The Real Roots of Food Addiction: Conquering Binge Eating Disorder


“When did you first begin to substitute food for love?”  I asked my client.  (Note:  Names and identifying information have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

“I don’t really know,” she answered, reaching for the Kleenex box.  “I remember in high school when I’d lost a lot of weight, and this really popular guy gave me the eye, if you know what I mean,”

My nod encouraged her to continue.  “What did you do right after he gave you the eye?”  I asked, knowing what she would probably say.

“I went right home and raided the fridge.” 

“You’re terrified of your own beauty?”  I asked, althought it was spoken softly and sounded more like a statement than a question. 

“I guess so.  His look made me realize at that second that if I didn’t put a layer of protection around myself – actually a layer of fat – then I would probably be abused again, or turn back into my old promiscuous self, which is even worse.  So yeah, I guess you could say I am terrified of my own beauty.” 

She grabbed her long, sleek brown hair and began to twist, which I recognized as a sign of anxiety. conversation caused her to  ponder difficult issues – issues that are much more about the heart and her story than calories and fat grams.

I encouraged her to continue therapy to get to the roots of the issues, which often display themselves through many secondary symptoms, including:

  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Drug, alcohol, sex, gambling, shopping and other addictions
  • Promiscuity or lack of sexual intimacy
  • Difficulties in friendships and other relationships

When did you first start to gain weight? is a MILLION dollar question!  I cannot stress this enough.  Something happened to the person at that time in her life.  It may have been the divorce of her parents, sexual abuse, or another extremely painful situation.  Until the pain is dealt with, people trying to lose weight will continue to dance around the symptoms.  They will often lose weight, but then – just as research shows – most of them will gain all of it back, plus MORE! 

This client has now lost over 80 pounds and has kept it off for several years.  I ran into her a while ago, and asked her how she lost the weight.  “It was mostly the counseling,” she said.  “You helped me to process through the hardest parts of my story, and then I turned to food less and less.”  She is now much more comfortable with her own beauty, and refuses to substitute food for love. 

Does this mean everyone who is significantly overweight has experienced abuse? Of course not. However, many who have struggled with weight issues have experienced major trauma in their lives.  Usually they will continue to struggle with the weight until they have the courage to face the roots of their issues – the pain in their hearts that grew from seeds of sadness in their stories. 

Being overweight is usually a symptom of underlying issues, and more than likely the weight loss won’t stick until these issues are addressed. To work on the weight alone is somewhat like chopping off the top of a weed in your garden.  The root will be hidden for a whole, but sooner or later the weed will reappear.

Make 2010 the year that you work on your own life story with a licensed mental health counselor who addresses the causes of issues and not only symptoms.  Then you will fight the body image bandit and win because you will no longer substitute food for love.  You will become the person you were meant to be…

© Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC and Fannies:  Reflections on Cookie Dough, Life, and Your Derriere and Fannies:  Reclaiming the Plunder of the Body Image Bandit, 2007 – 2047. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC and  Tooshie:  Reflections on Cookie Dough, Life, and Your Derriere with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

17 Comments Add yours

  1. Crazy Mermaid says:

    Great article as usual, CHM. Makes me think about my own trauma growing up.


    1. Thanks. Also, thanks for the long email about the subject.


  2. lilith38 says:

    You left a great comment on my blog and you asked me to give you feedback on yours so here it is. I love the information and articles you have on here. It is also a very warm and welcoming site.


    1. Thanks, Serena. Keep coming back!


  3. Trish says:

    Hi Cherrie,
    Another great post! I thought about the question you had asked your client. Luckily, I have lived a very privileged and comfortable life and have not come across any traumatic events… though I did discover that while I have been on the bigger side my whole life, my biggest increase in weight gain came after a very painful breakup with my high school boyfriend. I know it might seem silly, but relative to the rest of my life it is the most painful thing I’ve had to go through. The end of the relationship was the realization of all of the fears I’d had about being in a relationship to begin with (we dated almost 6 years, and I was cheated on). Immediately after the breakup, I lost a significant amount of weight because I was so emotionally distraught I stopped eating altogether. I realize that as I started to heal from the heartbreak, I was replacing the love that I lost with food. Thank you for this post and helping me understand at least some of my underlying issues with food!! Looking forward to the next post!



    1. Trish,
      Thank you for your honesty. It is heartbreaking to go through a breakup, particularly when cheating is involved.

      Often people come in to counseling and say that they have had a good childhood. It sounds like you had a similar experience. That is a gift, for sure. At the same time, when we start to look closer we begin to realize that it was not as rosy as they had always thought. Working with hundreds of people in this category, we have always found something they did not realize at the time weighted their hearts (and bodies) heavier than they had realized. Since we all have dignity and depravity, and there are no perfect people or parents, it often helps to look at the situation closer. Only in one case did I find that was not true. But remember, it is not about blaming your parents. It is about finding out all the pieces of the puzzle. “The truth will set you free.” This is the case about 99% of the time. But who knows? Maybe you are in that 1%. Either way, I encourage you to continue your journey in dealing with the underlying issues of food addiction. Take care, Cherrie


  4. Scary Mommy says:

    Great to see a blog dedicated to this important topic. Keep up the good work!!


  5. 299lbs says:

    Great blog!

    I’m sitting here thinking “Well, that’s great, but what about us Lifers?”. What about those of us who’ve always been the Fat Kid? Is it the gene pool?



  6. Stepmomma says:

    You asked for my input. Here it is:
    Like your blog says, I was a victim of childhood sexual abuse. I was an obese teenager, and grew into a fat adult. I’ve been through years of counseling, and I’m still fat. At some point, you have to stop blaming the abuse(r) and move on with your life. With determination and a good support system (family and WW), I will succeed.

    Happy New Year and good luck with your book…



    1. Sharon,
      It sounds like you’ve done a lot of hard work. That is wonderufull, and I’m sure it was not easy. There are now over 400 styles of counseling, and you are absolutely right. We have to learn how to get past the abuse and move on with our lives so that we can stop dealing with current life issues by self-medicating with our drug of choice: food.

      Congrats to you and may 2010 be a year of beauty for you. Take care, Cherrie


  7. losetolive says:

    I have had weight problems since I was in 4th grade. I was 9 years old. I wasn’t sexually abused or physically abused. However, I have always, as long as I remember never felt I was “enough”. Not smart enough , not pretty enough, not athletic enough… My story is different. It’s about my self-image from a very young age. It’s also the same because the problem generated from within my heart and my head. It’s a huge struggle to battle that AND the addiction to food… but I’m working on it. 🙂

    I really like your site! I’ll be back for sure!


    1. I’m so glad you have the courage to face the underlying issues. That is very refreshing, and congratulations for choosing to work on the heart issues – i.e. not feeling that you are “enough.” I wish you a year where you will tap into your natural gifts and talents and know that you are a masterpiece – unique and special. Take care, Cherrie


  8. majigail says:

    Hi Cherrie,
    This was a really interesting post and something I’ve been exploring in myself for a while really to no avail. I had a great childhood, no history of abuse and really have had few bad things happen to me. My hope is that through some hard work and increased self confidence, I’ll find the issues that ultimately caused my weight gain.


  9. Hi Cherrie —

    Thanks for directing me to your blog. What a great article! In my 20’s I would have said that “emotional causes of eating” was a farce and a cop out. But, now that I’m in my 40’s, I know it is so true. Through my 20’s and 30’s I was fit and athletic. By my late 30’s, issues with infertility led me to weight gain due to the side effect of a medication I was taking. That was followed by 2 twin pregnancies which left me 50 pounds heavier.

    I have not been down to my pre-pregnancy weight since (9 years ago). Every effort I made to lose the weight was squashed late in the day when I was exhausted and frazzled by the effort of raising two sets of twins.

    I applaud you for bringing the issue of emotional eating out into the open. And I thank you for your support in my “40 Day Fitness Challenge” over at radio station Spirit 105.3:


    P.S. I hope you get a chance to visit my own blog on how to raise twins over at Blessings to you!


  10. justquirky says:

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I think your insights are very wise about food addiction. Luckily I think I can still just call myself a foodie v. having a true food addiction, but I’m sure there is some fine line between those two that would be easy to cross. Your comments on my blog are right – I am a very healthy weight and only just trying to tone up a little for my wedding. I like to make fun of myself a a little so the post on the mom jeans was a little bit true (I have put on a few pounds in places I’d rather not, but then again I’m 32…it happens) but it was mostly just in fun. Making fun of getting a little older and the weight shifts we experience. Overall, I’m just a girl who loves to cook and maintains a healthy lifestyle (running 4 days a week etc…)

    Thanks for the visit and the comment! 🙂


  11. Leticia Maguire says:

    Hi Cherrie,
    Very interesting blog, and great to see you addressing some of the big issues that many people avoid talking about. I did not struggle with my weight until after I had my 2 kids – and even then I wouldn’t say I was overweight – but I can see now that I was definitely measuring myself against some imaginary picture in my mind of what an attractive woman should look like.

    Some friends and I started a Boot Camp a few months ago, and we love it so much we are now inviting all the women we know – the group has more than doubled in size already. I didn’t expect something like this to be so empowering for us. Interestingly, quite a few of the women involved have expressed how self conscious they are about exercising with other people – and the group has unwittingly opened up discussions regarding mental health. It seems to be a great kick-start for women to start feeling better about themselves and then hopefully start on a journey to becoming more aware of why they became overweight to start with.

    This article made me even more aware of how important it is to get to the root of the problem – and I will absolutely be encouraging anyone in our group who is struggling to get counselling. I’ll be following your blog with interest. Thank you!


  12. Mish says:

    This is at the core of the reason why I started binge eating. I lost 100lbs and was happy. Then I started dating someone who, at the beginning of our relationship said ‘I have a problem with your weight’ (this was 100lbs down at this point). I threw THREW myself into WW and lost the last 20lbs and I was miserable. I would go into the bathroom and cry because I didn’t feel good about myself. I would hate have sex because I could see my fat bouncing around.

    I remember one time he actually said to me ‘you’re getting skinny’ and then I felt validated…I felt empty.

    We ended up breaking up and I ended up binging. It was out of lonliness, emotional emptiness, rebellion and control.

    I gained 30lbs. My self-worth hit the skids. It’s taken counselling and everything else to bring myself back to where I want to be mentally. I still struggle with overeating and honestly I hate the fact that I allowed myself to stay in a relationship which took away my self-confidence and my love for who I was.

    Weight is a layer of a desperation to love ourselves. That’s what I’ve learned.


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