French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating, New Revised Second edition Interview
Mary Anne Cohen joined us for an interview on her book, French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating, second revised edition. What follows are our questions in italics, and Mary Anne’s thoughtful answers.
In your introduction to this Newly Revised Edition of French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating, you state, “Food is still the most commonly abused anxiety drug. It is, after all, the cheapest, most available, socially sanctioned mood altering drug on the market!” Can you please expand on this declaration?
In 1982, I originated the term “Emotional Eating” to describe the conflicted relationship binge eaters, bulimics, and anorexics have with food. Emotional eaters recruit their relationship with food to relieve the painful emotions of anxiety, depression, loneliness, anger, sexual conflict, and grief. Bingeing, purging, and starving helps people feel better temporarily by raising endorphins as well as serving as a distraction and detour from pain by anesthetizing and numbing feelings. And now you get to worry about your weight rather than the issue that was disturbing you before you turned to unwanted food! Food is the most easily accessible, plentiful, inexpensive, legal mood-altering drug.
Although the wish to make yourself feel better is a healthy wish, using food as a drug eventually backfires because no emotional problem ever got solved through devouring a bag of potato chips.
You offer some revealing verbal expressions that connect angry feelings with eating, hunger, food, etc. What are some of the ways anger relates to eating disorders and/or emotional eating?
In my psychotherapy practice, I have witnessed time and again the central role that anger, jealousy, resentment, hate, and rage can play in creating and maintaining an eating problem. When the pressure of holding hostile feelings inside becomes too great, emotional eaters will resort to bingeing, purging, starving, dieting, or obsessing about their bodies as a way to circumvent dealing directly with what really agitates them. Women especially are often afraid to communicate their anger because we tend to define ourselves by how loving and happy our relationships are. Women often fear expressing anger out of worry that it may rupture that closeness.
Eating disorders, cutting oneself, and other forms of self-harm such as promiscuous sex are ways a person vents her aggression against her body. This behavior does give vent to the anger but it also punishes one’s self for being angry in the first place. Eating disorders are an attempt to “digest” our hostility.
The connection between anger and eating disorders was brought home to me many years ago in a comedy club when a comedian, declared, “My mother was always a blamerexic – she kept sticking her finger down everyone else’s throat.” It occurred to me that if a bulimic were to redirect her finger from down her own throat, she would be pointing accusingly at someone else!  This would be a fruitful first step towards recovery rather than internalizing her feelings.
Barbara, a teenage bulimic patient, described how she preferred to take her anger out against herself rather than voicing it directly to her mother. Barbara binged and vomited to get her mother’s attention, but the mom only seemed concerned about Barbara when she heard her loudly vomiting in the bathroom. Barbara explained sarcastically, “I sacrifice myself to piss my mother off.” She recruited her body and her bulimia to get back at her mother for neglecting her, but the physical pain of vomiting was also self-punishment for being so angry in the first place. 
In truth, our anger is a signal worth listening to, as it can be a catalyst for change in our relationships, a fuel that we can harness to actually deepen the honesty in a relationship.
Emotional eating has been called a disease of isolation because sometimes it is easier to be intimate with food than with people. Food never gets us angry, never disappoints, ridicules, or breaks promises. But, in truth, there is no chocolate chip cookie in the world that can solve our relationship problems or gratify our need for intimate connection.
You quote Judith Viorst in her acclaimed book, Necessary Losses, with “The road to human development is paved with renunciation. Throughout our life we grow by giving up.” How does loss impact the experience of emotional eating?
The only thing constant about life is change. We grow as we negotiate these changes, mourn what hurts us, and continue on our journey transformed. To avoid painful feelings emotional eaters often have a hard time grieving the past and letting it go. Instead they recruit their eating behavior to avoid this anguish. They get trapped inside their bingeing, purging, starving, and body obsession. This leads to what I call “frozen grief.”
I first began to think about the connection between grief and eating disorders when Patty, an overweight client of mine with a binge eating disorder discussed the death of her father when she was three years old. She began to cry as the accumulation of 32 years of stifled tears came surging up in a tidal wave of pain. “I have never shed tears for my father before,” Patty sobbed. And with each following session, Patty cried deeply about the death of her father. Then, one day she exclaimed, “I wonder if after so many years, my fat has been like frozen grief. I think with all these tears, my grief is now becoming liquid!” Melting grief is a process akin to digestion. You allow your feelings to emerge and then process, digest, and metabolize them. Sharing them with another person is the beginning of the melting process. Only when we bring our grief out to the clear light of day can we truly create space for healing.
Can you please describe some negative thought patterns and the antidotes to these patterns?
As Albert Einstein once declared, “We can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” In other words, for every criticism of “I’m fat and ugly and need to lose weight,” we need to have a more helpful rejoinder such as, “I tend to blame my weight on everything that goes wrong with my life. Why don’t I give myself a break for once and figure out that my hunger is not from my stomach but from my heart.”
A recent newspaper article, “Shamed At the Gym,” states that people are more likely to be motivated by punishments and insults than by supportive comments.  This horrifying statement flies in the face of everything we psychotherapists know about how people change. Self-compassion, feeding ourselves supportive thoughts, is what paves the way from gridlock to growth!
To break out of her constant self-criticism when she scrutinized herself in the mirror, Kimberly devised a creative antidote. She taped a large paper over the mirror and wrote on it, “You look just fine!” This was a great resourceful solution to her usual ongoing negativity.
You use one of your chapters to explain Psychotherapy, ranging from the first interview to the various types of therapy, like individual, family, and group. What are some of the fears people often have about entering therapy?
Psychotherapy is a healing conversation that provides an opportunity to repair our inner wounds that have led us to conclude that trusting food is safer than trusting people. After all, food never leaves you, never abuses you, never criticizes you, and never dies.
Eating is a relationship – a relationship that can be nurturing or abusive, supportive or neglectful, nourishing or punishing. Patterns of emotional eating often develop from the early patterns of loving in our family. If we have been hurt by the people we love, we hurt ourselves with food. To then decide to turn to a therapist for help is often a scary proposition because it awakens our fears of being judged, criticized, blamed, or humiliated. After all, we are about to reveal the most secret and vulnerable details of our private eating behaviors.
Secret inner fears about therapy may include: “What if you become a crutch to me, just like the food?” or “How can you really care for me if this is just a business and I pay you?” or “Do you ever pretend to care when you really don’t?” “How will I know when I’m ready to leave and will you try to convince me to stay?” Obviously, these questions are laden with meaning that a mere yes or no can’t answer. But when a person becomes trusting enough to pose these questions in their sessions, it opens the door to genuine understanding of that person’s fears and concerns – not only in the therapy relationship but also about all intimate relationships.
It’s so important to find a compassionate therapist who will be curious and non-judgmental and who will encourage you to be more curious and non-judgmental as you reflect on yourself and your eating disorder. Emotional eating has frozen our feelings and pain. The relationship with a therapist can help us thaw!
In your discussion on “Relapse,” you note that relapse “can also occur when life becomes too good!” Can you please briefly explain this reality?
The tendency to relapse is actually a normal part of healing, and knowing this can ease our panic and despair. In fact, if we view relapse in more hopeful terms – that our inner selves are sending a message that all is not well and something within us is still asking to be understood and addressed – then relapse is another chance to learn and develop and continue to grow.
Living happily ever after – with our food and weight issues solved – is a dream fostered by diet organizations, health clubs, and our own wishful fantasies. But emotional eating problems are complicated issues that have a way of rearing their heads again and again, leading us down the path from where we came and where we vowed to never return. As Mark Twain ruefully declared, “Quitting smoking is easy. I’ve done it hundreds of time.” Relapse is often set in motion by stress either because of external life challenges or internal lapses of our not continuing to care for ourselves with the conscious awareness that we put into place for recovery. And, let’s add, that the very process of recovery causes stress because we are now asking ourselves to handle life without the crutch of food!
Relapse can occur when life becomes too good because even good things can feel like a stress or pressure and, therefore, an invitation to return to emotional eating! For this reason, even changes for the better, such as a graduation, marriage, pregnancy, new job, new house, vacation, or retirement can provoke their own worries.
Compassion and taking supportive actions are the most important ingredients in recovering from a relapse. After all, “Anything worth doing is worth doing imperfectly!”
In sum, what are a few of the “take away” messages you’d like your readers to appreciate by reading French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating?
Hope. Healing. Health. Wholeness. These are available to almost every person struggling with an eating disorder if they reach outside of themselves for help. Don’t do it alone. Seek support.
Since I wrote the first edition of French Toast twenty years ago, there have been many beneficial developments: binge eating disorder is now considered a valid diagnosis which gives legitimacy to people who suffer. New medications have been developed that target the biological underpinnings of eating disorders. More men and women of color are coming forth to seek help, and there is more size and racial diversity in advertising.
From my perspective, the most heartening evolution is that psychotherapists are less constricted by a posture of reserved detachment and have become more interactive and more “real” and not afraid to have a deeply, human connection with their patients.
Once we declare peace with emotional eating, the search for meaning and wholeness in our lives still continues. Compulsive eating, chronic dieting, bulimia, and anorexia, each was our attempt to feel whole and cohesive. Now we need to turn toward life and relationships to help us connect in a deeper way with the inner source of our vitality. Learn to sink your teeth into life, not into your obsession with food!
About the author:
Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, BCD, is Director of The New York Center for Eating Disorders and author of French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating and Lasagna for Lunch: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating. Both books have been developed into continuing education courses for psychotherapists:
You can visit Mary Anne and read the Introductions to her books on www.EmotionalEating.Org.
References: Comedian Vince Gerardi invented this creative expression.  All names and identifying data have been changed for confidentiality.  New York Post, August 16, 2016. Pg. 35.