Want to Lose Weight? Don't Focus on Food, Focus on Your Emotions

Shocked that a Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach and Certified Holistic Nutritionist does not want you to focus on what you eat for weight loss? Many years ago, I would have been shocked too. I've struggled with my weight my entire life. I never once thought the constant dieting, binging, food restriction, self-sabotaging and negative thoughts about myself was the root cause of my weight struggles.


woman crying in front of computer
Emotions impact our weight

I only came to this realization as I was participating in an annual winter to spring cleanse. The 21 day cleanse not only made me feel lighter by purging the physical waste from my body, it also made me realize I could challenge myself. I could decide not do anything that doesn't make me entirely happy. It wasn't like a light-bulb went off during the cleanse and I suddenly lost weight. This transformation has been years in the making. I just didn't know it.


Why is it I do not respect myself and treat myself better? Why do I repeat the same patterns over and over again? What would it take for me to start to heal myself? These are questions I started to ask and had the courage to dig deep to find the very painful answers. It turned out my childhood experiences held a lot of the answers.


Trauma is experienced by everyone throughout their lives. The trauma may be something extremely devastating, such as sexual abuse. The trauma may be something more subtle, such as the constant stress of growing up with an alcoholic parent or not being given the protection and affection every child deserves from their mother. Regardless of the type of trauma, how we process (or don't process) our experiences impacts every area of our lives.


One very physical result of trauma is weight gain and any number of disordered eating issues. Society has taught us that if we eat the right foods or follow the right diet, we will lose weight. Our lives will be better. Any shame we have about our bodies will be gone.

woman hiding her body

This is can be true for a short period of time. Think about yourself or someone in your life who paid for a weight loss program and lost a lot of weight. Was it sustainable? In a few months or even a few years, did they gain it all back again? The programs we pay for can be effective for a short while but they don't focus on teaching the skills we need to maintain a healthy weight for life.


There is very compelling research regarding trauma and its effects on weight and eating. A study called Project-EAT from the University of Minnesota focused on: "Childhood maltreatment (sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, emotional neglect) and disordered eating attitudes and behaviors (overeating, binge eating, extreme weight control behaviors, unhealthy weight control behaviors, chronic dieting, weight and shape concerns)."


The goal was to discover whether mistreatment in childhood (as the study defined it) was related to individual disordered eating attitudes and behaviors. The findings showed that a history of any childhood mistreatment was associated with more than 60% greater risk for chronic dieting and overeating, with additional associations found for binge eating, weight and shape concerns, and unhealthy weight control behaviors.


According to a news summary of the research: "These findings implicate childhood maltreatment, particularly emotional neglect, as a meaningful risk factor for problematic eating outcomes in both men and women during adulthood."


WOW! The data is clear, when children do not get emotional support, their relationship with food becomes complex. My personal experience of not getting emotional support meant I used food to fill the emotional void in my life and constantly restricting foods as a way to control what was going on around me.


When I was growing up, we were taught to eat everything on our plate and that was good behavior. I took this to the extreme. I always ate what was on my plate but also ate any food was available whenever I wanted to. As an adult, I used food to sabotage any situation that was going well for me. Especially romantic relationships.

woman on scale

It wasn't unusual when I was in a serious relationship for me to pack on the pounds. When I met a romantic prospect, I was always at my ideal weight. After a couple of months of dating, I would gain 20 pounds and constantly ask if I was fat. What would men say to that? Of course not! I love you the way you are. But I didn't love myself when I was heavy. I would avoid mirrors, wear bagging clothes and avoid pictures.


What can we do to overcome the relationship between food and trauma? Below is what helped me.


1) GET TO THE ROOT CAUSE


This is easier said than done. The only reason I started down the path to healing my relationship with food was the death of my mother, my maternal grandmother and my father all within 45 days of each other. It took me years after they were gone to start working on myself. I was always the caregiver in my family. Now with most of my family gone, I was lost.


For example, I was a under-grad in NJ when my grandmother had a massive heart attack. She lived in Florida and the Doctor's gave her 6 months to live. I took a leave of absence from school to pack my grandmother's belongings and bring her to NJ. When she was in NJ, I went to her apartment (a 45 minute drive from my house) every Saturday. I would clean, help her pay bills, help her grocery shop. No one else in my family did it. I am thankful now I had that time with her. She lived 10 years after her heart attack - much to everyone's surprise.


2) LISTEN TO YOUR INTUITION


I do not recall a very specific moment that led me to start healing from the childhood trauma I experienced. Several years after I lost most of my family, I started studying Holistic Nutrition. I was a self proclaimed health geek for many years and decided to formalize my education. I successfully healed myself from health conditions such as high blood pressure and hypothyroidism through nutrition, supplementation and lifestyle changes.


Holistic Nutrition focuses on the entire person, not just the "part" that has become diseased. For example, if I went to a cardiologist for high blood pressure, they would give me a drug and send me along my way. They would not consider my lifestyle except for basic guidelines like lower salt intake, exercise and don't drink too much, to get to the root cause of the high blood pressure.


During my studies, it was the first time I started to assess my life experiences and relationships. I never really thought about how my life (past and present) was impacting my health. In one course, a quote from the teacher resonated so much with me, that I still think about it. The quote: "The most common health issue I see is issues with the lungs. For that is where we store grief."


The reason this quote is so powerful is for 2 years after my mom's death, I developed recurrent bronchitis! The change of seasons is when it appeared and that is what my GP figured was causing it. I had never had bronchitis before the death of my mother!


I intuitively knew that I needed to start working on the grief I had about my relationship with my mother. It was not grief about her death I needed to work on. It was the lack of support she gave me and the emotional trauma. Dealing with this inner grief was and is not easy. It still haunts me but I know by focusing on it, I am gaining more acceptance and resolution about the situation.


intuition quote on a card

3) EXPLORE WHAT WORKS FOR YOU


There are a variety of different ways to work through trauma. Journaling, therapy, mediation, yoga, EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization & Reprocessing), group therapy, support groups and any other way you are comfortable with processing your feelings. The best way to start is just to start.


In fact, you may find that you start with one method and then move on to another. There is no right way. You may even start, stop and then try a new method when something else happens in your life. This is what happened to me. When I was studying Holistic Nutrition, it was easy to focus on my relationship with my mother and process my grief for homework assignments. The wound was raw and the faculty was very supportive.


But then life got in the way. I would think about my relationship with her every once in a while. I'd cry for no reason which is a very normal response when you lose someone who is so pivotal in your life. It wasn't until I was diagnosed with Hypothyroidism that the old wounds from my mother surfaced.


Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid is not producing enough thyroid hormones. This affects your entire physiology from metabolism, cholesterol levels, blood pressure and kidneys. Since I had successfully healed myself in the past, I started researching how to heal from hypothyroidism. At the same time, I was becoming more interested in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda and Acupuncture.


In Traditional Chinese Medicine, any disease of the thyroid is the result of being unable to speak your truth. This resonated with me immediately since I never was able to speak my mind as a child. I was often told to be quiet. Also, growing up in a very volatile household, staying quiet meant I wouldn't get into trouble (which usually involved some type of hitting).


What worked for me in the past to overcome the grief in my lungs, would not work for my thyroid. I started seeing an acupuncturist, eating according to my constitution (an Ayurveda practice) and learning to speak my truth. This includes being introduced to EMDR, yoga sequences for the throat chakra, mudras during meditation and listening to binaural beats. Except for the acupuncture and buying specific foods that support my health, I was able to learn about the other activities for free on YouTube.


4) NEVER STOP LEARNING HOW TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF


Learning how to overcome hypothyroidism taught me that taking care of myself will be different at different times in my life. Lifestyle and habits must change. How I eat today, is very different than how I ate 10 years ago. How I will eat in the future, will probably be very different from how I eat today. I am OK with that.

woman taking notes on a note pad

My relationship with food is different. I no longer eat and eat and eat. I know when I am full. This is a major step forward for me. Eating was how I filled myself with love. Since I didn't have the love of a mother and father like I thought it should be, I ate away my sadness. I never spoke about it to either one of them because I was taught not to speak my truth. It has taken a lot of work to get to this point. And I am not done.


Figuring out why I have issues with food and eating meant trying different methods until I felt comfortable. I sought out experts when I needed them. I started, stopped and started certain methods again and again. I am not perfect.


I am continuing to discover the areas of my life where I need to heal. This means my family and my extended family doesn't always understand me and my reactions to situations. That is ok! Putting myself first for the first time in my life is my priority.


SUMMARY


Weight loss is never easy and straight forward. I wish it was as easy as telling you what foods to eat and avoid. Our medical system is broken since it focuses on the parts that need to be fixed. Instead, focusing on the unique situation of any individual will result in success. This doesn't mean there is a magic wand and suddenly you will lose weight. Your success depends on your participation in the process.


Personalized medicine is a very exciting field that will help define the best way to treat our bodies based on specific data from our lives. While I'm excited about having data that will empower us to be as healthy as we can be, it will fall short if the service providers we work with do not address our habits. We are programmed to use routines that make our lives easy. Those habits are learned when we are children and carried into adulthood.


Seeking change in our lives is uncomfortable. It takes work to put ourselves first. It takes work to stand up for our unique situation and not simply follow our peers, friends and family. It might take a major life event(s) to even consider changing the routine we so desperately love. Ultimately, being willing to no longer tolerate the habits that are hurting us is a very personal decision. There is never a right time or a wrong time. When the time is right, you will know.


About The Author

NBC-HWC, Certified Holistic Nutritionist, Heather's Health Habits
Health habits support our overall health

Heather L Donahue is a Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC) and Certified Holistic Nutritionist. A self-proclaimed wellness geek, Heather has personally overcome hypothyroidism, a lifetime of struggles with her weight, constipation and the transition to menopause holistically. She is passionate about helping others achieve their wellness goals so they can live a life they love. When she is not helping others, Heather loves to read, cook, garden, go to the beach, practice mediation and yoga.