Item added to cart
Talk with Admissions, Call +1 (513) 776-0960
IIN Blog
Breaking the ...
Published: June 14, 2024

Breaking the Cycle of Emotional Eating: One Health Coach’s Journey

Share this Article:

Emotional eating can feel like an endless cycle that you just can’t escape.  

It can sabotage your self-worth and make you feel isolated and vulnerable at times. But you’re not alone with your struggles, and it’s possible to break the cycle. (It’s not endless, no matter how much it might feel that way!) 

To help you feel more connected, we spoke to an IIN Certified Health Coach about her own healing journey as she battled to overcome emotional eating. She reveals more about her struggles, identifies what emotional eating looked like for her, shares her recovery story and where she stands today on her journey, and provides some of the tips and coping methods she turns to during hard times. 

While everyone’s journey is unique, we hope you’re able to draw inspiration from this story and, most importantly, understand that you can heal, too.

My Emotional Eating Struggles

From the time I was very young, I sensed there was something different about me and therefore something wrong with me. I grew up rather sheltered, disciplined, and painfully shy, attending Catholic school throughout my formative years. In seventh grade, I switched to public school and had very little in common with the “popular” kids. I had a hard time making friends or relating to the people around me. Finally, I landed at SUNY Purchase College, where I was surrounded by like-minded artists, writers, and creative nonconformists. However, I continued to struggle with social anxiety and other aspects of my identity in ways that led me to seek comfort and refuge. 

The majority of my eating disorder took place during my college years as I navigated being on my own for the first time along with many social pressures I didn’t feel equipped to handle.  

“The way I see it, when you’re a child, the world is big and that’s okay because it’s far away. When you’re all grown up, the world is smaller and more manageable because you’ve carved your shape into it, so you need only to live in that shape. But when you’re stuck in that awkward space between childhood and adulthood, it’s like being a fly in a windstorm, trying to navigate a limitless sky while gusts of wind blow at you from every direction.” (Starving in Search of Me, page 42)

In this quote from my book Starving in Search of Me (Mango, 2018), I attempt to describe what I felt at this age – overwhelming expectations, infinite possibility, and a very vague sense of who I was. I didn’t know how to set boundaries to protect my values because I didn’t yet have enough life experience to know what my values were. I would go to parties I didn’t want to go to, spend time with people who drained me, and challenge my gut instinct more than I trusted it. Not to mention, I had the added responsibility of trying to figure out my sexuality, since I knew I was attracted to girls but wasn’t yet sexually or romantically experienced enough to rule out attraction to boys or other genders. I was just curious, young, and hungry for so many things I could not yet define. Under the weight of it all, I yearned to feel a sense of safety and control to counteract uncomfortable feelings, like inadequacy and shame. I wanted to escape my body because I didn’t know how to inhabit it. 

My “solution” at the time was to see how little I could eat each day, as if it were a game. Some days, I ate a bowl of cereal and a few pieces of fruit. Other days, I had a hardboiled egg for breakfast and a Frappuccino for dinner. To ward off hunger pangs, I turned to vices, like coffee or the occasional cigarette. I became addicted to the light-headed high that comes with being hungry, though I felt foggy-headed most of the time and had difficulty concentrating. It didn’t matter because the thinner my body became, the more in control I felt – the more I could respect myself as capable and worthy. I even liked having a secret that was only mine; it served as a layer of protection against a world that violated me. 

This worked for a while, or as well as any coping mechanism that serves as a temporary Band-Aid to a bigger problem can. But a couple of years into my restrictive dieting, my hunger became more violent. I started to lose control and engage in periodic “binges.” My binges were by no means characterized by obscene amounts of food. Nevertheless, when you’re used to carefully calculated portions of around 300 calories or less, anything beyond that feels gluttonous, like poison in your body. To deal with the irrationally unbearable feelings of guilt and gluttony that followed my binges, I started throwing up, also known as purging. My binge-and-purge episodes were periodic. Most typically, they would occur after a college party when I returned to my dorm room alone and slightly intoxicated. The combination of alcohol in my system and self-loathing from feeling lonely and disconnected from others created the perfect storm for these episodes. This would go on for another few years.  

My Turning Point 

In the following excerpt from my book, I describe a turning point in my eating disorder that occurred one afternoon when I found myself alone in my college apartment with a pint of vanilla ice cream: 

“It was that listless time of day between three and four o’clock, and the playful thought poked at me: You could eat just a spoonful or two, nothing crazy. I was okay with that. But could I trust myself to eat a modest few bites and then stop? Surely not. Once my spoon got into the carton, there was no stopping until I was scraping the cardboard bottom. Then, very predictably, the feelings of abandonment, the irreversible guilt, and the unbearable heaviness swept over me like a paralyzing wind. I felt the hot, familiar rush of frustration fill my bloodstream and wanted nothing more than to rid my body of the 500 calories and sixty grams of sugar to make myself pure again. Instead of obeying the impulse, this time, I paused. I took a few deep breaths to center myself, then paced back and forth for a while, hoping the urge would eventually subside.  

“Then, after a few moments, when I finally accepted I would not be able to shake the feeling on my own, I did something I would have never dreamed of doing before. I asked for help. I called my then-girlfriend, Danielle, on her cell phone. By this point, I was in fetal position on the floor, nearly shaking, and when Danielle answered, I explained to her how uncomfortable I felt in my body. ‘I really, really want to do it,’ I said. ‘I know I promised I wouldn’t, but I feel crazy. Like I need to.’ I felt silly knowing Danielle had to leave her class and step out into the hallway to console me. After all, I was twenty-three years old, curled up on the carpet like a helpless infant. However, I realize in hindsight that this was a real breakthrough point, and one of the most courageous things I have ever done. After running from my feelings for years, I made the conscious decision to try a different approach. It marked the beginning of my willingness to lower my guard and to be vulnerable, finally understanding that if I didn’t face myself head-on, I’d be my own victim for the rest of my life.  

“When I hung up the phone, I remember staring up at the ceiling for however long—I had no concept of time as the waves of so many oceans washed over me. There was pain, sadness, fear, and other indefinable sensations. I remained on the floor, trembling like a junkie going through withdrawal, until something miraculous happened. I no longer desired to throw up. The simple act of allowing myself to bring awareness to my body and be present with my feelings was enough to liberate me in that moment from years of struggle. No longer did I need to prove anything to anyone, not even myself. I listened to the breath in my lungs. I thought about my heartbeat and all the cells and organs in my body working in perfect, involuntary harmony. I gave myself permission to simply exist.” (Starving in Search of Me, page 93)

My Recovery Journey

Well into my recovery, and in the process of writing my book years later, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the reasons I developed an eating disorder in the first place. Was it a cry for help or something I did for attention? Maybe it was a spiritual quest? The main thing I wanted to understand was how I allowed myself to get so consumed with something that felt like an addiction. Beneath it all, what was I really hungry for?  

In attempting to answer these questions, I realized that what appeared to be a food disorder really had nothing to do with food at all. Rather, my disorder was a coping mechanism I relied on before I had the self-awareness, tools, or skills to nurture myself more healthfully. By projecting all my fears, needs, and desires onto my relationship with food, I was able to avoid confronting myself. Instead, I used my body to express all the things I didn’t know how to put into words. 

My healing journey was gradual and by no means linear. I had relapses. I had to take backward steps along the way in order to keep moving forward. But the steps backward were important in that they provided me the opportunity to give up perfectionism. I had to learn to approach myself with curiosity and compassion each time I fell off course. I had to be patient and forgive myself so that I could resist spiraling back into the pit of self-judgment. Recovery isn’t only about changing your behaviors; it’s about changing the way you feel about your behaviors and the way you feel about yourself.  

My recovery cannot be defined by one aha moment or revelation but a series of revelations that happened over the course of many years. There wasn’t a day where everything suddenly clicked for me, or a moment that felt like someone had finally turned on the lights. It was more like a slow process of learning how to ride a bike again after taking a bad fall, or more accurately, like learning to ride a bike for the first time. I was also fortunate to have the support of my loving family and friends as well as a few therapists along the way. 

Attending IIN’s Health Coach Training Program in 2010 also played a significant role in my recovery. At IIN, I learned about the importance of primary food and viewing health in an integrated way. IIN inspired me to give up the diet mentality and start focusing more on fueling my body with nutrient-dense foods and healthy lifestyle practices. Eventually, I began working for IIN and got involved with the Launch Your Dream Book Course, which reignited the fire in me to write and publish a book.  

I wrote Starving in Search of Me with the hope that I’d be able to make sense of everything I experienced and share profound pieces of wisdom about eating disorders that would help others heal. But through the patient process of putting my story onto paper, I became humbled. I came to recognize that healing is not about understanding everything that happens. It’s about accepting everything that happens, regardless of whether we understand it fully. It’s having the courage to be vulnerable, share our stories, and be witnessed in authentic ways.  

I prioritize self-care and self-connection. I eat to nourish my body, not to escape it. I’ve discovered that when I trust my body, it takes care of me in return. It’s very rare these days for me to feel any sense of guilt around eating, but when the feeling arises, I get curious. I take it as a cue that there’s something deeper going on for me emotionally that I need to pay attention to. I believe that at the end of the day, there is no right or wrong way to nourish yourself; there’s only the amount of awareness, responsibility, and love you choose to bring to the table. 

Looking Onward and Branching Outward

In my ongoing work as a writer and activist, I feel passionate about working to remove stigmas that exist around eating disorders, self-harm, and mental health issues. The goal should not be to eradicate these illnesses from their sufferers. I’m more interested in helping people integrate all parts of themselves – especially the parts deemed disordered or “dark.” Many people engage in self-deprecating or even masochistic behaviors to help them cope with an underlying challenge at some point in their lives. Are all these people sick? Or can we empower them instead and say they simply haven’t yet accessed the parts of themselves that hold the key to their healing? Perhaps at the root of suffering is the refusal to acknowledge or permit certain feelings – feelings that, if witnessed, have the power to liberate their sufferers. I look at disorders as doorways to understanding. In my experience, if you get curious enough about anyone’s “darkness,” beneath it, you will see their light. 

On a larger scale, the prevalence of eating disorders in our modern world is an epidemic that should be compassionately examined. Though commonly experienced in isolation, such disorders represent a collective yearning for connection, acceptance, and emotional nourishment. When so many people are suffering, what does that say about our world? What needs to change about society and the way we treat mental health? In what ways is our system broken and in need of reform? Simply organizing people into respective boxes based on an exhibited list of symptoms and treating them accordingly is not enough to heal them. We need to dig deeper. We need to ask, “Who are the human beings beneath these labels? And what are they really hungry for?” 

As a contributing teacher for IIN’s Mindful Eating Course, I feel blessed for the opportunity to connect with the courageous students who enroll in this course because they feel ready to confront their own eating issues or they want to gain expertise in this area to better serve their clients and communities.  

Tips and Advice

For anyone currently struggling with emotional eating or an eating disorder, here are a few pieces of advice that have nothing to do with food: 

Get curious  

Take the time to reflect deeply on who you are and what’s important to you, since many of us are launched into adulthood before we have the opportunity to do this. Underneath your eating disorder, what do you actually feel? What do you actually want? In what ways is your current life not aligned with your values and desires? It can be uncomfortable to show up to these questions, but being honest with yourself is the first step. 

Get connected 

If it’s within your means to work with a coach or therapist to support you along your journey of self-discovery, I highly recommend it. If working with a professional is not within your means, you can try journaling as a regular practice to reflect on your emotions and develop self-connection and self-awareness. Either way, I suggest linking up with a support group or some close friends who are willing to embark on this journey with you. Accountability and connection are an integral part of healing.  

Take charge  

This one can be especially difficult, but in order to lead empowered lives, we need to be willing to release the victim mentality and take personal responsibility for our lives. A quote I use often is “Where you place blame is where you place power.” As long as you blame someone or something for where you are, that person or thing will have power over the way you feel. So take that power back by recognizing that you can’t control other people but you can control who you are and how you show up in the world. You may feel hurt or angry about things that have happened in your life and how you’ve been treated. Feel those feelings – but understand that despite what’s happened and whether it was your fault, you still have agency in your life.

Get present  

Getting present with your body is a key piece in overcoming an eating disorder, since eating disorders are often characterized by feelings of dissociation and separating from the body. However, it’s important that you get present with your body on your own terms. It can be easy to get caught up in what we “should” be doing for self-care, according to social media influencers or those around us. But the truth is that a self-care practice is not going to nourish you if it feels frustrating or overwhelming. I’ll admit that to this day, I have a lot of trouble crossing my legs, closing my eyes, and sitting still for even 10 minutes of meditation. But I will happily do an hour of Bikram yoga, journal, or ride my bike a couple of times a week in nature. These activities feel immediately rejuvenating, grounding, and nourishing to me. I encourage you to respect your preferences and develop habits and practices that work for you. Also, don’t worry if you start small. A small habit done consistently will add up to more benefit over time than an overly ambitious goal you fail to meet.

Be authentic 

After many years of fearing saying no because I didn’t want to disappoint people or miss out on life experiences, I had an important realization: Each time I say no to something that doesn’t serve me, I’m saying yes to something that does. For example, saying no to attending a distant acquaintance’s baby shower could be saying yes to curling up with a good book on Sunday afternoon instead. It isn’t selfish to make decisions that nourish you, especially when you’re in need of some downtime. After all, energy is like a bank account – we can’t spend what we don’t have. Since I began being more intentional about the people and experiences I invest my time and energy in, I’ve developed a zest for life that wasn’t there when I was living on autopilot, moving from one obligation to the next. Being true to myself has enabled me to show up more authentically, love more, and give with more genuine generosity in the long run. I get that it can feel scary to put yourself first if you’re not used to doing it. But the more you do it, the easier it will become. After all, as Susan David, PhD, author of Emotional Agility, says, “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”

The Original Health Coaching Program

Learn more about IIN’s rigorous curriculum that integrates 90+ of the world’s leading experts in health and wellness, blending the scientific and the spiritual to create an immersive, holistic health education.

The Health Coach Training Program Guide

Get your free
Sample Class today

Get the Program Overview