Please note that this is an Archived article and may contain content that is out of date. The use of she/her/hers pronouns in some articles is not intended to be exclusionary. Eating disorders can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes, and weights.

By: Guest Author, Andrea LoBue, MFT

Helping our clients discover the emotions they are eating over is one very important aspect of working with compulsive eating. The clients need to safely uncover the unexpressed pain they have been masking with excess food, body obsession, restriction and/or purging. They also need to find some means of sweetness in their lives. There is another important reason, however, that people with food and weight problems turn to excess food: they are hungry. They need food!

We, therefore, need to help our clients fix the mechanism that became broken when they started dieting: their signal for hunger. Before they were taught to mistrust their bodies, before they were taught that foods were categorized by “good and bad”, before they were terrified of becoming fat, they listened to this signal. As therapists, we are aware that most of our overweight clients do not listen to their fullness, but equally important is that they do not listen to their hunger.

Our bodies are designed to signal us with hunger when it is time to eat, signal us with a craving that helps us decide what to eat, and signal us with satisfaction when we have had enough. But here, in America, that is not what the average person (or at least the average woman) is taught. We are taught that it is “good” to be hungry and it is “bad” to be full. Many of us grow up thinking that fat and carbohydrates are “bad” and that fruits and vegetables are “good”. Food, fat, and our bodies become the enemy. And we fear listening to the enemy! After years of trying to control and override the body’s signals, most people are terrified of listening to their body’s wisdom. They instead think they need to listen to all the diet rules and regulations to tell them what, how, and when to eat. The result is a nationwide epidemic of food, weight, and body image disorders.

So, part of our job is helping our clients heal that broken relationship between their mind and their body, which in turn helps them restore their natural relationship with food. One aspect of this is teaching them that they need to learn to make the right “match” between their hunger and their food choices. For example, if they want something sweet but instead eat a salad, they have not made the right match. Nor is it a match if they crave salmon but end up eating a fast food burger.

In my book, The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook , my coauthor and I suggest the following three questions before eating. You might want to suggest these to a client who is dieting and/or eating compulsively.

  1. What does the dieter in me think I should eat right now?
  2. What does the overeater in me think I should eat right now?
  3. What does my heart say? (This is where our clients can really begin the process of trusting their innate sense of hunger.)

We teach our clients to use a physical hunger scale between zero and 10. (Zero being completely starving, 10 being completely stuffed, and five being comfortable.) We encourage them to begin noticing, at various times, where they are on the scale. We encourage them to start trusting their bodies and honor them by eating when they are hungry. Many of them have been cut off from their physical hunger for years. They have accomplished this both by starving and/or by compulsively eating all day. They are numb to their hunger because numbness enables them to also stay cut off from their emotional awareness and pain. We suggest that our clients try to eat when they are about a three on the scale and to stop eating at about a six. This way, they are not waiting until they are totally starving and out of control to eat and they are not eating to the point of anesthetizing themselves. Not only will this type of eating lead to more clarity (and more feelings), it will also help lead our clients to find their “natural weight”.

We define “natural weight” as the range (usually five to seven pound range) that the body settles into when, for the most part, a person eats when they are physically hungry and stops when they are satisfied or “politely full”. If clients are eating to suppress their feelings and/or not eating when they are hungry, they are not at their natural weight. People often ask, “How do I find my natural weight?” Well, generally, it finds them when they let go of control and decide that instead of focusing on a certain number of fat grams per day, their goals are: health, selflove, self-respect, sanity, and freedom.

It is important to note that while some people are pleased with their natural weight when they arrive there, others have difficulty accepting it and need to grieve that they do not have their ideal body. This happens because their ideal was unrealistic for their particular body type. At this point, they need to decide if they want to spend their life striving for a shape that was not intended for them or to make peace with the body that they have. Only four out of 40,000 women have a natural body weight like models of today, yet we find many women who think they are not okay or, worse, not loveable if they do not have this body type.

If your client thinks they are one of the many who are not at their natural weight, it is important to help them wonder why. They may be using excess food to comfort themselves in times of emotional need, they may be refusing to give their body what it really craves, or they may simply not be eating enough (and this can apply even if they are overweight). You can also wonder with them, what their body might be trying to say that they cannot. You can have your client ask themselves what their weight would say if it could speak. Many of our clients report things like, “Help,” “Get away from me,” or “You can’t make me.” We might ask them what it would be like to use their voice rather than their body to set limits or ask for help in the world. Many people think that letting go of dieting means, “Forget it, I’ll just eat anything I want.” But we tell them that they are learning to love themselves and that is not loving. Neither rigid restriction nor carte blanche is loving.

Finding the balance between the two is much harder than landing at (or bouncing back and forth between) the extremes. Balance requires self-honesty and self-respect. It requires learning the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. It is about what you are eating and why you are eating. It might be completely sane and loving for one person to have a piece of cake while another is already too stuffed from dinner and will only end up beating herself up if she eats it. It might be totally loving for someone to have a salad for lunch, while another person was really wanting a sandwich but eats the salad to be “good” and makes up for it when he eats several donuts back at work because he was not truly satisfied with his lunch.

I will close with a quote from my book, The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook :

“As you begin to stop overeating or under eating, you’ll also begin to understand why you did so in the first place. These are usually one word reasons like: sadness, fear, anger, or loneliness” [and, I will add here, hunger for real food!] “When emotions are acknowledged and expressed in a safe and healthy manner, they become quite manageable and will pass by like leaves floating by on a stream. Overeating or under eating is an attempt to get your own attention, to give yourself something that you really need. So often, though, that need is intangible; it cannot be found in bags of cookies, containers of ice cream, or in dietary restrictions. When you have learned (and you can learn this) to distinguish between your emotional and physical hunger, both types of hunger then become barometers to help you know what you need. This, we have found, is very different from experiencing hunger as a dreaded enemy. It is okay to eat when you are hungry and to cry when you are sad. But ice cream will never alleviate sadness, and potato chips will not subdue anger. What is it you are hungry for right now?”

(A special thanks to Andrea LoBue who is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist who specializes in the healing of eating disorders. She lectures and writes extensively on these subjects and has appeared on several radio and television shows. Andrea received her Master’s Degree from the University of San Francisco. Currently, she is in private practice in Soquel, California. Andrea is co-founder of InnerSolutions, a counseling service dedicated to helping people heal from food, weight, and body image issues. She is also coauthor of The Don’t Diet, Live-It Workbook .)