Went from Rigid Eating to Emotional Eating

By December 14, 2012

When I started college, I got very concerned about gaining weight – I didn’t set out to lose weight (my BMI was near the bottom of the healthy weight and I worked diligently to keep it there), but I became very rigid about eating the right things in the right amounts. As the stress of college and personal relationships rose, I lost that “control”, and over the past two years have struggled with emotional eating and occasional binges, and plenty of negative body talk. I’ve managed to stabilize my weight (still healthy, but just barely) and have had some success in finding better ways to express myself than with food. I think I’m ready to start improving my diet again and staying more active, and if I am honest with myself I know I would like to weigh less than I do now. I know that not being overweight is healthier in general, especially since I’m at risk for Type 2 Diabetes due to a hormonal condition (PCOS). My question is, when is it okay to try to lose weight? How can I keep my focus on improving my health and away from negative body talk? And how can I avoid falling back into overly rigid attitudes about what healthy is? -Melissa

Dear Melissa,

Congratulations on deciding to get back on track with some choices you’re making in your life. It is so important and beneficial that you realize how you used food emotionally. That is a huge first step: acknowledging what doesn’t work for you and how to spot it when you are going back to that place again.

I encourage you to keep taking inventory in your life in terms of what might trigger you to use food to meet emotional needs. Try to avoid allowing yourself to get overly vulnerable so as not to fall back into old traps. Even when you do, simply dust yourself off and keep heading in the right direction again.

Food will never truly satisfy our emotional needs; we need healthy coping skills to meet those needs (i.e. talking to a mental health professional, calling a friend, playing with your dog, setting limits, writing a letter, going to a movie, helping a neighbor or volunteering your time to help others, etc.). My best advice to you is to completely take the focus off of weight and back to HEALTH.

If you dial back into your body’s natural hunger/fullness cues, listen to your body, eat when hungry/stop when satisfied, eat with balance, variety and moderation and exercise for pleasure, your body will naturally gravitate to what is a healthy set point for you. Granted, this may not be the “perfect” size or weight in your mind. But what do you really want – to be thin (to look how you think people want you to look) or to truly be healthy? The more you stay obsessed about food, weight, calories and exercise, the more imprisoned you will be to your body.

My guess is, ultimately, you want freedom. Ironically, in my experience, this freedom is achieved when you let go of the struggle against your body and work with your body to listen to it and nurture it. Follow your internal cues for eating and exercise; there is some common sense involved with establishing structure but this works best when you truly eat and exercise in response to what your body is telling you instead of external rules (a diet and/or what the trainer at the gym says about exercise).

Eating sensibly and exercising moderately for pleasure will definitely have health benefits—regardless if your weight changes a pound! For more information on this philosophy, read up on Health at Every Size (google it) or pick up the workbook: Moving Away From Diets. I think you’ll find these resources helpful. You can do this!

To good health,

Juliet N. Zuercher, RD