Posts Tagged emotional eating

Emotional Eating

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We know that following sensible eating guidelines will relieve us of certain symptoms and will help us lose weight but what if we can’t stop eating because we use food for pain relief? Is it helpful to instruct someone to stop eating sugar when the sugar is managing uncomfortable feelings? This has been my own painful reality; damned if I do and damned if I don’t. It is called emotional eating, and most of my clients struggle with it.

Here are some of the methods I’ve tried to control my eating: eating an apple, eating celery, not having cookies in the house, not buying popcorn, working out like a fiend, restricting for as many days as I can bear, taking a walk, taking a shower, taking a bath…sound familiar?

So, what is the solution to emotional eating? Well, here is what I’ve learned since running workshops for emotional eaters. Emotional eating is not about food. Emotional eating is a tool we use to feel better. It is a tool to stuff our uncomfortable emotions. Emotional eating is how we soothe ourselves when we are stressed. Our terrible beliefs about ourselves, which remain unchallenged, feed our thoughts leading to painful emotions; these then lead to overeating, the overeating causes more negative thoughts and that fuels further overeating – it truly is a vicious cycle.

You may read articles advising you to replace emotional eating with taking a shower, going for a walk, anything to take your mind off food. These tactics may work for non-emotional eaters that are trying to lose weight, but in my experience as a Dietitian, these suggestions do not work for emotional eaters.

Unfortunately, there is no quick fix, but there are things you can do today to begin to make the change. Here are my top 5 suggestions to help you make emotional eating into a thing of the past.

  1. On a daily basis, stop weighing yourself because you know exactly what your mind is going to do with that information, and it’s not kind and loving.
  2. Since negative thinking leads to uncomfortable emotions, be on the alert for mean and nasty judgements you make about yourself.
  3. Join and commit to going to a support group to help you through emotionally tough times. Examples: Bereavement groups, 12 step groups, women’s support groups, Craving Change™ group.
  4. Find a buddy that you can share your feelings with when you do overeat. (By help, I mean help you reframe the situation so you don’t beat yourself up about it.)
  5. Understand that if you are in the middle of an overeating episode you can make the choice to stop and call a friend for support.

We heal emotionally when we are given the opportunity to share our perceptions in a safe setting, when we can talk without fear of judgment or ridicule. If you are like me there comes a time when you cannot live anymore with your destructive behaviour but you can’t live without it either. For me, joining a group where I felt accepted and nurtured was the best thing I ever did and the reason I continue to offer these groups to my clients. Please come and join us if you are one of the many who struggle with emotional eating.

And for those women who can control their eating but just can’t lose those stubborn pounds, join me for my next Why Weight? workshop.


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Craving Change™ The Non-diet approach to weight loss

Woman with grapefruit photoAs you may know, I’ve been using a non-diet approach in my practice for some time. At first, I was apprehensive, because basically, I grew up on a diet. I was placed on my first 1000 kcal diet at 9 years of age when a family doctor said, “Oh Kelly, you just enjoy the good things too much. Here is a diet plan for you to follow for the next 3 weeks.” Care to guess how long this diet lasted? I vaguely remember adhering to it for half a day.

The worst part was I beat myself up for not being able to stick to the diet. And from then on, I was either on or off a diet, and always thinking about food, or ways to undo the ‘damage’ of overeating. I’m certain some of you relate.  If you are a chronic dieter, you may find some of the following statements true:

  • When you think of weight loss, you feel hopeless.
  • You feel compelled to eat even when you’re not hungry.
  • You’ve tried every diet on the planet and nothing works.
  • You feel guilty for eating ‘bad’ foods.

So, what is a non-diet approach to weight loss? And how does it work? Isn’t it just another trick to get us on yet another diet?

Firstly, let me tell you what the non-diet approach is not.

It is not calorie counting, weighing and measuring your food, or setting unrealistic goals. Nor is it a temporary solution. It does not focus on how you eat but why you eat the way you do, and exactly what you can do about it.

For the last four weeks, I’ve been teaching a non-diet program called, Craving Change. It’s been wonderful to see my clients change their attitude toward food. The first part of the program focuses on why it’s so difficult to change ourselves in the North American obesogenic environment. This may not seem important but when you look at how food is marketed, and the factors that influence what people eat, you are actually given an incredible tool. Knowledge, in this case, is the tool. Knowing you can significantly change factors in your environment, changes the way you interact with food. 

The beginning of the program also discusses internal factors such as uncomfortable thought patterns, the inability to set boundaries, and situational factors that trigger uncomfortable eating. The next sessions of Craving Change™ are the most transformative. We discuss over fourteen strategies both during class sessions, and as homework.  I teach a variety of techniques to help participants change problematic eating patterns.

As I said, I was apprehensive about this approach until I saw the incredible transformation in the behaviour and well-being of my clients. I love seeing participants light up in class while sharing their experience with new strategies. It all takes time and persistence but I’ve seen clients make major changes within a three week program.

I ask clients how much time they think they’ve spent counting calories, trying new diets, beating themselves up, hating their bodies, and waging war with food?  They usually reply with eye-rolls and words like: eternity, forever, my entire life. The strategies I teach in our sessions do not take an eternity to learn but they do take practice.

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Ongoing support for lasting change

bowl of cherries2014 is the beginning of my fourth year in private practice. Yay, me! I’ve discovered so much from the wonderful women who entrust me with their health concerns. The most important lesson I’ve learned is that making, and sticking to, dietary changes is incredibly difficult for most of us and especially difficult for women who feel vulnerable due to the hormonal disruptions associated with perimenopause. It seems that food, once a source of great comfort, becomes our enemy.

Recently I was diagnosed with a rare genetic rheumatic arthritis and a dietary restriction was advised. In spite of my training as a Registered Dietitian, this diet challenged me, severely. I needed the support of a community of fellow sufferers, daily pep talks, and tons of cooking, shopping, and food preparation advice. I could not have made the changes alone, and most days I still struggle to adhere to the diet.

I think of my clients, and I know my own experience is a validation of my working theory that dietary changes require ongoing support. Heck, if dietary changes were easy, there wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar diet industry. Even with the motivation of a pain-free body, I still find it a challenge to resist the foods that can send my body into a reactive tizzy.

It makes no sense for me to advise women on dietary changes and then abandon them to the misinformation and unhealthy advice in the media, on the internet, and from well meaning friends and family. I want my clients to rediscover their vitality and to rejuvenate their lives, to live freely and happily without pain, sleeplessness, fatigue, or feeling terrible about their bodies. I want to see success in all my Nutrigals.

During the perimenopausal years, not all women suffer from sleepless nights, hot flushes, mood swings, stubborn weight gain, or early waking insomnia, but many do. If you are one of these women, you may have talked to your doctor and been dismissed with a pat on the head or with a packet of birth control pills. Many doctors erroneously believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that perimenopausal symptoms are caused by a deficiency of estrogen, when in fact the converse appears to be the case. See: In light of this misconception, many doctors prescribe estrogen, which exacerbates perimenopausal symptoms. Perimenopause is a time when a woman’s diet affects not only her current hormonal condition but affects also her future skeletal health, it needs to be taken seriously.

Sure, perimenopause ends, eventually, and menopause occurs, but there is no need to suffer through perimenopause (which can last ten years or more) alone or without relief. I look forward to an epoch when MDs are enlightened as to the benefits of bio-identical hormone treatment and in the meantime, I continue to help women control their hormones through dietary changes.

What I’ve realized over the last three years is that the women who most successfully and effectively incorporate my recommendations are women who keep in touch with me after their initial set of sessions. Some of these women join my Nutrigal Pal groups, some phone, or email for advice, and some come back in for further counselling. The ongoing support and feedback has a lasting positive effect. Symptoms disappear, weight is lost, and smiles return. A new study confirms this.

I don’t expect perfection from my clients. In fact, I expect imperfection. We’re human; I don’t consider it a failure or a weakness to binge or to lapse on our diets. And I wonder if the reason I didn’t hear again from some clients is that they feared I would judge them or scold them. The biggest regret of my first years in practice is not reaching out more to women who fell silent under my care. But I seek to rectify that now. I am scouring my records for women who may still need my on-going support and advice.

Nutrition is so simple, and yet so complex. We are inundated by a choice of foods, vitamins, herbs, supplements, and diets. My job is to help my clients navigate the endless ocean of options. Together we assess our priorities and the most cost-effective method of achieving symptom relief. Having a Registered Dietitian at your disposal, to help with decisions, also saves a great deal of frustration and expense.

In my fourth year, I have changed how I structure my interactions and also my fees so that clients can be assured of lasting relief from symptoms and more long term health, no matter how long it takes. Instead of a package of 6 or 8 sessions, I now offer clients ongoing support. This new structure consists of my customary assessment sessions but a slower and more thorough unrolling of the dietary change recommendations. Working with my clients in this approach, I develop with them a new relationship with food. After the initial changes are in place, we continue to meet, either in groups or one on one, and we stay in touch by phone or email. With this model, my clients are assured of my ongoing support while dietary changes become permanent in their lives.

When clients achieve relief from symptoms and a return of their regular energy and zest for life their friends and relatives notice. Over the years, I’ve received many referrals this way. In other words, my happy long-term clients are an effective form of advertising. This steady stream of clients allows me to concentrate on staying abreast of the latest research about nutrition, diet, and hormone health. Happy, successful clients are the best way for me to build my practice, and I am committed to them for 2014 and beyond.

Getting to know like-minded practitioners and business owners over the first few years of my practice has been amazing. Together we share a wealth of experience and information with our clients through combined workshops, presentations, and other offerings. I look forward to sharing with my clients many exciting events in the coming year.

If you would like to know more about me, and how I can work for you in your life, please let me know by filling in this 

and I will be in touch as soon as possible.

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Nutrigal’s Top 4 Tips for Holiday Socializing

  1. xmas banquet tableWhen I’m invited to a get-together, my tendency is to starve myself the day of because I know I will eat ten thousand calories at the buffet. Terrible idea! When I starve myself, I end up eating far more than I want to, and eating foods I regret later like those deep-fried tasteless thingys. I’ve learned to eat regularly and sensibly on the day of the party to take the edge off my appetite and empower a bit of restraint.
  2.  When I arrive at a party, the first thing I do is grab a glass of sparkling water and wander around for a while. I find someone with whom I’m comfortable and I take a few minutes to relax. I used to eat mindlessly to deal with the stress of a social gathering, standing by the table nibbling and grazing, and worrying. But now I give myself a half hour to settle before I even visit the buffet.
  3. And then I indulge mindfully. I choose foods I really love. If I bite in and it’s not the fabulous sensation I expect, I leave it and choose something else. And no, I don’t put it back on the serving platter. I give myself permission to eat only foods I love.
  4. After too many nights of socializing, I throw myself a pajama party. I get in my comfy-cozies, light some candles, dim the overhead, and enjoy the twinkle-lights in the greenery. I put on some nice music and savour a simple but tasty dinner, all by myself. Afterward I settle in and watch my favourite holiday movie. If I need a snack, and you know I will, I pour myself a bowl of raspberries and enjoy them with some dark chocolate and a few nuts.xmas elf

How about you? How do you cope with the parties and luncheons and family get-togethers?

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The Stigma of Emotional Eating

girls whisperPeople share with me that they are afraid to recommend Nutrigal Pals to a friend because it may mean they are commenting on their friend’s weight or body size. Rest assured, emotional eaters come in all shapes and sizes. Everyone eats emotionally from time to time but in the chronic emotional eater’s case it has lead to a painful and destructive cycle of emotional, binge eating followed by restricting and dieting.

Nutrigal Pal groups practice acceptance and love on all levels. These groups are about learning a new way to look at our lives, food, and our bodies.

Emotional eaters are binge eaters; they eat to self-soothe when life is rough; they eat compulsively or mindlessly; and some emotional eaters, when they’re upset, they don’t eat at all. Some emotional eaters qualify by hyper-focusing on their body size, shape, or weight; or by dieting compulsively. Many women tell me they’ve lost and gained the same 20 pounds over and over during their lifetime. All of these types struggle with the way they use food when they experience difficult emotions. Nutrigal Pal groups explore ways to regulate our emotions and reduce our stress by learning new skills in a supportive group setting.

As a facilitator and member of Nutrigal Pals I don’t instruct clients to eat this and restrict that or to count calories. In fact it’s not about food at all; it’s about our relationship to food. This is also not a dieting or weight loss program. Rather Nutrigal Pals is for women who desire and choose to:

  • understand why diets don’t work for them and how to make permanent changes
  • discover their internal cues for when, what, and how much to eat
  • find out how to eat the foods they love without feelings of guilt or shame
  • stop obsessing about food and weight and explore new life choices

Nutrigal Pals is for women who are “done with dietingand are committed to breaking the cycle of emotional eating. It is for women that want to learn not only what is happening to them and why, but how to do things differently in order to make real and lasting changes. This is a group for women that want to make peace with their relationship to food. Nutrigal Pals is a unique group. It is for women that want to learn healthier eating habits and/or who want to quit binge-eating.

If you know of someone who might benefit from this group, please go ahead and pass this article along to them. Being an emotional eater is nothing to be ashamed or embarrassed about. You are not alone.


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Fear of Hunger

apple hand black nailsIt’s been a year since I began running Nutrigal Pals Support Groups for emotional eating. What I gain from the women in the group is just as valuable as the information I discover from experts in the field. On the topic of hunger my Nutrigal Pals report that they don’t trust their bodies and for the most part they try to avoid feeling hungry. What I’ve learned is that some of us subconsciously fear hunger.

One of the mindful-eating strategies I teach is simply to eat when you feel hungry and stop when you feel full. It seems simple enough, but what If you are afraid of your body’s signals? Some women have said to me jokingly, “If I eat when I’m hungry I’ll be eating all the time”. Many of us have internalized the belief that dieting, i.e. regulating and restricting, is the correct way to eat and live. This means if we allow ourselves to just eat because we’re hungry we will be out of control and never stop eating and blow up into gigantic, unlovable women.

This false belief is hinged on another: that our body shape and size determines our success in life, our lovability and ultimately our survival. This mentality launches the battle of our self against our body. We struggle a lifetime to deny the message (hunger) our body sends us. Our bodies request food and our minds respond with yet another diet. We treat our bodies with bad parenting practices: judging, comparing, ignoring, ridiculing, and torturing. At some point in our lives we learn to stop listening to our bodies; to wage war with our hunger, and to follow another’s battle plan for achieving an ideal clothing size or a number on a scale. The impetus to follow is we believe we will be more lovable, more acceptable, and therefore our survival will be ensured.

It’s no wonder we don’t trust our bodies or their signals of hunger or satiation, however the fact is our bodies get hungry, we feed them, and they are satisfied. The piece we need to learn, and it can be learned, is to differentiate between physical hunger and emotional or spiritual hunger. Physical hunger is not insatiable. When we learn to become quiet and listen we will hear our body saying, “Thank you, I’ve had enough.” Nothing to fear.

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How to Break the Emotional-Eating Cycle

sad silhouetteMost of us who numb out with food experience an aftermath of guilt, shame, and self-loathing. Sometimes the first awareness we have are negative thoughts associated with an emotional eating binge. Although awareness of these thoughts is important or rather, imperative, this type of thinking is neither kind nor gentle. Negative thoughts, and feeling terrible, are helpful in one way however, they alert us that something is profoundly wrong with our relationship to food.

Our relationship to food mirrors our relationship to ourselves. Maybe we are aware that we use food to numb out. I work with many women who know they have a problem with emotional eating but have no idea how to break the cycle.

The emotional eating cycle consists of four parts:

  1. The Trigger (causing uncomfortable emotions).
  2. Eating (mindlessly).
  3. Remorse, guilt, self-loathing.
  4. Eating more.

This cycle can perpetuate itself endlessly.

If you’re like me you know it’s impossible to stop at the beginning of the cycle. Emotions can be powerfully distressing and if we haven’t been taught how to deal with them, what then? The process of gentle inquiry helps us intervene at part 3 of the cycle, the berating and shaming part of the cycle. Instead of yelling and punishing we can use a new tool. Become an observer rather than a prosecutor and judge, and gently question yourself:

  • What happened today that made me so uncomfortable that I turned to food for solace?
  • Did I behave in a way that did not honour me or somebody else today?
  • Did I say “yes” to someone when I might have said “no”?
  • Did someone else’s behaviour trigger me today by reminding me of something I’m trying to avoid dealing with in myself?
  • What are the emotions I’m experiencing telling me about my inner dialog?

Any question will do as long as it doesn’t rake you over the coals. The process of gentle inquiry is a method of self-discovery.

When you answer these questions honestly you begin to change how you show up for yourself. For example, if you constantly try to please people and say “yes”, setting your own needs aside, then you don’t have much energy left to look after yourself later. In fact people-pleasing often leaves us feeling resentful, angry, and unappreciated. Resentment leads to many unhealthy coping behaviours including over-eating. Learning to honour your self-care time by saying “no” is an important tool in breaking the cycle of emotional eating.

There are many gentle and effective tools I teach in my groups and in one-on-one counselling. If emotional-eating is eating you please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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When is Overeating Binge Eating Disorder? (Author Michelle May)

By Michelle May, M.D.

Binge Eating Disorder (BED) affects an estimated 3.5% of women and 2% of men in the U.S. The incidence is considerably higher among individuals seeking weight loss. However, restrictive dieting and weight stigma tend to propel the Binge Eating Cycle* and compound the problem.
What is a binge?
Binge eating episodes are characterized by three or more of the following symptoms:
• Eating until you feel uncomfortably full
• Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
• Eating much more rapidly than normal
• Eating alone because you are embarrassed by how much you’re eating
• Feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty after overeating
What is Binge Eating Disorder?
While the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), does not yet have a specific category for binge eating disorder, it does list diagnostic criteria:
• Recurrent episodes of binge eating occurring at least twice a week for six months
• Eating a larger amount of food than normal during a short time frame (any two-hour period)
• Lack of control over eating during the binge episode (for example, feeling that you can’t stop eating or control what or how much you are eating)
In addition, there is marked distress about binge eating. Those with BED do not use compensatory measures to counter the binge eating, such as vomiting or excessive exercise
What does BED feel like?
Kari Anderson, a Phoenix-based eating disorder specialist and Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Workshop Facilitator, explains that a person with BED may eat “normally” with others, stop on the way home to buy “binge” foods, then binge and hide evidence of the episode. The aftermath of a binge episode involves extreme feelings of shame and disgust.
Kari adds, “Individuals with BED are typically competent and accomplished in other areas of their life, yet feel unable to stop this secret behavior. Bingeing is a way to escape or disconnect from feelings that seem intolerable. There may be difficulty managing states of emotional and physical distress without using food. On the other hand, the thought of giving up the behavior evokes anxiety.”
While most people can relate to overeating or even bingeing from time to time, the lives of those with binge eating disorder are significantly disrupted by the binges and the aftermath. They may suffer in silence for years – trying and failing numerous diets, feeling alone, ashamed, and depressed. But they are not alone; there are millions of people with BED.
How is BED treated?
A great resource about BED for individuals and health care professionals is the Binge Eating Disorder Association (BEDA). If you think you may have binge eating disorder, seek treatment from an experienced treatment specialist. For a specialist in your area, visit
Mindfulness based strategies aimed at self-regulating emotional and physical states have shown promise in the treatment of Binge Eating Disorder. Mindful eating strategies such as those described in Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat are an important complement to therapy. A new treatment based on Am I Hungry? is being tested in a research trial in Phoenix, Arizona.
With effective treatment, there is hope for recovery and the freedom to live the vibrant life you crave.
*The Binge Eating Cycle is based on the Mindful Eating Cycle described in Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat.

Michelle May, M.D. is a recovered yoyo dieter and the award-winning author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. Download a copy of 101 Things to Do Besides Eat at

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