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Interview with the Creator of the Term Emotional Eating


Interview with my good friend and colleague, Mary Anne Cohen, LCSW, Eating Disorders Expert Extraordinaire

 1. Tell us a little about yourself professionally.

     I have been a psychotherapist for 50 years! Forty years ago, I founded The New York Center for Eating Disorders to offer treatment for people with binge eating, bulimia, anorexia, chronic dieting, and body image dissatisfaction as well as help for couples and families. I hosted my own radio show on eating disorders for three years and have written three books on eating disorders. I am the professional book reviewer for and just completed my 90th review:


 2. How did you get into the eating disorders field?

     I struggled with binge eating on and off from childhood through my early 20s. Shame, isolation, dieting, and bargaining with myself did not help much! I began therapy and spent time in Overeaters Anonymous which was extremely helpful at that time. As I delved deeper into the field when I became a psychotherapist, I learned how the vicious cycle of dieting keeps people stuck and how intuitive eating and learning to trust one’s inner needs is the key to declaring peace with emotional eating. 


3. Please briefly describe the books you’ve written.

     In 1982, I coined the term “emotional eating.” Each of my three books explores how to resolve eating disorders.  French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating was published in 1995, reissued in a 20th anniversary edition in 2015 and was translated into Spanish by a Madrid publishing house. This book is filled with dialogues from actual therapy sessions, an in-depth comparison of treatment options, and an exploration of how to resolve the obstacles to success. French Toast also includes a unique questionnaire to help readers determine which treatment approach is best for them as well as a questionnaire for clinicians to guide their clients.    

     Lasagna for Lunch: Declaring Peace with Emotional Eating, my second book, takes a deeper dive into the psychodynamics that fuel eating disorders and the many available treatment options including medication. The thrust of this book is to explore the ways our relationships with ourselves and others can go awry and lead us to conclude that trusting food is safer than trusting people. 

     I was absolutely delighted when National Association of Social Work Press approached me to write a definitive book on eating disorders for the social work professional, Treating the Eating Disorder Self: A Comprehensive Model for the Social Work Therapist. Integrating over 200 case examples from my practice, I explore both the inner and outer worlds of the binge eater, bulimic, and anorexic. In part one, I delve into the inner world of frozen grief, depression, abuse, and early attachment struggles. In part two, I demonstrate how clinicians can develop multicultural, gender, and social media competency. Literacy in these three areas brings us a deeper understanding of the impact that the outer world has on the eating disorder patient and how to intervene to modify the harmful effects.   

      Every person’s eating disorder is as unique as a fingerprint, and there is no “one size fits all” approach to healing. The goal for the social work therapist is to create an individualized and comprehensive treatment approach in collaboration with clients that will help them break the chains of emotional eating and body image distress.


4. What is the most unhelpful thing/s that people with EDs do to prevent recovery from binge-eating/emotional eating?

     Focusing on weight loss and the number on the scale is a recipe for disaster for binge eaters. Emotional eaters are often “addicted” to numbers: How many calories in my food? How high is my weight? What size am I? How much can I lose before my cousin’s wedding?

     True recovery is about changing your relationship to your food and your feelings and learning to separate your eating from your emotions. It’s about cultivating intuitive eating by tuning in to what you’re hungry for and giving yourself the permission to have it until you’re satisfied. True recovery is about working on the emotions of grief, depression, anxiety, and perhaps trauma that has made overeating your drug to distract, detour, and deny your feelings.


5. What don’t many people understand about healing from these problems?

     Healing is an inside job and not about turning yourself over to the external authority of yet another diet. For every diet we commit to, there is an equal and opposite binge waiting on the horizon. The deprivation of a diet or restrictive eating will always backfire.


6. What are three pieces of advice you have for binge-eaters/emotional eaters? 

     Your weight does not define who you are. You are still a worthwhile person no matter what the number on the scale says!

     You don’t have to tackle your eating problem alone: find a  therapist, a group, a recovery tribe of like-minded people who can support you. Isolation with pastry must be replaced with intimacy with people!

     Many people unknowingly have a fear of success and may sabotage their recovery. If your whole life has revolved around worrying about your weight, eating, and size, what will give your life meaning if you don’t have this issue to focus on and absorb you. Could this be you? I have identified eight reasons for self-sabotage in my books. Check them out!

     After 50 years, I continue to love my work wholeheartedly! I want to help people sink their teeth into LIFE, not into excess food! Come visit me and read the Introductions to my three books at EmotionalEating.Org.