Maintaining a Healthy Approach to Eating Habits

with Karen R. Koenig

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Episode Notes

Intro to Karen R. Koenig (1:49)
Normal and dysregulated eating (3:47)
How to become more regulated in eating (8:23)
The emotional state and emotional eating (10:00)
Focusing on eating versus dieting (15:50)
Eating as a self-care practice (18:25)
What to do instead of dieting (25:00)
Why self-discipline has nothing to do with your weight goals (27:19)
What to expect from Karen’s new book (30:42)
How to detangle the connection between negative self-talk and eating habits (32:29)



Resources Mentioned in This Episode

Karen’s website
Outsmart Overeating Book
The Food and Feelings Workbook

About Karen

Karen Koenig, LCSW, M. Ed., is a psychotherapist, national educator, international author, and expert on the psychology of eating. For over 30 years she has taught clients and readers the skillful art of developing and maintaining a balanced and healthy approach to food.

Lesya Liu 0:00
Hello everyone and welcome to the new episode of you can exhale now podcast. Today I am very excited to host Karen R Koenig who has 30 years of experience as a therapist specializing in eating psychology. She is also an award winning international author of seven books and an eight out in 2021. And she's also a popular blogger.

Karen, welcome to the show.

Karen R. Koenig 0:32
Thank you for having me.

Lesya Liu 1:22
Thank you so much for coming. So tell us a little bit more you know about yourself and your experience. And I am sure that eating psychology sounds like something reletively new. However, it sounds like you have 30 years of experience in it. Can you speak a little bit about that and how it all came to be?

Karen R. Koenig 1:49
Eating psychology to put it very simply, is not the what or even that would be nutrition, but the how and the why. How we relate to food, how we relate to our appetite, and our bodies. And I wouldn't say the words in around maybe for a couple decades, we, we have these words that we describe what comes, you know, in, as this is the focus this year on mindfulness, mindful eating, intuitive eating. I call the work I do normal eating, and appetite, cutie eating. So, eating psychology encompasses it all. I got into this field, I'm a clinical social worker, but from my own eating problems when I was younger, I was sort of every kind of meter diameter, emotional leader binge eater. Back and forth, and Finally went into therapy for it when I had been a year of purging had been India and shouted I wanted to be a normal eater. I found the book by Susie Orbach, who is a therapist in the UK was called fat as a feminist issue. And you know, when it is said you can stop dieting and binge eating and learn to tune into your appetite. And I thought, well, you know, somebody has written a book about it. Your teacher now I'm going to learn how to and eventually I did and then I went back to Social Work school and got into this field. I do other therapy, but this is my specialty.

Lesya Liu 3:47
Mm hmm. That's fascinating. You know, I think you've mentioned an interesting thing that there are over eaters under eaters, binge eaters, emotional eaters. Then seems interesting that, you know, that's one thing we all do every single day multiple times a day if you're supposed to eat. So it seems like a very natural, very vital function that we should be able to know how to do. And yet there's so many different issues on all sides of the spectrum involved with eating. Where do you think it comes from? And why?

Karen R. Koenig 4:29
Well, I call the sort of the general term for any of those things that you mentioned. Just regulating dysregulated ear eating. Many people say disordered eating. I don't like the term because you say, Okay, I don't want to be disordered. Does that mean I want to be ordered easier? I like the term dysregulated because the opposite is exactly what we want to be regulated either. We're all Schumann's would not have time if you didn't have an innate adaptive way to regulate appetite, so I work with people to be in touch with that. Now, of course, with dysregulation of eating almost all the time comes other kinds of dysregulation, not knowing what's enough, is too much is too little, I call it the people having an enough disorder. And so it's really tied into a lot of things in life and when eating, it's more regulated. Usually the rest of life does as well, a lot better.

Lesya Liu 5:42
So, can you expand a little bit on what is a regulated eater? Does it look the same for everyone or are there still some you know, personal preferences or DNA component to it? Or, I guess, does it look the same for everyone? Or does it still have its differences for different people?

Karen R. Koenig 6:08
I think we all have a holiday unique appetite imprint or like a thumbprint. It is unique to us because it involves our genetics. What biome ate when she was pregnant with us? The rest of our genetics, you know, pressure anxiety, well, we may work with carbohydrates over here. You know, did our parents or grandparents have addictive issues? So there's this whole piece of biology and then there's how raised what kind of food we ate. Was it readily available? Did we grow up in a desert weather deprivation issue? Choose what our culture was, what kinds of foods, you know, were served in the house, our parents felt about eating in their way. And then what our peer group thought was, I'm 73. So I 20 was a big influence in my life. You know, when my mom was growing up, women could have rounder, softer bodies. And now it's still, you know, very, very thin oriented. So there's so many factors, but it's unique for each of us. And whatever contributes to it. We still want to be able to use our brains and our habitat to eat in a way that helps us enjoy food, feel comfortable around, get nourished.

Lesya Liu 7:56
I see. And so can you speak a little bit about how we can become more regulated in our eating habits? How can we uncover? If our habits are leaning one way versus the other? Is there a way to do it for ourselves or to really need the help of a therapist to kind of help us become a little bit more mindful?

Karen R. Koenig 8:23
I think it depends where people are on the spectrum on the continuum. If, if people truly, normally mostly eat according to appetite, and day when they're stressed, let's say they tend to overeat or go for carbs, that's a different story than someone who has a history of trauma and trauma and dysregulated eating or, you know, highly high relational rate to them. So someone who has had trauma and has a dysregulated nervous system is going to have a hard time with food because they use it for self soothing. So that might need therapy. Basically, it's getting in touch with, I have to take your mind what I call the four rules of leading. Am I hungry? How hungry? Am I hungry enough to eat? What do I want to say to my body, gee, this would be great to have. Third is eating mindfully without distraction really connected to the food and staying connected to body don't do these days, and four is stopping when fall which is quantity. we're satisfied with what is falling. Now, it's very simple, but it's not always easy.

Lesya Liu 10:00
Absolutely. And so you've mentioned an interesting thing, where you said when people regulate their relationship to food, their emotional state usually goes up, improves. And so I think the same is true the opposite where, you know, if you have a not such a good emotional state and you use food as a self soothing comforting technique that kind of creates this vicious cycle right, this cycle that either can go upwards or downward. What kind of relationship Have you seen between the emotional state and the relationship to food and how can we put a stop in this vicious cycle?

Karen R. Koenig 10:49
Well, there are a couple pieces to it, one is what I write about. In my book outsmarting overeating is having life skills. Which are adaptive strategies to survive and thrive. And so we have all the life skills we need to change not to turn to food. If you don't have them, you're missing life skills, and we're all missing them because nobody got a complete set of parents. But if we have most of them, we can't apply them. If not, let's say, can't balance work and play, which is a life skill. Or you feel you can't trust and depend on people. Those things then are going to skew you more towards food seeking. So some of what really helps is learning the skills that you need to live in the world being able to depend on people's problems, so set goals. Take care of your body, self regulate in many ways. So that's one aspect of it. One of the biggest skills it's missing in emotional leaders, obviously, is emotional management. And so again, you have to look at what what happened to what happens to people when your children that they don't learn those skills or that their nervous systems become so dysregulated that they have trouble handling their emotions, you know most anyway and they turn to food for user comfort or for a pick me up. So there's a wide range of things that help people become more normal eaters.

Lesya Liu 13:00
Do you have any strategies on you know, maybe like a self talk that could help us manage that whenever we feel like our emotional eating or if you're binge eating or right now because of COVID-19 a lot of people have their whole routine upside down. What are like some simple strategies that we can apply to ourselves? What can we say to ourselves to be a little bit more mindful about our current relationship is food.

Karen R. Koenig 13:37
I use what I think is a pretty simple decision tree. When someone has the urge to eat and ask themselves, am I hungry? If yes, am I hungry enough to eat, which usually means if you like zero to 10 numbers, you know, five or six Because you want appetite to build up so you can enjoy food because we actually, in terms of research, research tells us that we enjoy food more when we're moderately hungry, or not hungry, we have the right hormones going on. And if we are too hungry, we eat too fast. So we want to start off thinking to ourselves, am I hungry enough to eat? So what do I want to eat? Going back to the first question, you know, when you have the urge to eat? Am I hungry? If the answer is no, what am I feeling? And that sort of covers all the bases because it's no longer waiting for an emotional read. And then you could say, well, what am I feeling and where do I want to do with this feeling? I mean, if let's say, a loved one has just died and you're grieving what sometimes you just want. In the field you have to take it away. On other times, if you had a fight with somebody three days before an argument, and you keep ruminating and thinking about it, well, that's not productive. So that case rather than follow the emotion, you might say, No, I don't want to be thinking about this. Now, this is useless. This happened yesterday or two days ago. It's over. But it also has nothing to do. So those kinds of questions helped a lot. Am I hungry? How hungry? What do I want to eat? If I'm not hungry, what am I feeling? What do I want to do? And I really like your focus on eating rather than weight management, right? Whether it's my weight loss or weight gain.

Lesya Liu 15:50
Can you talk a little bit about why this focus on eating rather than wait produces better results and long term Success?

Karen R. Koenig 16:01
Like, I think of it as a train, like the locomotive, you've got the caboose. Caboose follows where the locomotive goes. So if there's a problem with the train, probably not going to want to put a lot of energy to fixing the caboose. Right? How you want to put your energy into the locomotive. So that's an image that I like to use moreover. Science repeatedly tells us that a long term of focus on long term weight loss doesn't work. It's very external. It's how I will look? What will people think about how my life will change, as opposed to what I ran into the client today, which was wonderful. She said, I want to feel better. I want to be healthy. I really want to take care of myself. That doesn't go away. That feeling stays for life. And it's what's called a paradigm shift. So that you see things differently. So that you look at, I don't know, let's say you're, you're lonely on a Saturday night and look at a piece of cake instead of saying, Oh boy, that's going to satisfy me. You say to yourself, you know, a cake isn't gonna do anything for me. I really don't want it right now. Good. I'll save it for a time when I want it. I'm gonna just attend to my loans. It's a very different way of looking at things when you focus on not just your eating but your entire self. Why wouldn't you want to take the most wonderful self care you possibly could get one shot at and it's a real awakening. Because I know I went through it too check to say I only want to do what's best for myself. Now, that doesn't mean you can never have what you most people call bad foods. Nutritional and non nutritional foods are no good or bad foods. That's a moral term. So you can have all sorts of food in a range of foods and eat them according to your appetite. And that's learning. It doesn't just happen overnight.

Lesya Liu 18:24
Mm hmm. I like that. You've mentioned the word self care. And I think there's still a lot of misconception about what self care is. And of course, the right self care results in better physical health, better mental health. And so I think, for a lot of women self care means that they need to become slimmer than they're skinnier which is not necessarily the case. So can you expand a little bit on the On the notion of self care as it pertains to eating?

Karen R. Koenig 19:07
Oh self care has just a lot of different aspects to it so um there's preventive health care going to you know the doctor for checkups every you know whenever you're supposed to have them having tests I'm doing you know what medical people say. So there's that one kind of self care. Another is the people you surround yourself with. Are they emotionally healthy? Do Do they what I call celebrating? Are you always trying to take care of them and fix them and fight for their attention? Do you know people who just want the best for you? So that's a kind of self care Well, I think people get in trouble because I see this a lot in clients. They confuse self care with selfishness. And they're very different. Perhaps they had a parent, maybe mom was very selfish, and they say, I'm never going to do that. So they become the opposite, self less. So that's the other end of the extreme. I want to be able to take care of ourselves, whatever that means. And that beyond, you know, getting, you know, a facial or massage those things. Yeah, they feel good, but they're really not indicative of self care. When you're, I'm sure you've met people and you said yourself, you really take good care of themselves. There's just something they exude that you know that they do that. And it's almost intangible, but I'm sort of always thinking to myself, what's the best thing I can do for myself in this situation, putting myself first?

Lesya Liu 21:08
And how do you know dieting kind of fit into that holistic self care view and also eating psychology?

Karen R. Koenig 21:18
How many times does science have to tell us that? No statistic 95% of people who try and lose weight, long, long term, gain it back 90% regain what they initially lost. There's about 5% of people that can keep weight off by dieting by rigidly saying no to themselves. That's a really lousy statistic. 5%. And how many times do we fail at dieting and then we say to us, oh, I failed. It isn't Our bodies are not programmed to die in our bodies are programmed to. Because, you know, humans are 200,000 years old 200,000 years ago, there weren't seven last quarter that you could just pick things up. You thought it was so important that we saw we wanted to eat it and eat a lot of it. So when our body when we die, and we think the body doesn't think it reacts as if it's starving, and it conserves calories. This is junk, I'm not going to let you die. We're just going to slow down metabolism. What happens when we slow down metabolism and then the weight loss stops. So it's, is it so contra indicated? Because then we feel deprived, our bodies want more food, and then we bingi and you can see them where's the cycle all over again, which is called weight cycling. There's every reason not to diet. I mean nobody feels really good after the first 10 minutes on a diet. Now after a while, it's just worrying and you're resenting it and feel deprived. The Learning hadn't eaten normally. You get to eat the foods that you want, and we enjoy them, and then get on with life.

Lesya Liu 23:19
Yeah, and you know, you also said starving and depriving ourselves of food that that could not be really good for your mental health as well, right?

Karen R. Koenig 23:33
Oh, no, it's terrible. The other thing is this myth of self discipline. There's a great book by Tracy McNabb called Secrets from the Eating Lab is a woman researcher who has studied self control self discipline and food for decades. And when she says it's so true, can't use self discipline which is what we use you know, which is underlies dieting or two things, or biological imperatives, one is sex, we are driven to have sex. And one is eating, we are driven to food, because the rest would die out without us having sex or food. So self discipline doesn't work because you could say, we've run out of steam, say, nine times, I'm not having that bag of chips and 10 times you say, Oh, they had for this. So we have to have other strategies and not rely on self discipline in the realm of eating crabs and other things we can, but not when there's a biological imperative, because then we think we fail. What's wrong with me? As opposed to, you know, we've all learned the wrong things about taking care of our bodies and what's important.

Lesya Liu 25:00
So, restricting foods, I guess, doesn't work for all those reasons that you've said and you know, people are still looking for those quick fixes to lose weight to become better to improve themselves. So what do you suggest for people instead of dieting instead of looking for those quick fixes, what are the things that might take more time and more effort but that will produce long term results?

Karen R. Koenig 25:35
Okay, I'd say you know, I'm a writer, say read my books, we all that aspects, you know, the aspects that you need to change in your life, including, you know, when things that adventure was a personality traits, people who diet and binge are just regular or dysregulated. intend to people all or nothing, perfectionist disapproval seekers. So we have to work on expanding our personality traits, not being judgmental, but being more compassionate and curious, learning new skills. Learn There's wonderful books about, you know, mindful eating and intuitive eating. I mean, learn it, which is what I did. Because I wanted to be able to do these things. And so it's not just going to, you know, drop down, and one day you're gonna wake up out of a normal leader, how cool is this? It just doesn't happen that way. We have the same way. We achieve other goals. We have to keep pursuing and practicing, pursuing and practicing. And that's how you get there. And if you need therapy, or if you need to take a workshop or online courses, you're always All those things are out there now where they weren't. And the other thing is to not weigh yourself, as if you don't weigh yourself thinking you have to lie on paying attention to what you're eating. And that puts the focus on the local vote of where it belongs.

Lesya Liu 27:19
And you've mentioned an interesting thing about, you know, not being able to self discipline when it comes around food, right, that that's just impossible for biological reasons. But I think there's also this fear on the other hand, I think, especially for women is that if I indulge in all these foods that are not good for me that are not nutritious, that might cause me to gain weight. Then there is no stopping right? We almost sometimes see it as some kind of addiction so if somebody drinks too much alcohol, they might become alcoholic, right and if we eat and indulge in everything we want to eat, that will just you know there's no stopping will become obese and food will take over our whole life. Is there some true truth to it? Or are our body's pretty good at balancing the joy and abundance fees, you know, balance and not going overboard?

Karen R. Koenig 28:30
I do not believe and I follow the research that food as an addiction or people say sugars and addiction Well, in fact, it's not like going to the cabinet and we open up the Domino's sugar and we just start pouring it down our throats you don't it's the way food is configured, you know sugar, fat salt and we don't necessarily eat more and more of it. We are habituated, I think it is a habituation, which can be as tough, tough to break as addiction. But the fact is, we can't not eat. So, I don't see there's any other way of managing it other than learning how to eat normally. And we can, you know, you're saying the things that people say, you know, it's impossible for me to eat. Well, if you say that to yourself, what happens is it becomes impossible. So it's really more obey a thinking problem. And as you mentioned earlier, a self taught problem is like my next book is, is about self talk in all these situations relating to eating and in part, self care, and exercise and activity, that what we tell ourselves is what we become so You tell yourself that you are going to go do something else and not have a third helping of lasagna. You are very likely to go do something else. But if you have the mentality you keep saying between you know, I hear a dysregulated beat you say all the time, but I have to eat it, but I can't stop calling to me. Those are the things that make us do it. We are really our own worst enemies.

Lesya Liu 30:34
So what else can we expect from your new book that's coming out next year?

Karen R. Koenig 30:42
Well, it's, it really takes people through. What do I say to myself? If I want to binge? What do I say to myself when I'm out with people in a social situation? You know, we tend to look at everybody else. And we're thinking of talking to ourselves, what should I eat? What are they eating? What will they think? As opposed to just taking some deep breaths and saying, what is it that I would like to eat? Right now, it's an inward process. I didn't help the process. It talks about how to talk to family about eating and weight. What to do in dating situations, or you know, long term relationships. how, you know, what are the things that you need to say to yourself, to stay connected to appetite and to accept yourself doesn't mean you're not taking responsibility, but to accept yourself as is to say, for instance, a little disappointed in myself right now, and I'm going to do better tomorrow. Rather than that relentless beating ourselves out, um, and you know, I speak as you follow good Jeter just makes us feel so awful about ourselves. It's kindness, compassion, love and understanding. And that, ironically, is what leads to being able to take responsibility. It's pretty much the opposite of what our culture teaches us to do and say

Lesya Liu 32:29
yes, I agree. I think a lot of eating is entangled in self judgment, and very negative self talk. So how can the, I guess effectively discuss eating and weight issues in society with our family members is our loved ones inside our own heads. What kind of paradigm shift should we make?

Karen R. Koenig 33:00
To make this discussion healthy and effective, well, he No I am, I was trained as an elementary school teacher and I did it for three years. So, you know, back then it was eyes on your own paper. And, and now as opposed to size on your own tablet, but you just extend that its eyes on your own plate. Truly focusing on your appetite, how you're feeling at the moment where you need it and screaming out when other people say it's such a people who have difficulty screening out what others say or might think of them, as you know, are really at risk for eating disorders as they're so worried about others. And that's part of the problem, but when they start worrying and worrying about you focusing on themselves Say, don't ask me what I weigh. I'm not telling you, your business, or my favorite thing to say. And it comes easy because you're trained to do this as a therapist, if somebody asks you something, I say, Why do you ask? You know, you've turned it back on the other person and are not obligated to respond to comments that are intrusive. And so, you know, this is also part of it. The sense of this is my body, you don't get to say what goes into where or what has ways. It's mine. 100% fine. When I was younger, and I was going through my transformation with really taking care of myself better, I would go visit my mother in a different state and, and I would walk in and say very clearly to her, you know, please don't ask about eating away. And I put my suitcase in the bedroom, and I come out and she'd say, go look at a refrigerator and see what I got for you. What do you want to eat? I'd say currently, um, I, this is not how I want to have this visit, please promise me that you're going to just leave me alone with food. And we don't have to say it over and over because people have habits of wanting to take care of us a certain way. So everybody has the power to do this. You have to be brave enough to say I'm going to put myself first.

Lesya Liu 35:43
Mm hmm. I think that's a beautiful message that I hope our listeners will take into their life, not only as it relates to eating but to live in your life to the fullest. So, Karen, I thank you so much for your insight into eating really our vital function, the funnel, you know the activity that we are doing multiple times a day. So I truly thank you for this conversation. Thank you very much.

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