This is a chapter I wrote for the compilation book, The Giant Within Us. I have battled emotional eating my entire life. It’s a daily exercise to be true and authentic with my feelings and a conscious effort to choose to not cover them up with food. Helping others with this same issue has helped me to grow and stretch so that I don’t revert back to old habits. The scale goes up and down and injuries over the past four years have limited my ability to exercise and burn calories. But at the end of the day, I have learned to choose healthy foods as fuel more often than unhealthy foods as comfort. And I am always learning more.
LETTING GO OF THE COOKIES
It was the best relationship of my life.
This time I was the one calling the shots. I was getting exactly what I wanted without complaint or pushback for the first time in my life. There were no demands to do things I didn’t want to do. There were no expectations to be a good little girl, or the perfect looking arm candy for a man.
This relationship was safe. I had created it from the beginning to be what I wanted it to be, what I needed it to be. After years of emotional and verbal abuse, I had created my safe haven.
I was in a relationship with food. It was sweet when I wanted sweet. It was salty when I wanted salty. It was creamy when I wanted creamy, and crunchy when I wanted crunchy. I had no complaints about my new lover until I had to shop for new clothes and, even then, there were people and places willing to accommodate me and my new lover.
As my body was increasing in girth, I was just encouraged to admit that I needed to shop in the “big girls” department. For many women, that might have been a wakeup call. For me, the shock was not enough to prevent me from calling up Pizza Hut every Friday night. Inside this new world of plus-sized clothing, I found nurturing women who were more than happy to see me join their ranks. They liked me. They were kind to me. They were not the ones to intervene and shake me into awareness that I was in yet another abusive relationship. I certainly wasn’t going to admit that to myself. I was still nursing the wounds from the last abusive relationship, and the food was my balm.
This new relationship with food began after I broke off an engagement. We had been together for three and a half years, living in his town house which I had decorated and made into a home. We were attending the weddings of his friends to girls they had met at the same time we started dating. And we weren’t moving forward.
I don’t know where I found the mustard seed of courage to leave, but I did. One fateful night my eyes were opened to the facts that I had been maligned, yelled at, made fun of, chastised, criticized and manipulated by a man who I finally realized would never accept me. He said the words “I love you” at least fifteen times a day, but the fact of the matter was, he didn’t even like me. For him, I was never going to be thin enough, pretty enough, and, thereby, good enough. The day I left him I weighed less than I had since high school, but I was miserable, unhealthy, and ill-equipped to sort through the emotional wreckage.
Five years later, I had gained one hundred pounds and was on several medications for obesity-related conditions and depression. I was desperate to be loved, desperate to have children, and I hated who I was and what I had become. I certainly wasn’t attracting any husband prospects this way, but I wasn’t ready to give up on life yet. I needed to make a major change.
I decided that this was it: I was going to take control of my life and lose weight. I hired a personal trainer to put together a daily plan for me, to hold me accountable and to kick my butt. I changed all of my eating habits and became the calorie Nazi of the family gatherings. In seven months I lost 86 pounds and was looking pretty darn good. My female trainer assured me that when the weight came off, I would have all the desires of my heart, including a new man.
As all the girls do in Texas, I highlighted my long hair with blonde, put on the cute clothes and strutted around in my high heels exuding my essence. And still, no man would come within one hundred feet of me. I used online dating, I asked men on dates, hung out at sports bars chatting with men endlessly about their stupid fishing competitions and still, nothing.
I just knew it was because I wasn’t thin enough yet. So instead of just attending classes at the gym, I ramped up the activity and became an instructor. I was at several locations a week teaching anywhere from six to fifteen classes each week. I was back down to my college weight. I told everyone I was single and available and looking. And the dating calendar was bare.
I had done all this work, and didn’t get the result it was supposed to produce. I had abandoned my favorite foods, denied myself pleasure, given my schedule over to the gym and still, there was no one. What in the world was I doing this for?
The missing key was this: I hadn’t made any of these changes out of love and appreciation for the fearfully and wonderfully made body God had entrusted to me. I had bought into the myth that thin equaled love, and that only thin women deserved love.
I also had never been taught how to handle negative emotions. During my childhood, anger was not allowed. I didn’t know how to express my true emotions in healthy way. As I unraveled the damage of my failed relationship, I was forced to examine those childhood patterns and to feel things that I had no strategy to navigate. So I ate. I was afraid that feeling anger, disappointment, fear, or pain in any form would drown me, so I clung to the life raft made of pizza boxes and, later, to obsessive exercise.
It wasn’t until I worked as hard on the inside as I had on the outside that I could release the remnants of anger, disappointment and sadness over my failed relationship and lost childhood. Facing down my emotional eating demons freed me from the pursuit of pretty and allowed me to start the pursuit of empowered.
To break my emotional food addiction, I had to learn to feel my true emotions raw, unfiltered and without cookies. My self-loathing didn’t start with that guy. He was simply a manifestation of the beliefs I’d already held about myself. As long as I was afraid to feel my true emotions, the gremlins were running the show. As I learned to let those negative feelings have their say and then released them, I was slowly releasing the grip food had over me. Eventually, I came to a place of balance and self-love. That included acceptance that I might never have a husband or children.
Some of the weight came back, but it does not define me. I continue to work out and maintain a healthy meal plan as a lifestyle, but I no longer spend hours at the gym and don’t paste pictures of fitness models on my refrigerator. In my new life, I exercise to feel strong and to feel comfortable in my clothes. I choose foods to boost my energy and improve my brain function. I used to coach people at the gym through teaching classes and personal training. Now I coach them to face their relationship with food to find the hidden hurts and to heal old wounds in order to release weight.
My 5 Top Tips for starting your own process to change within your relationship with food:
1. Keep a food journal. Note everything you eat, the amount, where you ate it, what led you to eat at that time, and what you were feeling. You need to map your emotional connections to food in order to break those connections.
2. Be courageous and name your true feelings. Many of us say that we eat when we are “bored” or “stressed.” Those are not feelings, they are conditions. Speak your true feelings: I am disappointed in my marriage. I am lonely. I am afraid of success. I am angry at my father.
3. View food as fuel, not as your best friend or as something to be feared. We have to fuel our bodies so there’s no going “cold turkey” and giving up the thing that is blocking us.
4. Change your mindset from “dieting as punishment” to “eating for life.” Food should be satisfying and nutritious, not covering pain. Trust that you will know the difference.
5. Exercise every day hard enough to raise your heart rate. The endorphins created by activity will free your brain from the grip of food worries.
Breaking my food addiction brought joy and ease into my life. I never could have known how to freely and genuinely love myself without changing my strategy for handling negative emotions. Being able to do it without food has saved my life.
Let’s talk about this. Comment below with your tips and advice.
You can get The Giant Within Us HERE.