“Feeling your Feelings” is not the full story…

IMG_2292We often hear “emotional eating experts” encourage women to “feel their feelings” instead of “numb out” with food.

Which is somewhat sound advice, as there is no doubt in my mind 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 — I encourage my clients to feel their feelings whether they eat while doing so or not. 

That being said,  

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

You will experience discomfort for the rest of your life, and you will reach for some kind of coping mechanism to deal with at least a portion of that 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 our pain. 


when we need to pull out a coping mechanism (for whatever reason), humans usually go for the one that seems most appealing or soothing in the moment— which is usually determined by gut-instinct, not “logic.” 

The truth is, we’re not necessarily in control of which coping mechanism we choose when we’re experiencing discomfort (which is one of the reasons “taking a warm bath” doesn’t work).

But we do know one thing — dieting (i.e. trying to control our food/weight) — keeps food on the brain, so we’re more likely to turn to food as our “go-to” coping mechanism.

In other words,

The more we obsess,

the more we try to control food,

the more time we spend googling paleo recipes…

the more likely we are to turn to food for comfort. 

When we stop dieting, however, and let our natural, biological instincts around food take over without guilt, judgement, or attempts at controlwe naturally start to develop new non-food-related coping mechanisms. We make space in our brain for new practices of self-care to emerge. 


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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The Common Mistake of Trying to “Gain Control” Over Food

Overcoming binge-eating
is not about “getting control” over your food,
but about realizing—
that “control” is a figment of your imagination.

meditation in chaos

Our pursuit of “control,”

based on the very false assumption that we can make our food go our way if we just try hard enough,

is the product of truly delusional thinking, 

considering the infinite and unknowable universe in which we live.  

Let’s be real—

We are NOT in control of our body’s needs in any given moment,

We are NOT in control of our emotional needs in any given moment,

And despite what many self-help gurus might suggest,

We are NOT in control of our every reaction to triggering, environmental stimuli. 

We are only human,

and denying or trying to change this fundamental reality, 

is a sucker’s game—leading only to frustration, rebellion, and evermore compulsive behavior.

Contrary to the suggestion of every diet book ever, 

sanity around food will NOT be afforded to those who tirelessly try to gain control— 

the pursuit of which is a never-ending hamster-wheel leading only to dead-ends and rebellious outbursts,  

but rather,

sanity will be afforded to those who make peace with and accept
our fundamental out-of-control-ness,

to those who can ride the waves
of uncertainty, of messiness, of human error,

to those who can sit in food-chaos, and find okay-ness. 

Isabel Foxen Duke

Can’t self-soothe instead of eating? Q&A

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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