Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin: “Don’t be logical”

Don’t comment on other people’s weight or appearance. Maybe you’re thinking you don’t say any of those things. You’re sensitive to people’s feelings and would never comment on anyone’s weight. That’s wonderful. But, do you ever talk about other people’s weight? Have you ever said something like, “That actress who lost all her baby weight in […]

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Don’t comment on other people’s weight or appearance. Maybe you’re thinking you don’t say any of those things. You’re sensitive to people’s feelings and would never comment on anyone’s weight.

That’s wonderful. But, do you ever talk about other people’s weight? Have you ever said something like, “That actress who lost all her baby weight in three weeks? She looks amazing.”

Although, eating disorders are about deeper issues than weight and food, commenting on anyone’s appearance can actually trigger the behavior. When people feel bad about themselves, such as in comparison to a celebrity who lost all her baby weight in three weeks, they might use eating disorder behavior to cope.

As a part of my interview series with public figures who struggled with and coped with an eating disorder, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin.

Dr. Nina Savelle-Rocklin is a psychoanalyst, author, and radio show host specializing in disordered eating. She is the author of The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating, and Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, co-editor (with Salman Akhtar) of Beyond the Primal Addiction. She hosts The Dr. Nina Show on L.A. Talk Radio and brings a fresh perspective to weight loss by helping people focus on what’s eating “at” them instead of on what they are eating.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself and what you do professionally?

I’m married to the love of my life, David. We have two creative, sassy, and caring daughters and a 165 lb. deaf and partially-sighted Great Dane who’s pure sweetness and unconditional love.

I’m a psychoanalyst specializing in eating disorders with an emphasis on binge eating disorder. I write books, host a weekly radio show, and offer a variety of online programs to help women all over the world get to the root issue of their binge eating problem. I help them stop emotional eating so they can live a life of freedom, joy and happiness, all without ever going on another diet. I don’t believe in recovery from eating disorders; I believe in liberation, I believe in being permanently free of disordered eating, and I’m passionate about helping people do exactly that.

Thank you for your bravery and strength in being so open with us. I personally understand how hard this is. Are you able to tell our readers the story of how you struggled with an eating disorder?

When I was five years old, I developed an obsession with my thighs. I truly thought that if my legs were thinner, I’d somehow be better. And, I was a perfectly normal weight child.

My obsession got worse as I grew older. Throughout adolescence and into college, my last thought at night was, “What did I eat today?” I fell asleep counting calories and fat grams. I calculated every bite and sip, wondering if I’d lose weight by the next morning or gain it. The scale was my most welcome friend and my biggest enemy.

If that scale registered an added pound, my day was ruined. A lost pound made me feel euphoric. When I hiked with friends, I focused on how many calories I was burning instead of how much fun I was having. I alternated severe restriction and deprivation with bingeing.

Eventually, I began therapy, but I went for anxiety because I was too embarrassed to tell my therapist what was going on with food. I shared my boyfriend’s issues, my goals and dreams, and my fears. I was open with my therapist about every aspect of my life — except one.

I never told her what was going on with food. I never talked about my eating disorder.

At the time, some part of me did not want to give up my relationship to food. Starving gave me a sense of strength and superiority. I felt secretly better than other people because I had the will to deny myself.

Eventually, my willpower failed, and I’d binge and then use laxatives or throw up to get rid of the food I had consumed. My struggle was too shameful to admit to anyone, including my therapist, so I waged my war with food in private. I cycled from restricting, to bingeing and purging, to bingeing.

In therapy, I started noticing some changes. Restricting food no longer made me feel superior. It made me feel deprived.

I started to feel hungry. For food, and for life.

I became aware of the feelings that I had denied. I learned to process those emotions, rather than deny them. I began using words to comfort myself, and talking to myself in a supportive way, instead of criticizing myself. By the time I left therapy, I no longer engaged in any eating disorder behavior.

And not once, in all the time I was in treatment, did I reveal what was going on with food.

How was this possible?

My eating disorder was a symptom of the actual problem, my mean relationship with myself. In therapy, I learned to cope with difficult situations, instead of using food to distract from them. I learned to soothe myself with words instead of using ice cream or cookies.

I know from experience what it’s like to struggle with disordered eating and I also know that complete recovery is possible.

And, why did I suddenly decide at the age of five that my thighs were too big?

My parents were serious academics and I was more rambunctious than they were used to. I was constantly told, “Calm down. Be quiet. You’re too loud. You’re too dramatic. You’re too much.”

My five-year-old mind translated the message of being figuratively too much to handle into being literally too much. That’s points to the importance of looking at the hidden, psychological underpinnings of eating disorder behavior.

What was the final straw that made you decide that you were going to do all you can to get better?

It came down to this: I wanted to have fun. I wanted to go on a hike and enjoy the experience, instead of calculating every calorie I was burning. I wanted to go out to dinner and enjoy the company of others, instead of miserably thinking about what I should or should not eat and feeling self-conscious about every bite. I wanted to live without anxiety about my weight. I wanted to stop constantly obsessing about every bite. I wanted to be free of all of that. At some point it was just, enough is enough. I knew I had to change.

And how are things going for you today?

I have a normal and healthy relationship with food and my body. It’s a privilege to help other people liberate themselves from eating disorders, which I do in my work in my clinical private practice, my online coaching programs, my books, and my radio program. When people say my book has changed their life, changed their relationship with food for good, it’s the best feeling in the world. Most people who struggle with binge eating think they have no willpower or no control, and they feel terrible about themselves. I love helping them transform their relationship with food by changing the way they relate to themselves.

Based on your own experience are you able to share 5 things with our readers about how to support a loved one who is struggling with an eating disorder? If you can, can you share an example from your own experience?

I definitely have thoughts about that, some of which are what NOT to do or say, and also suggestions on what is helpful.

#1 Don’t be the food police

Don’t ask, “Do you think you should eat that?” Don’t say, “Maybe you should make a healthier choice.”

A comment like that has never caused anyone to put down a fork or stop eating and say, “You’re right, I never thought of that. I shouldn’t eat this. Thank you for enlightening me.”

More likely, the person you’re talking to feels embarrassed, ashamed, guilty, and defensive. They might be mad at you for making them feel self-conscious about food. And worse, they’re even more likely to turn to food for comfort, since eating soothes, numbs or distracts from uncomfortable feelings.

In other words, being the food police doesn’t make things better; it usually makes things worse.

In my personal experience, that’s what happened with me. Every time I stepped foot into the kitchen my father would come over to see what I was doing. If I ate quickly or finished everything on my plate, my parents would say I had a “lusty appetite” (yuck).

I felt scrutinized and self-conscious, which led to eating in secret, purging in secret, and feeling a pervasive sense of shame.

#2 Don’t be logical

Don’t say, “If you want to lose weight, just eat a little less and exercise more.”

Here’s why logic doesn’t help. What seems like a weight problem or a food problem is usually not about food. Whatever is going on with food is a “symptom” of the problem.

In gardening, if you chop off a weed it grows back. To eliminate a weed permanently, you have to dig out the root. Overeating is the equivalent of a weed.

To stop bingeing, stress eating or emotional eating, or any kind of disordered eating, people have to identify and work through the conflicts and emotions that lead to overeating. Talking about food or being logical isn’t going to help, because the focus is on the wrong thing — what they’re eating, instead of why.

When it comes to any type of eating disorder, it’s not logical, it’s psychological.

#3 Don’t offer appearance-based reassurance

Imagine your friend, daughter, mother, brother, or someone you care about says they feel fat.

In an effort to be supportive and reassuring, you might say, “What do you mean, you feel fat? You look great.”

That doesn’t help.

If you say, “You look amazing” to someone, has that person ever said, “Really? I look amazing? Thanks, I don’t feel fat anymore.”

Fat is not a feeling. If someone feels “fat” she (or he) may be using the term “fat” as a default description for feeling unsatisfied or wishing for more of something they’re not getting. They may feel fat because it’s preferable to feel emotional.

Telling someone they look great doesn’t reassure them if on some level they’re using “fat” to express a fear that they’re too much, or not good enough, or because it’s easier to feel fat than to feel anxious, scared, vulnerable or upset.

#4 Don’t comment on other people’s weight or appearance

Maybe you’re thinking you don’t say any of those things. You’re sensitive to people’s feelings and would never comment on anyone’s weight.

That’s wonderful. But, do you ever talk about other people’s weight? Have you ever said something like, “That actress who lost all her baby weight in three weeks? She looks amazing.”

Although, eating disorders are about deeper issues than weight and food, commenting on anyone’s appearance can actually trigger the behavior. When people feel bad about themselves, such as in comparison to a celebrity who lost all her baby weight in three weeks, they might use eating disorder behavior to cope.

#5 Focus on feelings, not behavior

Be supportive by letting your loved one know you are there for him or her. Discuss why you’re concerned, in a caring, gentle, and non-judgmental manner. One way to do that is to ask open-ended questions, which are questions that that can’t be answered with a yes or a no and which delve into the person’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

A classic open-ended question is the one that therapists ask a lot, “How do you feel?”

Another is, “How can I help?”

Ask questions about their needs, wants, wishes, hopes, and fears, not about their behavior with food. That gives you a better understanding of the person you care about and helps you develop more trust. That in turn can make it safe for your loved one to turn to you for comfort and connection instead of eating disorder behavior.

Is there a message you would like to tell someone who may be reading this, who is currently struggling with an eating disorder?

I want everyone reading this to know that there is always hope. No matter how long you’ve struggled, no matter how impossible it seems, there is hope.

There was a time when I couldn’t imagine thinking about anything other than food and my weight. Every page of every one of my journals was filled with numbers. I wrote what I weighed, what I was going to weigh, how many calories I ate, how many calories I burned. I was completely obsessed and preoccupied and it was my life. I’m living proof that you can radically and permanently transform your life and your relationship with food.

I also want to say, you are not your eating disorder. It is not your identity and it does not define you. Imagine drawing two circles on a piece of paper. Each is perfectly imperfect, as we all are. If you fill one of the circles with the word: anorexia or bulimia or binge eating, it feels as if you are what you do.

Instead, write down the name of the disorder elsewhere on the paper. Then draw an arrow from the second circle towards the name of the eating disorder. You are struggling with an eating disorder, and you’re doing it for a reason. It does not define you. It is not you. And the eating disorder does not define you.

The artist Michelangelo was once asked how he turned huge blocks of stone into statues, such as the iconic David.

“I don’t turn the stone into statues,” said Michelangelo. “I free the statues from the stone.”

People who struggle with food often describe themselves as “broken” and think there’s something wrong with them. They aren’t broken. They’re just stuck. Our work together is to chip away at what keeps them stuck so they can discover their true selves.

It’s never too late to change. I’ve helped men and women from their early teens to their late seventies transform their relationship to food. No matter what life stage you are in, no matter what you’ve endured, no matter how hopeless you think your situation may seem, there is always hope. It really is possible to free yourself from your fixation with food and to enjoy your life.

If you’re turning away from food or turning to food, it’s for a reason. When you identify that reason, which may be hidden from consciousness, and find new ways of coping, the behavior will stop.

According to this study cited by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, at least 30 million people in the U.S. of all ages and genders suffer from an eating disorder. Can you suggest 3–5 reasons why this has become such a critical issue recently?

Those statistics appear to indicate that eating disorders are a recent phenomenon, but people have struggled with eating disorders for centuries. There are historical references to anorexia as far back as the Hellenic period. Many cases of anorexia were documented in the 17th century.

French psychologist Pierre Janet wrote about a bulimic patient in 1903. Cases of bulimia have been written about throughout the 20th century. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Hilda Bruch brought eating disorders to wider attention through her books about eating disorders.

I’ve treated men and women in their 60s and 70s who battled an eating disorder their entire lives. They stayed silent out of shame, but because of media coverage of eating disorders, they realized they were not alone and then had the courage to seek help.

I suggest that the prevalence of eating disorders is not a recent phenomenon, but one that is recently gotten attention, and more people are willing to report on their behavior. Thank goodness for that!

Based on your insight, what can concrete steps can a) individuals, b) corporations, c) communities and d) leaders do to address the core issues that are leading to this problem?

We can all start normalizing emotions and not pathologizing them. There’s an idea that exists across the board that our feelings make us weak or that they make other people uncomfortable, so we push them away. Here are the messages we often get:

Angry? You have an anger management problem.

Sad? You’re depressed. Take an antidepressant.

Anxious? There’s a pill for that, too.

Scared? Be strong! Fight!

The basic message is there’s something wrong with feelings. No wonder so many of us have a hard time recognizing that emotions, needs, desires, and reactions are part of being human. A feeling is a reaction to a situation and not a character flaw.

With all the cultural prohibitions against feelings, it’s no surprise that so many of us have difficulty identifying and processing our emotions. We all have to work together to recognize that anger, sadness, anxiety, guilt, shame, loneliness, and all feelings need our attention and not our condemnation.

After all, feelings are powerful and we can’t drop them, ignore them, positive-think them away or push them under the rug. When you try to avoid anger, sadness, anxiety, guilt, shame, or loneliness, you may end up turning to food to find relief or comfort from those difficult feelings so that you don’t actually have to feel and express them.

The steps we can take are to normalize emotions, listen, and respond to our feelings and those of others. When emotions are respected on an individual, familial, and societal level, we’ll be able to process them instead of using disordered eating (or other means) to avoid them.

As you know, one of the challenges of an eating disorder is the harmful, and dismissive sentiment of “why can’t you just control yourself”. What do you think needs to be done to make it apparent that an eating disorder is an illness just like heart disease or schizophrenia?

Eating disorder behavior is the result of a complex interplay of our environmental influences and our inherent temperament and constitution. With the exception of extreme anorexia, which is difficult to treat because people can’t think or process anything when their brains are starved, I don’t believe an eating disorder is comparable to heart disease of schizophrenia. It is not a disease that is based on biology and located in the brain; it is a way of coping based on the mind.

In nearly two decades of exclusively treating eating disorders, as well as my own experience, I see an eating disorder as a deleterious way of coping. It’s a frenemy, in that it helps you in some way, but it also hurts you.

We need to look at the symbolism of eating disorders and translate the unconscious hidden parts of the mind. If you eat until your stomach hurts, maybe you’re converting emotional pain to physical pain.

Our first experience of relationship is connected to being fed as babies. We don’t consciously think of it this way, but food equals relationship. After all, when we talk of “comfort food” we’re really expressing a wish to be comforted.

People can be unpredictable, unreliable, and unavailable. Unlike people, food is predictable, reliable, and available. So, bingeing on food or emotional eating can be a way of feeling a sense of fulfillment when we’re lonely or disconnected.

Eating disorder behavior is also a way of escaping and dissociating from a painful reality. If you’re turning “to” food you’re likely turning away from something else.

If you enjoy the aching emptiness of hunger and deprivation, perhaps you’re expressing how empty or lonely you feel.

If you want to be little and skinny and small, maybe you have a conflict about being an adult.

If you’re bingeing and purging, maybe that’s a way of expressing conflicts over needs and wants. The binge is a way of allowing yourself to have what you want; the purge is a way of saying, “I don’t want anything.”

Focusing exclusively on eating disorder behavior is like pulling weeds and expecting the weed to be gone for good. It’s difficult to create lasting change unless you get to the root issue. After all, you can’t solve a problem you don’t see. We can’t see real roots, but we know they’re there; similarly, some beliefs, thoughts, and ideas are out of conscious awareness, but they have everything to do with our behavior.

The good news is that once you address the root issues leading to behavior, it’s gone for good. Liberation!

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that have helped you with your struggle? Can you explain why you like them?

Two books I recommend to my patients are Eating In The Light Of The Moon: How Women Can Transform Their Relationship with Food Through Myths, Metaphors, and Storytelling by Anita Johnston and Appetites by Caroline Knapp.

Both examine the underpinnings of the behavior, rather than the behavior itself. They honor the notion that it’s okay/human/important/vital to want, yearn and desire, to hunger for life, and explain in different ways how conflicts about yearning, being, and metaphorically taking up space lead to conflicts about food.

The reason I wrote my latest book, The Binge Cure: 7 Steps to Outsmart Emotional Eating is I wanted readers to have a resource to help them liberate themselves from emotional eating. I wrote my previous book, Food for Thought: Perspectives on Eating Disorders, because I wanted clinicians to have a different understanding of eating disorders other than as “brain-based illnesses” and thus be able to treat eating disorders more effectively.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favorite quote is, “Live, do not merely exist.”

At a certain point, I realized I wanted to live, to experience life, to go places and do things, to experience life without thinking about what I weighed or what I’d eaten that day or what I’d eat the following day.

My life had shrunk to the size of a bathroom scale, which dominated my life and measured my self-worth. I wanted to feel more alive and embrace all that this world has to offer. I knew I couldn’t do that with all the anxiety I felt, which is what led me to therapy.

Of course, dealing with that anxiety is exactly what helped me liberate myself from all eating disorders, for good. It was never about the food. It was about my relationship with myself. When that changed, I dropped my eating disorder behavior and never looked back.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I recently co-founded an exciting online membership program called the Binge-Free Babes Project. My co-founder, Kelley Gunter, lost 243 pounds and didn’t find happiness. Instead of using food, she started drinking and gambling. She finally realized that food had never been a true problem. Once she realized that eating was actually a solution to the problem, not “the” problem, and deal with her trauma, she could find herself.

I’m extremely proud and happy to partner with Kelly in our exclusive Binge-Free Babes Project, which is a premium “hybrid” group coaching program for women struggling with binge eating. We offer weekly live streams, direct access to me and Kelley, chances to win a free one-on-one coaching session (we have two winners every month), proven action plans, workbooks, and checklists, plus a priceless online support group to meet like-minded loving people who are going through the same thing.

Members tell us that it’s been life-changing for them already. We love that we have an affordable, warm, and safe place to get help and also begin the journey towards peace, joy, and freedom.

We know we’re helping people take the necessary steps to actually changing their thoughts, habits… and lives.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the largest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I like to say that I’m leading a “post-diet revolution” but my true mission in life is to help people heal their relationship with themselves. All relationships begin with the one we have with ourselves. If we’re critical of ourselves, we’re more likely to tolerate criticism from others, since their criticism will be familiar and feel as if they know us really well.

When we’re kind, compassionate, and loving towards ourselves, we won’t tolerate a critical stance (unless it’s constructive) because we value ourselves.

How can our readers follow you on social media?




Dr. Nina’s Food for Thought Community (Facebook):


Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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