The Experts Have It Exactly Backward

If the "experts" are so smart, then why does nearly everyone gain back the weight they lose?

Emotional eating and shame are tightly interconnected, and that connection can be ended for good. But breaking this connection does not happen by beating yourself up. Beating yourself up leads to one failed diet after another, as well as to the feeling that you’re the one who failed, not the diet.  What we propose instead is a sustainable, permanent lifestyle change that results from kindness and knowledge.

You can choose to stop the shame today.  No, not after you lose weight.  Today.

The experts tell you to lose the weight, and only then you will feel great about yourself. Then you will be motivated to eat only low-calorie foods for the rest of your life. The problem with their logic is this: it doesn’t work. 

We suggest that diet books and purveyors of “miracle” weight loss products have it exactly backward. We suggest you try something different: that you start with feeling good about yourself.  If you can let go of the shame, then you will be able to carry out a strategy that will result in weight loss that can be sustained.

Before you can really grapple with emotional eating and your relationship with food, it’s good to understand where it begins. It starts early:  food is love. Almost all of us have experience with that notion. You had a bad day at school? Your mom baked your favorite gooey brownies. What made holidays so special? The food, of course! Yes, you’re looking forward to getting together with your family, but what you may be thinking about the most is getting together with your grandmother’s pumpkin pie, the Christmas cookies, the Chanukah potato pancakes. We could go on and on. From the beginning, we are taught that food is fun and happiness and stress relief and family and connection. It’s true for everyone.

That was the start of emotional eating. But something more sinister followed in its path. Kids called you fat. Parents said something insensitive or even cruel. Maybe they told you it was “just teasing.” Maybe it was a hurtful critical comment that was made “for your own good.” And you began to learn about shame. This shame was only reinforced as you got older, as our fat-shaming society pressured you to be conscious  and critical  of your body and to measure your attractiveness by some arbitrary standard of beauty where models look like starving orphans.

Now, as an adult, you no longer need anyone else to make you feel shame. You have learned all the lessons and can now do it all by yourself. The damage has been done. No one can make you feel worse about yourself than you can. It’s only natural that your response to the internalized shame is that you want to comfort yourself.  What might that comfort be? Take a wild guess.

We need to emphasize this point:  You are not to blame for the initial adoption of emotional eating as a coping mechanism. There is no way that as a child you could have foreseen that eating in this way would have so many physical and emotional consequences. Even now, you still carry your childhood wounds and comfort-seeking responses within you.  Unfortunately, emotional eating is an attempt to fill a hole that cannot be filled.  You literally “swallow your pain.”

But here’s the good news: you do not need to be defined by these wounds.  We will explore moving past them in future posts.