June 29, 2021

When Food Is Your Drug: A Discussion About Emotional Eating & ED Recovery With Kristin Jones

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Kim Shea, your co-host for Alternative Health Tools, spoke with Kristin Jones. Kristin is a life coach and emotional eating specialist. Her goal is to end your overeating by managing your hunger and your desire for food. She has written a book called When Food is Your Drug, and she also has a podcast called The Breakthrough Emotional Eating Podcast. You can find her at KristinJonesCoaching.com.

Today, Kristin tells us about her past struggle with emotional eating. We also discuss eating disorder triggers, factors that inform your relationship with food, and the importance of owning your journey so you can find healing. 

When Food Is Your Drug

Kim: Why don't you tell me about your background? You sound like you have an interesting backstory that brought you to this point.

Kristin: Absolutely. I probably started my struggle with food when I was around seven or eight years old. I didn't really know what it was. I was the youngest child and got in trouble all the time, so I'd be sent to my room and nobody would come and check on me. I started to realize that I might as well make myself comfortable, so I would start storing food in my room. Food became quite the comfort for me.

By the age of 16, I had a full-blown eating disorder. I was never really anorexic nor bulimic. I did some things more on the bulimic side, but I had a very dysfunctional relationship with food. It was a friend, but it was also something I feared tremendously.

I grew up in a family that was very conscious about weight and appearances, so from a very early age that was important. It wasn't until I was in my mid-thirties that I was able to own that there was something wrong and that I had an eating disorder.

I came to the conclusion that I struggled with emotional eating when I was at a business conference. The facilitator led us through this group meditation about finding your purpose in your business. I had been a school teacher for 17 years, but wanted to have my own business. Health and fitness is something I've always been interested in, so I had become a personal trainer and was trying to figure out the direction I wanted my business to go.

When I was doing this meditation, the words “emotional eating” just literally dropped out of the sky. I opened my eyes from this meditation and I was like, “Oh, my gosh. That's not only what's going on with me, but that's the direction I need to take my business in.”

I had hidden from that for quite a while. I really hadn’t owned up to it. It was at that point that I decided to write my book and completely shift my business away from traditional calorie counting, dieting, and doing all these high-intensity exercises. Instead, I chose to focus on the emotional side of weight loss. Subsequently, I got certified as a life coach with a specialization in weight loss.

That’s where I find myself now. I have a business where I specifically coach women who have had issues with food. It doesn't matter if they've had issues for the last five years or if they've had them since they were very young. I help them address the emotional side of weight loss by dealing with not only your thoughts and how your brain works, but by connecting that with how we feel about ourselves.

I'm a firm believer that if we don't make that connection, there's something that's not working in our lives. We need to address ourselves first and figure out what's going on with us, then take all the steps we need to dive into the issue. If we don't address our mental stuff first, the physical and the other life things don't get resolved either. We're just wasting our time.

Kim: That's really interesting. Did you ever discuss that you were hiding food or that you were different from other members of your family?

Kristin: Oh, no. There was a lot of shame and we didn't talk about those things. That's part of the problem too. Most emotional eaters have grown up believing that expressing emotions and talking about how you feel is not the right thing to be doing. I think most people stuff their feelings and don't express themselves. We don't feel we can do it, or that we have permission to do it.

Emotions are energy within us. They’re nothing but a vibration in your body. When you have all of these emotions bottled up inside of you, they are almost like an entity and they need to be fed. Oftentimes, what we do is keep them padded down with food.

Emotional Eating Triggers

Kim: What are some of the reasons that somebody would struggle with emotional eating? You said you did it for comfort. Are there ever any physical causes, like a thyroid issue or something like that? Or is it all trauma-based?

Kristin: Oftentimes, there are physiological things that go along with somebody who has an issue with overeating. Insulin resistance is the first one that comes to mind. That happens when your body is not able to tap into cues and signals that tell you that you’re hungry or that you're full. People in those situations constantly feel like they need to eat food.

Overeating is very different than emotional eating. Emotional eating usually comes from a person's inability to address emotions. It happens when something within them is not feeling right.

Emotions oftentimes scare people. But, as I said, an emotion is merely a vibration in your body. It's not going to kill anybody, but it's very uncomfortable. A person who drinks, a person who uses drugs, or a person who gambles want to do something to distract themselves from what’s uncomfortable. Some people go online and some people play video games. Food is just one of those things that we use to divert our attention.

Anything is fine until it's done to excess. When it’s done to a point where we are avoiding other issues in our lives, it becomes destructive.

Kim: Do people develop this disorder? What triggers it?

Kristin: I've had clients who have had the death of a child or some sort of traumatic event that has put them in a place where they are so overcome by emotion. Most of us know how to react, or how to ignore, or how to deflect, but we don't actually know how to sit with an emotion and process it. I teach my clients how to do that.

I think in most of the cases that I've been dealing with, it's been something significant that causes them to be unable to deal with their eating. It’s a divorce, a breakdown, the death of a spouse, or the death of a child.

How To Know If You’re An Emotional Eater

Kim: How would somebody know that they're an emotional eater? I'm guessing it's hard to have the objectively say, “I'm eating because I have an emotional problem.” What do we look for? What do we look for in our own children or our friends?

Kristin: Most kids at some point have been given food as a way of keeping them happy, keeping them quiet, or keeping them distracted. That is an easy way to keep them quiet and occupied. In the moment, it doesn't seem like it's something that could do harm. But when you're given food, you start to develop a connection of, “I'm not really hungry, but I'm going to eat anyway, because this is put in front of me.” We start to lose our natural innate ability to recognize when you are truly physically hungry and when you are full.

At the same time, if food was not plentiful during childhood, or if people grew up in an environment where either food has been restricted, or where a parent was very controlling over food because they don’t want their child to be overweight, it sets something off. In most human beings, when we're denied something, we want it so much more. 

A lot of my clients come in and do not recognize when they're hungry. They eat constantly, because there's a lot of fear associated with being hungry. I try to teach people how to recognize when they’re truly hungry. When are you satisfied and when is it time to stop?

Most people eat past the point of being satisfied and become too full. That becomes an acquired habit that people just do because they are very comfortable with that feeling.

Children & Emotional Eating

Kim: What are some tips that parents should know when they're raising their kids? What can we do to be supportive and recognize the signs?

Kristin: I don't have children of my own, but I have a lot of nieces and nephews and great-nieces and nephews. One of the things that I find is very common is this feeling of having to get your child to eat something or you’re a terrible parent.

When children are hungry, they’ll let somebody know. When kids say they're not hungry, trust them on that and be okay with it. Listen to what your child is saying. If they don't feel like eating for two or three days, then you need to consider what else is going on.

Another really important thing is that adults need to be aware of how much we talk about food and the way we talk about it. We don't think kids are listening, but they're listening to every single thing we say. As careful as people are about not using profanity around children, we should really also watch the food talk, the diet talk, or the critical talk that we often have about others. Children are going to take whatever they hear around them as their own.

The Path To Healing: Owning Your Journey

Kristin: As parents, we have the responsibility to teach our kids to have a healthy relationship with food, but as adults, we have to take responsibility for our perspective, as well. One of the things I write about in my book is that it's never about pointing fingers at anybody. It's never about saying, “Well, this person did this to me.” It's always important to know where it originated and recognize the reality. As an adult, you get to make better choices. You get to make different choices. There's a lot of relief when you realize that.

That was the way it was for me. I thought there was something wrong with me. When I realized this was just how I was raised, I got to choose a different way of doing things as an adult. I don't have to stay as I was when I was an eight-year-old.

Kim: How long did it take you once you had this epiphany that this was your problem? How long did it take you to get to a place where you felt comfortable?

Kristin: For me, I was figuring this out all on my own. I had three bouts of therapy with traditional therapists who were fabulous, but they did not specialize in working with emotional eaters or eating disorders. They hadn't walked that walk before, so they could only take me to a certain point.

I ended up getting some help from a life coach for some issues I had with money. She took me through some visualizations and related it back to my childhood. As we were doing them and I started to have some breakthroughs with these issues, I realized I could do the same thing with my eating and with food.  

A lot of the work that I do is based upon Brené Brown’s work. It’s about looking back and taking steps to change the limiting belief that we have about ourselves. It’s about rewriting the story and making it into something that is empowering and uplifting, so we can move forward instead of staying stuck, which is sadly where most people are.

It took me a long time. I wish I had the courage to face things earlier, but I don't regret it. I always believe that things unfold the way they're supposed to unfold. My goal is to empower others, so they don't have to go through what I went through, because I wouldn't wish that upon anybody. It's really important for me that I share what I can with others, so they hopefully won’t have a 30-year journey before they get to the point of being ready to face things.

Kim: That's really wonderful. This personal, but how is your family with all of this? Do you have a lot of support?

Kristin: I do. When I started writing my book, I had to tell my mom I was going to write a book about emotional eating and I said, “I'm not quite sure how you and dad are gonna feel about this.”

She said something that was so, so profound. I wrote it in my book. She said, “Your father and I did the best we could. We were only doing what we could do.” I think that's true with every parent.

It was when I let go of my feelings of “Why did this happen to me? Why was this done?” that I came to the point where I knew everybody in this situation was doing the best that they could. Now, it's my responsibility to take care of my life and to decide what I want to get out of this. I can choose to look for the positives and make something else out of it.

Kim: That’s great. What is the path to healing for someone who has recently developed this disorder from a traumatic event? Is it the same as someone who's been dealing with this their whole life?

Kristin: It's the same path. It's realizing the event—whatever it was—was a fact and it happened. We have to look at the beliefs that you now have based upon that event. How can we reshape and re-tweak that event?

Oftentimes, we're giving that story too much airtime. We need to create a new story that gets more of our attention. We have negative thought patterns and our brain automatically defaults to that negative thought pattern because it thinks it's protecting us. But, in reality, it's setting us up for an awful lot of trials and tribulations.

We have the ability to re-groove those areas of our brain that have those repetitive thoughts. Most people just don't know that's within their power.

Kim: What is the process when somebody finds you? Does everybody know they have a problem with emotional eating or is that something they uncover? How does this work?

Kristin: By the time they're ready to see me, I would say most people know when they hear the term “emotional eating” that that's their problem. They know they have a dysfunctional relationship with food. Usually, people are overweight. That is not always the case.

I was an emotional eater who did not look like it from the outside. By standard measures, I was not overweight, but in my mind, I absolutely was. I had body dysmorphia, but I had a lot of coping skills to cover it up and keep people at a distance. Nobody knew what was going on. In most people, it becomes evident because they do gain weight.

Kim: Does this interfere with relationships?

Kristin: Oh, 100%. You can't let anybody see what's going on, so most people eat in secret and hoard foods. They don’t eat in front of other people. It’s like being an alcoholic. It's like being a drug addict. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors, a lot of wanting help, but you do not want to let people see what's really going on.

Kim: Do you find this is more of a problem with women than men? Is that why you primarily help them?

Kristin: I primarily help women because I really thought it was more of a female problem, but I actually have had men reach out to me and I have had men as clients.

I think it's a different case with men because, with women, there's more of an acceptance that women are gonna have issues with their weight and with food. I think there's a lot of shame for men, because they’re supposed to be these tough guys. For most men, it is really challenging to be able to let down their guard and be able to talk about it. The clients that I've had have been very forthcoming. They knew what their issue was and they were ready to address it.

Regardless, the food is usually the symptom. There is almost always something much deeper going on inside. Oftentimes, it's people-pleasing, or issues with low self-worth, or issues with how they feel about themselves, or their validity within the world.

Success Stories

Kim: Do you have any people that you've coached that are your favorite success stories?

Kristin: I have quite a few. I actually have a client who’s 74 and she was at the point where she knew she wanted to lose weight. She didn't know that it was emotional eating until we started working together. She became a member of my free Facebook group called Breakthrough Emotional Eating.

She did a three-day challenge and she came to the conclusion that she struggled with emotional eating. She resonated with everything I was talking about, so she joined my eight-week boot camp. She just followed the program and is 23 pounds down. She said, “At 74 years old, I had pretty much given up. I didn't think that this was going to be something that I was ever going to be able to get control of. I see myself living this way for the rest of my life, because there's nothing I can't eat. I now know how to eat and I know why I'm eating.”

I have a boot camp and I use the term “boot camp,” but there’s no exercise involved. It's just basic stuff. As a coach, I help people lose weight, but I don't tell people what to eat. There’s no meal plan. I teach people how to listen to their bodies and learn the cues of hunger.

My program is super basic: three meals a day. There's no snacking in between and you eat what you love to eat. For an emotional eater—and I think for most people, in general—the reason why diets don't work is because they are only sustainable for an artificial period of time. We eat cauliflower and broccoli and dried chicken breasts for a month and then we get to this nirvana that we think is the ideal. Then, we go right back to the way we were eating, because who wants to eat that way for the rest of your life? Nobody.

I really emphasize loving yourself, because dieting ends up being punitive. I try to teach people that you can eat what you love and take care of yourself in that way, but you can also take care of yourself by recognizing that your body doesn't need all that extra food. Most of my clients realized they wanted the food, but they didn't need it. It’s about recognizing the difference between a want and a need. We say it's a need, but it's not a physical need. It's an emotional need. When somebody has a weight issue, it's really not about weight. It's never really about food. There's an underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

Kim: Have you ever had a case where you just couldn't get to the bottom, someone was so closed, they couldn't reveal anything?

Kristin: I definitely had a client like that. We parted ways very amicably because she just wasn’t ready. I totally respected that. The door is always open, so when she's ready and wants to come back, then I'm absolutely there for her.

Some clients are scared of what they're going to find when they start to open up. That just tells me that the pain that they're living in right now is not bad enough for them to take that step of really uncovering things. I have a number of people in my group, as well as a number of family members, who are in recovery.

When somebody stops drinking, it’s not like life gets better. Life does not get better. Life gets exponentially worse when you stop drinking, because you've taken away that “buffer.” When you take that away, then all of a sudden, you have to deal with everything. The same is true for emotional eating. When you address the underlying causes of emotional eating, it gets worse before it gets better, but then it gets exponentially better. You just have to work through that fearful place.

People-Pleasing & ED Recovery

Kim: Sometimes, there'll be a case where maybe the wife loses a lot of weight and the husband's frustrated afterwards. Or maybe friends are frustrated because they ate a lot of ice cream sundaes together, so that special time is “ruined.” I imagine some people would go through some loss or changes in relationships with this?

Kristin: Yes. That’s another thing that I address and that's part of the life coaching portion of it. We all have to recognize that our feelings, our thoughts, and whatever we have going on with us is our stuff to deal with. What anybody else is dealing with is their thing. We have to stay in our own lane and recognize that as you change your behaviors and you choose not to do things anymore, someone else's feelings about your change are none of your business. Those are their feelings and they can keep them.

Most of the time, when those circumstances are happening, people fall into people-pleasing. To be honest, most emotional eaters are people-pleasers. We address that, as well as how to set boundaries. We talk about how to feel confident, and how to believe in yourself enough to be okay with someone not being happy with you. When we have a one-on-one call or we have a group coaching call, we don't talk about food. We talk about everything other than food. We talk about how you’re feeling, your emotions, and your ability to cope. Did you take time for yourself? Are you doing self-care? All of those things come together and really infiltrate every area of your life.

Addressing weight is really not about addressing weight. It's really about addressing all aspects of your life.

Interview Links

Check out Kristin Jones’ website.

Get Kristin’s book, When Food Is Your Drug.

Send Kristin a message.


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