be entirely realistic for you right now. And that’s okay—you have to meet yourself where you are. 

That being said, there are so many ways to improve health (including food-related conditions, like diabetes) that have *nothing* to do with restriction.For instance, moving your body, getting lots of fiber/protein, eating regular meals, etc., are all things you can ADDinto your life to help manage blood sugar, for instance, without actively restricting anything. 

This may sound simplistic, but I feel compelled to point it out since so many recovering dieters immediately leap to what they should “take out” when pursuing health—as if restriction were the *only* way to improve health markers.

The adage,“health isn’t all about avoiding things that make us feel bad—it’s also about adding in things that make us feel good,” is especially important for those recovering from “post-diet stress,” who may not be able to handle restriction (even for ‘health’ purposes)all that well.

Was this post helpful? For more insights on having a “normal,” non-crazy-making relationship with food, check out my free video training series here

Also, if you’re struggling with binge eating specifically, make sure to check out this important post: How To Stop Binge Eating for good.

Yes, Diet Culture (& Fatphobia) is a Product of Racism.

I was recently asked on Instagram why I have to talk about the “divisive” topic of race relations in the US and not just “stick to body positivity which is what we’re here for.”

While I personally consider anti-racist work a moral imperative and hope I would do that work regardless of my profession, it’s worth pointing out the deep relationship between diet culture and white supremacy in American history; these topics cannot be separated, and to talk honestly about diet culture means speaking honestly about race as well.

Let’s start here…

In the 1800s, fatphobia (and dieting) was intentionally used as a tool in justifying slavery.

During that time, white authority figures claimed that larger black bodies must be the result of “oral excesses” or “gluttony,” which was seen as un-Christian and, therefore, uncivilized; and encouraged white women to diet to distinguish themselves from black bodies—thereby “othering” black folks and supporting an “us” vs. “them” narrative in the culture.

At this time, thinness (as a marker of whiteness) came to be associated with civility, elegance, discipline, and self-control, while fatness (as a marker of blackness) became associated with gluttony, laziness, and barbarism.

Through the invention of such narratives, slavery and other labor policies that allow white folks to profit on the (literal) backs of black people, were justified, as black folks came to be seen as inferior, unworthy, and less than human.

While the reasons people diet today are complicated and touched by a series of intersecting forms of marginalization—including sexism, ableism, classism, and others—it’s important that we collectively acknowledge the racist roots of fatphobia as one critically influential factor in its development.

No person reading this post has gone unaffected by the racialized history of dieting and it’s important that we consider how this history affects us personally regardless of whether or not we are conscious of its impact.

For white folks, in particular, the past weeks have largely been about making what was previously unconscious, unseen, or unconsidered—conscious, seen, and seriously considered.

Reflecting on our relationship with diet culture is but one area where we can do this important anti-racist work.

To learn more about the historical relationship between racism and diet culture, I highly recommend checking out the book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia by Sabrina Strings—you can also glimpse into the author’s work in this short written interview.

I also hope you’ll check out this personal essay by Master Class alum, Savala Nolan, which shares her personal experiences navigating diet culture as a woman of color and how her relationship to whiteness and thinness intersect.

Body image feels aren’t the problem

when you stop dieting,
when you stop restricting,
when you gain weight…

all the difficult feelings that that you’ve tried “diet away,”
that you’ve tried to suppress through weight control,
will pop right up.

All the fear, all the shame, all the “not-good-enough,” all the “unlovable” or “unacceptable” feelings,

all the trauma you’ve experienced as a result of being judged on the basis of size or bearing witness to the judgment of others,

will come rushing to the surface when you’re no longer using weight control as a coping mechanism—

that is, when you’re no longer trying to assimilate as a strategy for managing the pain of oppression.

Contrary to popular belief, these difficult feelings are NOT a sign of “failure” in recovery; nor are they symptoms of mental illness. 

Difficult feelings related to internalized or externalized fatphobia are understandable for everyone and anyone regardless of mental health status;

it’s how we relate to those feelings—how we care for ourselves in the midst of those feelings—that is the much bigger predictor of our mental and physical health and well-being. 

How am I tending to my shame, my fear, my body-related trauma or anxiety? 

Am I trying to manage it through dieting, over-exercise, “self-control,” or self-denial? 

Or am caring for myself in more self-loving ways?
Holding myself in the tender moments—taking care of myself like a child in need?

Recovery is not the state of being “free” from body-negative thoughts or feelings;

it is the process of learning to love and care for ourselves in the midst of our pain; of tending to our wounds compassionately, rather than violently;

and ultimately, learning to be with our feelings and self-advocate for our needs…without running back to self-harm through restriction.

x Isabel