On Wellness Coach Wednesday, we spoke with author, speaker, and coach, Tricia Nelson. She wrote the #1 bestseller, Heal Your Hunger: 7 Simple Steps to End Emotional Eating Now. Tricia also hosts the podcast “The Heal Your Hunger Show” and has been featured on NBC, CBS, KTLA, FOX, and Discovery Health.
Tricia has spent over 30 years researching the topic of emotional eating and had a lot to share on our broadcast. You’ll learn about how to tell the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, why “comfort foods” are so comforting, and a whole lot more.
Whether you’re a wellness coach who specializes in nutrition or health, or want to learn more about emotional eating for yourself, Tricia shared a wealth of knowledge on our call that we’re sure you’ll get a lot out of.
Tricia’s Love Story with Food
Tricia began her journey with emotional eating with a deep love for food.
“Well, I started way back when, researching emotional eating by doing it,” she said. “What I mean by that is that I was an emotional eater from the get-go. I just loved food. I love to eat it, I love to cook it, I love to serve it to other people. When I was a kid, I would play restaurant with my sisters, and it was just the highlight for me.”
Tricia began to gain weight as she was beginning to get closer to puberty. She would have all these rather violent fantasies for losing weight — cutting off her tummy roll, being in boot camp and exercise, or wasting away from some terrible disease.
So Tricia started looking for some answers to her weight problem. She started dieting and exercising. She started going to 12-step programs for overeating and therapy programs for eating disorders. She tried different medications.
Nothing she tried work.
By the time Tricia was 21, she had done so much research into her weight problem, she felt hopeless and desperate.
But soon, Tricia met a spiritual healer who told her to not look at her issues with food, but her underlying issues with food, which stemmed from previous sexual abuse and family dysfunction.
This was the breakthrough Tricia was looking for. She was finally able to understand why she was overeating and heal herself.
She then worked with her spiritual healer to help other people with their emotional eating issues. More recently, Tricia has taken her work online with Heal Your Hunger, where she shares a formula for ending emotional eating with people and other coaches.
Tricia strongly believes that most diets fail (over 90%) because most people who are overweight are truly emotional eaters.
Emotional Eaters Come in All Sizes
One common misconception is that emotional eating only affects people who are overweight. But even though who have healthy weights can be emotional eaters.
Tricia said that it can be especially bad if people who aren’t overweight seek help for their eating issues because professional may look at them and think that they don’t need help.
What’s really key here is how people think about food.
If you’re an emotional eater, it’s the obsession and compulsion with food that can overtake your life — thoughts about food, where to get food, how to eat it.
And if you’re overweight, then that adds another layer of worry — how do I work off what I just ate? How do I work off my weight?
Obsession with food is a symptom of emotional eating. An obsession with anything is a symptom and a coping mechanism of something deeper going on.
What Emotions Are Driving Your Eating? Take The PEP Test
Tricia shared that when anyone is dealing with an addiction, there are three primary emotions driving them. If someone is battling an obsession or addiction, he or she can run what is called the PEP test.
P stands for Painkiller Whether you’re dealing with an addiction to food, drugs, or some other kind of activity, the addiction is acting as a painkiller for emotional pain.
“Emotional eaters typically have trauma in their past. They’ve buried a lot of pain. They’ve had traumatic experiences — whether it be sexual, physical, or emotional.”
And emotional eating doesn’t have to begin because of early childhood trauma. It can be just dealing with a tough boss or job, dealing with depression or anxiety…because life is just hard sometimes.
E stands for Escape “Emotional eaters have a lot of fear and there’s a lot from life we may want to escape from, and food is a great way to do that,” Tricia said. We get our favorite binge foods and favorite TV programs and check out.
Another reason why emotional eaters want to escape is because they are carrying the burden of being the good girl or good boy.
Tricia gave an example of how many times, alcoholics and emotional eaters will end up becoming married. So while the alcoholic is out doing questionable things, the emotional eater is at home, picking up all the pieces.
So seeking solace in food from those heavy obligations of keeping a home and relationship together can be another reason for escape.
P is for punishment “Emotional eaters are deep feelers and we carry an inordinate amount of guilt,” Tricia said. There can also be feelings of fear or just feeling bad, so food can be a form of punishment.
This may surprise a lot of people because usually, we see food as a reward e.g., you binge on your favorite foods while watching your favorite shows because you had a long day and you feel like you deserve it.
But then the next day, you feel gross, your pants don’t fit…so you cancel your appointments with your friends because you don’t want to be seen. That is a form of punishment through emotional eating.
Are You an Emotional Eater or a Food Addict?
“The way I see it — we are all emotional eaters. God made us this way. Sex feels good, so does eating,” Tricia said.
But what matters is where you are on the spectrum. On the low end would be emotional eating. On the high end would be food addiction.
The consequences of food addiction would include losing relationships, work, the ability to pay their bills, and the ability to have proper hygiene.
But you don’t have to be a binger or to be overweight to be a food addict. To determine where you are on the spectrum, you can take a quiz on Tricia’s website here and receive a personalized score.
Eating During the Bad Times…and the Good Times
You may think that emotional eating involves sitting with a pint of ice cream and crying over a break-up. But you can also emotionally eat when you’re happy.
“People who are emotional eaters are in the habit of eating over any emotion,” Tricia said. And that’s because feelings in general, good or bad, are tough to feel.
Feelings feel uncomfortable and to contain within one’s body — especially if one has been medicating with food.
The Anatomy of an Emotional Eater
Emotional eating is beyond just eating too much or eating the wrong foods or eating for emotional reasons. Tricia explained that emotional eaters respond to life differently than the average person. This has to do with personality type, which Tricia calls “The Anatomy of the Emotional Eater.” The personality profile comes with 24 traits.
The top personality trait for emotional eaters is people pleasing. This could be due to growing up with low self-esteem or having some survived some sort of trauma.
“We’re looking for validation outside of us much more than inside of us,” Tricia explained. So this causes emotional eaters to do overcommit. “Emotional eaters are overdoers. We’re this can-do person that wants validating at all costs and the price is us.”
By overcommitting and overdoing, whether it’s signing up for too many projects, or over-helping with our kids’ homework, emotional eaters don’t take proper care of themselves.
“We’re skipping meals, which is a perfect set-up for a binge, we’re not taking care of ourselves, we’re eating on the run,” Tricia said. All of this starts to take a heavy toll.
“And at the end of the day, we’re exhausted, because we’ve put out so much, and we’re also typically resentful. We always have a smile on our face, we’re so nice, we’re always doing for others, and we never get the validation we’re looking for. We never get the credit that we expect.”
This leaves emotionally eaters not only exhausted but pissed off. So this sets up a perfect storm for an “I deserve binge.” Since they don’t feel like they’re being appreciated, then it feels right to have ice cream and cookies and watch some TV.
So because emotional eaters are deep feeling people, they have to find healthier ways to deal with these feelings of resentment, of being unappreciated, and of feeling exhausted.
How emotional eaters deal with food all stems from how they are handling or mishandling their feelings.
Wellness coaches, dietitians, and nutritionists could all be telling their clients how to eat properly and good techniques on self-care, but without the piece of how to properly deal with emotions, emotional eaters are not getting to the deeper sources of their issues.
Emotional Eating and a Lack of Motivation to Change
If someone is an emotional eater but lacks the motivation to change, Tricia suggests that it helps to look at this through the lens of food addiction and how it affects one’s psyche.
When someone is binging on sugar and carbs and whatever else, they are in an altered state. They’re in the grips of a compulsion which colors everything that they’re doing.
It can be challenging to talk to someone about their eating habits while they’re in that state, so Tricia advises to get them to start eating healthy so their minds can start to clear up from the food fog.
Another thing to remember: food addiction is not only psychological, but it’s physiological. Exercise will be a tough sell for emotional eaters because if they are in that fog or, what Tricia calls a “dark hole,” the last thing they’ll want to do is to exercise.
What’s really important to remember is that if you’re dealing with an emotional eater, they may say that they don’t have the motivation to change, but they do want to change. They just need to see a way out of the fog, out of the dark hole. And as a coach, this is your job to be the way-shower, to shine the light and guide them to a better way of life.
Some Practical Steps to Help Emotional Eaters
If you are a wellness coach or another kind of practitioner, here are some tips that Tricia gave that can help your client overcome their emotional eating habits.
- Create small goals and celebrate every win. Because emotional eaters desperately need validation, Tricia suggests creating any kind of gold-star system that celebrates win and shows progress.
- Remember that food is a symptom of something deeper. So focusing on healthier eating habits may not help your emotional eater. “At the end of the day, what these clients need is a lot of love. Emotional eaters are deeply wounded and are starving and craving for love,” Tricia said. When you come from a place of love in your work, it will deeply impact your clients.
Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger
I asked Tricia on how to tell the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger because they’re not eating food with proper nutrients.
Tricia said that you have to take a multi-pronged approach. Although emotions can be at the core of what an emotional eater is dealing with, emotional eaters still need to eat healthily. By eating better, they can start thinking more clearly and improving hormone levels that may have gone out of whack.
Some people will want to start on a diet, but Tricia warns that by working on diet alone, it will take an emotional eater so far. There has to be the emotional foundation in place for the deeper healing work to happen.
Tips on How to End Emotional Hunger Now
To start healing the wounds of emotional eating, Tricia said that it’s crucial to have a daily self-care ritual to start the day. She gave what she calls her “Six Self-Care Success Secrets” including meditation, prayer, walking, reading spiritual literature, and writing in a journal.
Because emotional eaters can be easily stressed, prayer and meditation can help an emotional eater get still and centered. By become centered, one can find validation from within and not seek it in other people.
Tricia meditates twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon right before dinner. The one in the afternoon can help with a busy day of running errands or picking children up from school — to reconnect with oneself. She finds that meditation can give people a source of strength outside of food.
A Free Training Offer from Tricia
If you have clients who are emotional eaters and want to learn more about emotional eating, Tricia wants to help you better serve them with this free training called “5 Things Your Weight Loss Clients Aren’t Telling You and Why It’s Costing You Clients”
Emotional eating has some deep roots, but with the not only the proper nutrition but also with the proper soul-level work, people can overcome this issue.
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