Can you be addicted to food?
Is it possible to find recovery from the self sabotage around food?
What should therapists know about food addiction?
Food addiction is a real thing, even if the DSM doesn’t say it yet. Food addiction is not an addiction to eating, it’s an addictive reaction to types of food and ways of eating. Many people engage in self-sabotage behaviors and use food to do it. Kelly Coffey has spent her career helping women all over the world overcome their issues with chronic self-sabotage.
Today’s podcast is part 1, our interview with Kelly Coffey. Part 2 is where we will examine the current science on the topic of food addiction.
In this Podcast:
- Interview with Kelly Coffey, the person behind Strong Coffey Wellness for Women and the acclaimed Pleasure Principles course
- Coffey explains how she got to the place she is today as a trainer and coach for women all over the world
- Why diets don’t work for most people
- The three types of eaters (blessed, stressed and obsessed)
- How to connect with Coffey to learn more
https://www.strongcoffey.com/ Strong Coffey Wellness for Women
https://www.strongcoffey.com/pleasure-principles/ Pleasure Principles Course
https://www.facebook.com/strongcoffey Facebook page
Free Treatment Planning Tool www.betsybyler.com/treatmenttool
You’re listening to the All Things Substance podcast, the place for therapists to hear about substance abuse from a mental health perspective. I’m your host, Betsy Byler, and I’m a licensed therapist, clinical supervisor, and a substance abuse counselor. It is my mission to help my fellow therapists gain the skills and confidence needed to add substance use to their scope of practice. So join me each week as we talk about All Things Substance.
Betsy: [00:00:00] Welcome back. This is the third part in a series where we’re covering things that aren’t necessarily substance abuse. But may still qualify as addictions this morning, we’re going to be talking to Kelly Coffey. Coffey spelled C O F F E Y. Is a fucking bad-ass. She’s the owner of Strong Coffey, Personal Training in New England and author of the blog strong coffee.com in 1997.
At over 300 pounds. Coffey was a study in how to not treat a human body. She was a serial dieter, but always ended up gaining back more weight than she lost. Depressed, uncomfortable and desperate Coffey had weight loss surgery, but like so many who go the surgical route, gained most of her weight back again, having hit bottom.
She finally saw what the problem was, not her body or her weight, but her seemingly obsessive drive to sabotage every health and care based commitment she made to herself in her body. Coffey’s since developed a practical, real world solution to self-sabotage and the loss regain cycle and has maintained a healthy, comfortable weight for well over 15 years. Coffey coaches women all over the world and how to do the same in her acclaimed course, the Pleasure Principles.
Kelly, thank you so much for being here.
Kelly: [00:01:34] It is my pleasure. Thanks Betsy.
Betsy: [00:01:36] I’d like to start by having you tell us what you do and how you got there.
Kelly: [00:01:43] I, support women who struggle from seemingly chronic self-sabotage, especially when it comes to food. And my journey to this place has been long and fascinating.
I like to say that back in the day before I started my own. The practice that I teach others today, I was sort of a study in how not to treat a human body. I was given food as a means to quote unquote cope with every various and sundry experience a kid might have when I was little and I grabbed onto it.
And I, and I ran with it. I developed a very unhealthy, a sort of a dependency to bingeing and compulsively overeating, you know, long before I ever hit puberty. And it only got worse. And, you know, I was given food as my solution to sadness, grief, boredom, you know, something to add to joy. I was given it as a reward.
I learned to associate overeating with just about every event in life. And I was also at the same time sort of convinced by, especially the women in my life, but certainly, you know, the men as well. Sort of the most important thing was to be thin, which are two very, very difficult concepts to hold at the same time.
But because of that, I was put on my first diet at the age of five Weight Watchers. And I learned to associate my worth as a person and a woman, or at that time as a little girl with the number that was on the scale. And I started that cycle that we all know so well of losing weight and then gaining it back and then some at a very early age.
And I just sort of stayed stuck in that cycle for years. And I was over 300 pounds by the time I was 17. And by then I learned to use and abuse other substances and behaviors in an effort to quote unquote cope with all of the events of life. And eventually I hit a bottom that terrified me and humbled me.
And it was that bottom that helped me to break out of that cycle. It was a sort of a transformative moment. And that was the moment that I started to actually prioritize taking care of myself, over trying to fit in some ideal image of what a woman should be and look like and way. And since that moment I’ve healed my relationship to food and figured out what the key components of doing that are.
And have the incredible privilege to be able to teach that to women all over the world. So by trade, I am a personal trainer, but the sort of heart of what I do is helping women heal their relationship to food. So they can break out of the self-sabotage cycle and hit and hold a weight that feels comfortable for them for life.
Betsy: [00:05:12] What you’re saying about healing, your relationship to food, what do you mean?
Kelly: [00:05:17] I mean breaking out of the compulsive relationship that so many of us have to certain specific foods and ways of eating for many of us it’s sugar. For many of us it’s, you know, hyper palatable foods, anything that’s, you know, salt, sweet and fat combined in that brilliant, scientifically driven way that keeps us hooked.
It means stopping, harming ourselves with the foods that we eat or the ways that we eat so that we can feel better. And dare I say great in the first minute of every day. And when you wake up feeling good, like that’s a self perpetuating cycle, you know, it’s inertia and it makes it easier to continue to eat with care, eat in ways that nourish your body.
Eat in ways that make you feel strong and clean and energized and powerful and not, you know, weighed down and laggy and sad and anxious. And it’s a process, but one that I have confidence in because not only did it work for me and I felt like sort of a lost cause, but I’ve watched it work for thousands of women around the world.
Betsy: [00:06:34] I think there are a lot of people participating in diet culture who are trying to eat better and they just don’t see that happening. I’m wondering what you feel like the issue is. I mean, the diet industry is billions of dollars big and it’s the same people over and over trying different things all the time to try to find the place where they feel really good when they wake up in the morning and they feel strong in their body.
So what do you feel like the issue is. Why these people aren’t able to find that kind of peace.
Kelly: [00:07:07] The issue for many of us is that we’re believing the marketing of certain diets and diet apps now are super popular and imagining that some prescribed diet plan that’s handed to us. By these different, you know, weight loss professionals, I’m making big air quotes right now, or these diet apps is appropriate for us.
And the truth is they don’t know what we need. No one outside of you knows how your body reacts, how your brain reacts, how you feel physically and emotionally when you eat certain foods or in certain ways. Like all the relevant data about what you need to do, how you need to eat, how you need to nourish your body is inside of you and continuing to look for some prescription.
First of all, it can’t work because it’s not tailor made to you. And it, it keeps you in that cycle of loss and regain, which is soul sucking. And every single time you lose weight and then gain it back because the diet program that you signed up for, or the app that you were using was inappropriate for you.
The less confident you feel about your ability to meet your goals, to hit and hold a weight that you feel comfortable with. And that leads to increased anxiety and increased depression. A sense of isolation makes you feel like you’re broken in some way. And it’s, it’s heartbreaking. So basically what I do is I empower or the tools that I offer, empower women to trust the data about themselves, that they’ve been collecting for a lifetime and essentially design their own framework that is totally and completely appropriate for them based on their preferences, their past experiences, how their bodies and brains react to certain foods and ways of eating and to follow through on what they know based on their own experience is the best possible plan for them.
So I do not prescribe a diet. I think that those of us who suffer from chronically or seemingly chronic, self-sabotage also have a rebellious streak in us. And if someone tells you what to do fuck you, I am not going to do it. Even if I successfully do that for three days or three weeks or three months, eventually I’m going to be like, I’m not doing that anymore.
Right? It’s about trusting yourself. Believing what’s true for you and then making the best decisions that you can make based on that. And that’s incredibly empowering. And once you’re making decisions from that place, once you’re eating in the ways that are right for you, like the pleasure, that results from that, the sense of freedom and energy and wholeness and sanity, that results from that.
It helps to perpetuate the, for lack of a better word, sort of self fulfillment cycle. Like you feel great and you want to continue to feel great. And so you keep going and that’s the beauty of it is you feel inspired to continue on instead of sort of compelled to rebel and undo any progress that you made. And then some.
Betsy: [00:10:49] So as therapists, a lot of times our clients will come in and weight and body image are the thing they’re coming in to talk about. They have deep regret, deep shame, dissatisfaction, feel demoralized. We don’t really get a lot of information about that kind of work in our training except to talk about the sort of cognitive based beliefs that they have underneath all of that.
Typically people don’t just want to change their beliefs. They actually want to feel better in their body. And oftentimes they’re going through the same cycle over and over. And it really does seem like their worth is getting measured on the scale I wanted to have you on, because I know that you and I have similar opinions about food addiction.
And I wanted to hear you be able to explain it from your perspective. I know you’ve worked with thousands of women over the years, and I’m certain that you have a perspective that is unique to a lot of us out there. I know that the concept of food addiction is still pretty controversial, which is a little odd to me, but it is the truth.
And I wonder if you can talk about your opinion about how people eat and food addiction.
Kelly: [00:11:58] Food addiction is a very real thing and I don’t really care that it’s still controversial. I feel like the science is moving in the right direction. I feel like people’s awareness and ability to accept reality is moving in the right direction in, in some facets of life.
Anyway, food addiction is a very real thing. And I can say that with complete confidence, because I have also been addicted to other substances that are recognized as legitimate addictions. And I see the exact same patterns and ways of behavior. And habits and you know, all the same addictive phenomena that exists, you know, in the alcoholic, in the drug addict, in the gambling addict, every different kind of addiction has at its root, these same patterns of behavior.
And those patterns include, you know, lying, hiding, hoarding. Feeling craving in what feels like every single cell of your body, the moment when you think to yourself? Well, maybe today I won’t and the incredible, you know, whole body, whole mind panic, that’s immediately triggered by that idea that you might not have the thing that you most desperately crave.
I recognize that food addiction and I feel it’s important to say food addiction is of course not an addiction to food period, right? The same way that having a drinking problem is not an addiction to liquid period. It is an addiction to certain specific foods and certain specific ways of eating the compulsive nature.
The level of craving. The repercussions that continue to build up the co-occurring conditions, the health issues, the hit that you take to your mental health and your ability to live the life that you want to live and do the things that you want to do. Like all of it is negatively impacted when we’re addicted to food.
And part of what my approach focuses on is. You know, giving women permission to, if they are in fact addicted to certain foods and ways of eating to acknowledge that, to embrace that as a hugely relevant piece of data, that must inform how they move forward so that they can feel well. Most diets are predicated on the idea that everything is okay in moderation.
And that if you don’t get to have little servings of this, that, and the other thing that you love, that you’re going to experience some sense of deprivation. In my experience that is like telling the alcoholic, you know, you really love scotch. So we don’t want you to say goodbye to scotch completely cause, cause that would create a sense of deprivation instead, have a shot every other day.
Right. And that will send an alcoholic into an absolute and total tailspin. And the same goes for. You know, someone who’s addicted to sugar, if someone is addicted to sugar and you say, you know what, if you don’t have that ice cream every night and you’re going to feel a sense of deprivation. So why don’t you have the suggested portion size of a half, a cup of ice cream, right.
Measure it out and have that. And that will scratch the itch and you’ll be fine. Bullshit. It will not. If someone is addicted to sugar, if someone is caught in an adult, in an addictive cycle with ice cream or chocolate or pastries or whatever the hell it is, whatever it happens to be some women binge on.
And I say women because I only work with women, but obviously this applies to men as well. Some women binge on, you know, sugared cereal at night after the kids are in bed and the kitchen is clean and they sit on the couch and they eat, you know, whatever it is, if you are having just a little, all that does is what your appetite for more and make you feel like you are, you know, we use the term, you know, white knuckling it.
Where your fists are balled up and you’re like, I’m just going to have this little bit, and I’m going to try to be satisfied with this little bit, and it takes up so much mental space. It rents so much of who you are to continue to put. Those controls on the amounts that you eat, that your life comes down to like a pinpoint of weighing and measuring and obsessing and craving and not giving into the craving.
And you can’t live there for long. And that’s why so many women experience that like backlash when they finally give up on the prescribed diet, when they finally give up on the diet app and then they fall head first headlong into a binge, you know, trying to make up for lost time. And in my experience, and in the experience of so many of the women that I’ve worked with.
Like that doesn’t happen when you give yourself permission to walk away from the thing that is causing these intense cravings. And that’s a really scary idea because you’ve associated certain foods in ways of eating with relief. You’ve associated certain foods in ways of eating with having you time, right?
You’ve maybe convinced yourself that your greatest pleasure in life is having that huge bowl of ice cream at night. And the idea of walking away from that can be terrifying and can make you want to just, you know, run. And the truth of the matter is when you begin to abstain fully from those things that you’re tied in that addictive process with the cravings go away, the palette adjusts, and suddenly you feel well, first of all, you can see how badly you felt and you didn’t even realize how badly you felt.
And secondly, you get to start to experience what mental, emotional, and physical freedom from addiction feels like, which is nothing shy of a miracle. For those of us who are trapped in something akin to an addictive cycle, if not a straight up addiction with certain foods and ways of eating.
Betsy: [00:18:52] So it sounds like you’re talking about abstinence versus harm reduction or moderation. Is that accurate?
Kelly: [00:18:58] That’s accurate.
Betsy: [00:19:01] The idea that the weight loss industry is based on this idea of moderation. And I don’t think the idea of abstinence is very popular. I think it seems restrictive to people instead of freeing. When I heard you speak about the three eaters, I found it to be really helpful.
So I’d like to have you share that with us.
Kelly: [00:19:20] So in my experience, both as a wellness coach and as a personal trainer, And in the work that I’ve been doing, supporting women these many years now, every person who is heavier than they’re comfortable with and wants to hit and hold a more comfortable weight falls into one of three camps.
And I’ve named the camps the blessed eater, the stressed eater, and the obsessed eater. I’ll start with the smallest and number and all on I’ll work my way up. So diets proper can actually be quite effective for a very small number of people. When I say diets, I’m talking about those that are, you know, responsible and nutritive.
I’m not talking about like the grapefruit diet or the hot dog diet or the cookie diet or whatever the hell. You know, there are certain people who struggle with their weight who want to weigh less and who really don’t know how to go about doing that. Like genuinely don’t understand the mechanics of creating a caloric deficit.
Genuinely don’t understand portion size or, you know, whatever piece of the puzzle they’re missing is purely informative. It’s an information problem. And I call these people the blessed eaters. Because in this case, you know, that person, when they go say to a registered dietician and get educated on the science behind creating a caloric deficit, you know, eat less, move more like they that’s the piece that was missing for them.
And once they’re given the right information, accurate information, And perhaps a prescribed diet plan. They follow through with it and adhere to it. They lose the weight that they want to lose and they keep it off. And, you know, usually a blessed eater is you know, male typically his name is uncle Ned, you know I have found in my career that very few women versus men are blessed eaters.
Like we know what it means to create a caloric deficit. We understand the mechanics behind doing that, but there’s absolutely a portion of the population of people who are heavier than they would like to be who fall into that camp. And then there’s the perhaps most numerous camp, the most people fall into the next, which is the stressed eater. Stressed eaters, know everything there is to know about weight loss and how to affect it and how to sustain it.
They do not have an information problem. What they have is a coping strategy issue. They use food to cope. And again, that’s in big air quotes with negative emotional experiences, but not just negative emotional experiences. If you’ve been carving that rut in your brain, if you’ve been strengthening the neural pathway between emotional experience and bingeing for long enough, any emotional experience can be a good reason to binge or to compulsively overeat.
And so the stressed eater might have a very difficult day at work and come home. And the first thing that she does to relieve herself of some of that stress is to change the channel in her head by having a bowl of ice cream or the bowl of sugared cereal or the croissant or the cookies or the this, or that, whatever it is, any heightened, emotional experience.
Creates a certain stress response in the body. And that’s true of joy and anticipation, excitement, desire, like all these things, those positive experiences are answered with food as well. And then there’s of course the lack of it, any experience at all, where you just sort of feel neutral and bored and maybe emotionally flat-lined.
And in order to bring yourself some pleasant sensation you binge or compulsively overeating, right? So that’s the stressed eater. The stressed eater needs help developing the motivation to practice all of the healthier alternative coping strategies. That she knows make her feel better, but that she doesn’t feel particularly compelled to turn to when it’s so easy to turn to food, right?
The stressed eater often gets a lot of relief from and necessary tools from being in talk therapy. Stressed eaters respond well to healthier coping strategies, meditation, yoga, deep breathing exercises, long walks, all that kind of stuff. The issue is having the tools to actually follow through on using those healthier coping strategies instead of just turning to food, then there’s the obsessed eater and that’s the camp that I am in.
The obsessed eater is, has developed a dependency, if not a straight up addiction to certain foods and ways of eating the obsessed eater also needs to practice those healthier coping strategies. The obsessed eater also needs to edit their nutrition plan in a way that’s appropriate for them. But in order to be able to do any of those things, the obsessed eater must first take the foods that are keeping her trapped in the cycle of addiction off of the table, both literally and figuratively.
Because until the chemical addiction or the behavioral addiction pattern is broken, there is no real chance that she will be able to consistently practice those healthier coping strategies because the element of craving is always going to be there. There is no chance that she’s going to be able to.
Eat in a way that nourishes her and energizes her and helps her to feel well and whole and sane, obviously, because she’s still holding on to the foods that are creating those profound, full body cravings. So the obsessed theater needs support and preferably community where her addiction is respected and her abstinence is supported and respected.
And I have found it to be important that each woman determine what her addictive foods and ways of eating are for her as an individual. It is not my place, nor am I educated enough on the specifics of each individual person to say, you need to drop sugar, you need to drop flour. You need to drop dairy.
You need to drop whatever it is only, you know, what foods take you over when they’re an option. I work primarily with the stressed eaters, helping them to develop the motivation, to turn to those help healthier coping strategies. And the obsessed eaters, supporting them, validating and acknowledging what’s true for them around their addiction and giving them the tools that they need to turn that around.
Betsy: [00:27:01] Like the Big Book would say acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. And I wonder what your experience has been with women as they’re trying to accept whether it’s a full fledged addiction or accept that they don’t relate well to certain foods and ways of eating. What I hear you saying is that a stress eater may not be fully in addiction, is that correct?
Kelly: [00:27:23] That’s true. Yeah.
Betsy: [00:27:25] So they may have foods or ways of eating that they don’t relate well to, and that they engage in those things. They may end up setting themselves backwards. So I’m wondering if they have a hard time accepting the concept of abstinence from those certain foods or ways of eating. What’s your experience and working with people who are in that place where they’re stressed eater, but not necessarily obsessed
Kelly: [00:27:49] In order to qualify as a stressed eater, moderation has to be something that works.
You know, that needs to be an experience that they have had. If having a tiny bit triggers, profound cravings, then they’re more likely in the obsessed camp. So it’s important to draw that distinction. It takes time to see what’s true. Especially if you’ve been taking in the idea from, you know, the internet or books that you’ve read about losing weight.
That moderation is the only way to go. It’s hard to know where you fall until you begin a practice of mindfulness where you learn, learn to pay attention to how your body reacts to certain foods and ways of eating and commit to continuing to practice that for some extended period of time. Many women who signed on to work with me, believe themselves to be stressed eaters.
And after some months or years begin to realize actually, no, you know, I can’t have certain things without always wanting more. I can’t have certain things without the desire for that food or more of that food, or to have as much as I want of that food renting space in my brain. And then once they settle into an acceptance of the fact that they’re obsessed eaters and that they’re dealing with an addiction, things get much easier, very quickly.
It doesn’t usually go the other way where someone thinks that they’re an obsessed theater and then they realize they’re a stress eater, but it has actually definitely, certainly happened where someone’s like, Oh, I have to not eat sugar because that’s another message that, you know, we internalize from marketing and books, like.
Sugar is evil flour is evil keto is the only way to go. I have to only eat this. I have to only eat that. And then they realized that no, in fact, when I consistently practice coping with my emotional experiences in healthier ways, I can actually have a little bit of this and a little bit of that, and it doesn’t create cravings.
And I am actually, I feel well and sane and whole, and not fractured and not scattered. And I’m fine. That can take some time. Knowing what you’re really actually dealing with can take time. And we’re an instant gratification culture. We don’t want to hear that. We want a silver bullet. We want to know what to eat and how much to eat and when to eat it.
And we want to know it now. And I just want to follow it because I got to lose 20 pounds in the next two weeks, you know, and that’s not practical and that’s not how it works.
Betsy: [00:30:27] Oftentimes when people come into a therapist, they come in saying that this particular thing is a problem. I think people come in and they talk about what they feel most comfortable sharing.
When they’re coming in to talk about weight loss and body image, I think it can be difficult for a well-meaning therapist to know what to say when it comes to ways of eating and dieting. I’m betting you’re in a position to hear things that have been said to your clients that weren’t totally helpful.
What are some of those things that you’ve heard?
Kelly: [00:31:00] That’s a great question. The most disturbing, I think, thing that I’ve heard most often is that a therapist has invalidated someone’s statement that they feel that they are addicted because it’s not recognized in the DSM because it’s not fully embraced as a diagnosis.
I think that if a therapist is skeptical about food addiction as a legitimate diagnosis, it’s much more helpful to ask questions about it and not pass judgment about it. Certainly not wholesale invalidated in the moment.
Betsy: [00:31:44] So there are probably times that we share clients, not necessarily you and me as specifically. But trainers and others in the wellness field who are working alongside therapists. And I wonder if you have thoughts on what you wish therapists knew and understood about this issue,
Kelly: [00:32:03] Really, just to continue to be curious. And I think that most therapists, the vast majority of therapists already do this really incredibly well.
If your client believes themselves to be trapped in an addictive pattern with certain foods and ways of eating, like hold space for that and ask questions about why it is. They think that that’s the case. And reflect back what you hear. I mean, and I said it already, like most of you are already doing this and doing it beautifully so that your client can come to a, to a place of acknowledgement and acceptance about what’s true for her in the moment.
It’s not, you know, what’s true now may not always be true, but just be that reflector and that a space holder for her. And allow her to draw her own conclusions, I think is the most important thing that a therapist can do. And it’s okay to encourage the self care that takes a little more work. It doesn’t have to be an instant gratification thing.
It doesn’t have to be. Something that can be consumed to experience relief. Preferably it wouldn’t be anything that would need to be consumed in order to experience relief, it would be an action. It would be the movement. It would be doing something that will make them feel more connected to themselves, their lives, their homes, even just like cleaning up the junk drawer.
Like that’s a solid alternative to bingeing at night. Because not only are you not bingeing, but then in the morning you get to open the junk drawer and find the tape that you’re looking for and feel proud and connected to your home. And the satisfaction of having gotten something done instead of just whittling away another night and checking out on the couch with some sugar.
Betsy: [00:34:05] So with the new year, just around the corner, typically it’s a time for people to start thinking about their health. I think there’s a lot of reasons for that. I think in the holidays, people eat more than they planned and decide to deal with the consequences later. And it’s also sort of a new beginning.
We get to do something different and there’s a bit of a stereotypical thing about the new year and resolutions, but I think there’s some validity to that. I think with this year being a disaster in so many ways, I think as a collective, it’s been difficult in general, and many of us are looking forward to something better in 2021.
I know that a lot of times around the new year, you have done some special events. What do you have planned for this year?
Kelly: [00:34:49] Well, first I want to say that there is a lot of power to a hard stop and New Year’s Eve is a hard stop. It’s a sort of a fabricated hard stop, but that doesn’t matter. Because there’s a lot of power in “the past is the past”. And today is a new day and a new year, and I’m going to do things differently. There’s a lot of energy in that moment.
That’s the moment that I tend to offer. I do an annual pop-up workshop for free on Facebook. I’ll be doing that again this year. I think when this is released, probably starting today. Late December to January 1st, I have a free group on Facebook called Lose Weight, Not Pleasure that people can search on and find and join if they would like to. If they’re interested in participating, I also have a quiz where takes two minutes to go through, to figure out what kind of eater you are blessed, stressed, or obsessed.
It can be, to go through the questions. I think very informative for the therapists who will be listening to this podcast and maybe helpful for their clients. If the things that I’ve said today, resonate for you. That’s what I have in store. You know, I’m going to continue to support everyone who, you know, needs and wants my support and my Pleasure Principles course, which is going strong.
You can always look me up. It’s strongcoffey.com. It’s C O F F E Y. Or follow me on Facebook. It’s Strong Coffey Wellness for Women.
Betsy: [00:36:27] Kelly. Thank you so much for joining me today and sharing this with us. I appreciate your time and I hope that you have a successful new year.
Kelly: [00:36:36] It has been my pleasure and my privilege, Betsy.
Thank you. And happy new year.
Betsy: [00:36:41] If you get a chance you guys go look up Kelly on Facebook or online. It will definitely be worth your time.
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