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How I Lost 70 Pounds and Stopped Emotional Eating for Good

Joanna Harberts

My story really starts with my dad. Ten years ago my father was diagnosed with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or Lou Gehrig's disease), and I became his caretaker. With no cure for ALS, patients are often given no more than five years to live. Four years later, my father passed away. I coped with the immense anxiety and then sadness by turning to food for comfort. The cycle began when I was still taking care of my dad, but it lastest for years and followed me until after his death when I reached 196 pounds.

I convinced myself that I was just meant to be a bigger girl and that it would just be too hard to lose the weight. I resigned myself to that way of thinking until a trip to the doctor's in 2013 gave me a real shock. "You're pre-diabetic and you're going to need medication soon if you don't do something about it," my doctor said. I knew I wasn't really feeling great— I mean I made the appointment because I was feeling so depressed and tired all the time—but diabetes? Me? I was just 33 years old! When I took a step back and thought about all my symptoms, though, everything started to make sense. The lethargy, depression, and headaches were all tied to my blood sugar, which was clearly out of control. (Could these 8 Healthy Foods Putting Your Blood Sugar at Risk also be to blame?) I left the doctor's office determined to change, and the very next day I signed up for a gym membership.

I was new to the whole exercise thing, so I hired a personal trainer and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I worked out with her twice a week, and she held me accountable for my efforts (and to show up in the first place) while still being incredibly encouraging.

So I had my new fitness routine down pat, but outside of the gym, I still had my biggest hurdle yet—my diet. (But did you know that running could curb your cravings?)

It took me about two months to relearn how to eat in a way that made me and my body happy. I realized how much I'd been relying on food for comfort and breaking that habit was a super emotional process. It was incredibly difficult—those pizza cravings don't just go away—but I could see that eating clean was making a difference, both mentally and physically. I stuck with it, and after six months I finally felt like "I've got this, I can do this." It was the most amazing feeling to be able to trust and believe in myself again.

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I've lost a total of 70 pounds, have met my goal weight, and am still exercising on a regular basis and eating healthfully. (I even ran the MORE/SHAPE half marathon this year—that's me jumping with excitement before the race.) It would be far too easy to think that now that I've reached my goals that I could just slip a few of my old eating habits back into the mix, but my new focus now is to get stronger and to maintain the balanced lifestyle I worked so hard to find. People often ask me how I revamped my relationship with food and maintained my weight loss. So here's what I've learned about how to handle cravings and beat emotional eating—for good.

  1. Be OK with where you're at. Instead of worrying about where you're trying to go. Changing to a healthy lifestyle is a long process, and it can be really tough, so be gentle with yourself.
  2. Practice willpower. Willpower is like a muscle you need to train, so the more you say no to cookies and yes to the gym, the easier those decisions become.
  3. Redefine treats. Pizza is my absolute favorite food and I used to eat it all the time. Now I still have pizza every weekend but I make it at home. My current favorite is pesto, bell peppers, tomatoes, chicken sausage, and a tiny bit of mozzarella on a whole-wheat crust. Don't fight your cravings—that's an exhausting, losing battle—just find a way to indulge them in a healthier way.
  4. Focus on health, not weight. It's not about a number on the scale. Ten years ago I never would have believed I could feel this happy and healthy, but I do, and that makes it all worth it.
  5. Keep a journal. Each day I write down what I eat and how I feel after eating it, but I also jot down all of my little successes and goals. I even give myself a little star for every healthy meal—they work just as well for adults as they do for kindergartners.
  6. Take it one meal at a time. If you mess up, don't beat yourself up over it. And instead of saying "I'll start fresh tomorrow" (which could get pretty out of hand if you "mess up" with a bagel and cream cheese in the morning), try "I'll start fresh with the next thing I eat." (Also try this Smart Trick to Satisfy Cravings for Fewer Calories.)
  7. Eat every 2-3 hours. When you're really hungry it's a lot harder to make good choices.
  8. Prep your food. I prepare meals in advance, so I always know what I'll be eating. Plus, I keep healthy snacks handy in my purse, car, and office at all times.
  9. Don't snack out of boredom.Avoid mindless eating and keep your mouth busy with gum, green tea, or water.
  10. Focus on what you can eat. This was probably the most important thing I learned when it comes to dealing with emotionally driven food cravings. If you fight them, it just feels like you're torturing yourself by eliminating things that you love. Turn your perspective away from what you can't (or shouldn't) eat, and focus more on the delicious healthy food that you get to eat more of now. This outlook, coupled with reminding yourself about how good you feel when you eat this way, is key to long-term success.

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