The Three Eaters: Why Weight Loss Diets Are NOT For Everyone

March 3, 2015
Kelly Coffey

Moderation in all things is a lovely concept, but when it comes to weight loss diets, portion-control alone works long-term for only a fraction of folks that want to lose weight.

For most of us, finding sustainable, healthy approaches to weight loss is a little more…personal.

If you’re a wellness professional, especially if you ever engage people in a conversation about weight loss, the word ‘deprivation’ is hard to avoid. If you’re overweight or obese and want to lose weight, it’s an easy word to fear.

Few consider that how and why we experience deprivation depends on what kind of eater we are.

Did you know there were three different kinds of eaters?


Well, there’s the first problem.

There are three different types of eaters. These three different types of eaters need completely different ‘solutions,’ assuming they’re overweight AND want to lose excess fat.

Aside: If someone is overweight or obese and they’re happy and healthy and their minds are peaceful and quiet and they feel good then that means they’re doing a helluva lot better than most of us and should be celebrated. If someone is overweight or obese and is uncomfortable or unhappy, or they’re in turmoil,  and they feel like an unhealthy relationship to food or eating is contributing to that, the first step to finding a healthy, sustainable solution is to figure out what kind of eater they are.

1. The Blessed

There is really no such thing as ‘normal,’ so let’s call these folks the Blessed eaters. You may have heard tell of these folks around a campfire. They’re the ones who want to take off a few pounds, so they go to the doctor and get a nourishing, portion-controlled food plan. They eat as they were told.  They lose weight and keep it off. Done.

The Blessed have what’s essentially an information-based problem. Someone gives them better information (how or what to eat), and their problem is solved. These are the folks for whom most weight loss diets actually work.  This isn’t how it goes down for most overweight folks who want to lose weight.  I know, I know – shocking.  The overwhelming majority of diets that pop up can only ever work for Blessed eaters.

2. The Stressed

The Stressed have a coping strategy-based problem. They use food and eating to cope with emotions – positive, negative, and everything in between. Many have a trauma history, and many suffer from co-occurring conditions like anxiety and depression.

Diets alone tend not to work for the Stressed, or, if they do, they work only for a short time before the weight gets regained. Progress toward healthy and sustainable weight loss for Stressed eaters may involve therapy and/or medication, or some other support around developing alternative coping strategies.

Once a Stressed eater has resolved old trauma and developed new, go-to coping mechanisms, they can adopt a nourishing, portion-controlled food plan. They lose the weight and keep it off. Done.

When most of us first decide to lose weight, we go on a diet. Almost all of us fail, either quitting before we reach our goal, or regaining everything we lost. Most do both. We quickly learn that we’re not Blessed eaters – that having a solid food plan just ain’t enough – though whether or not we choose to believe it is another story altogether. If we do accept that our problem with food isn’t just an information problem, most of us assume it’s one of strategy.

But is it?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Let’s say we think we’re Stressed eaters, and so we do the work to deal with out emotions in non-food-related ways: Therapy. Medication. Activities. Communities. Journaling up the wazoo. Yoga. Tapping. Needles. Bells. Chanting. Whatever else. OK, so what if we still can’t get a handle on our relationship to food? What if, every time we try to eat “proper portions of sensible foods,” we feel like we’re having the culinary equlivalent of an asthma attack –  “(gasp)…Can’t….get…enough…food…” – so we end up bingeing and slide all the way back?

If this is our experience, then the question becomes:

How many therapists, how many different professionals, how many epiphanies, how many years, how much money, how much time, how much craziness, and how many alternative coping mechanisms need to prove ineffective before we allow ourselves to consider the possibility that, just maybe, we’re not Stressed eaters?

How many ‘solutions’ need to fail us before we become open to a more accurate diagnosis?

3. The Obsessed

Obsessed eaters, have a bio-chemical problem. Certain foods set off a bio-chemical cascade that inspires craving, obsession, bingeing, and ultimately, regret. 1

To develop a healthier relationship to food and eating, Obsessed eaters need to abstain from the foods that trigger craving in them. Science is emerging about the two most addictive types of foods – those containing sugar, and those containing a seemingly magical combination of sugar, salt and fat (‘hyperpalatable foods’).

If you’ve been assuming you’re a Stressed eater but seem incapable of losing weight or maintaining your prefered weight, it’s possible you’ve crossed the line into an addictive pattern or relationship to certain foods.

This doesn’t actually suck as much as you might imagine.

If and when we cross the line into addiction around certain foods, we become a new kind of Blessed. Uncertainty is stressful, but once we identify what foods trigger us, we can abstain from them, and in doing so, experience tremendous freedom.

Many who opt to abstain from their trigger foods feels worlds better on the inside after just a few days. And many find that there’s little else they need to do or change about how they’re eating to shed excess fat.

Many also find – and this is where Obsessed eaters win big – that deprivation becomes a non-issue, assuming triggering foods are being avoided completely.

If you’ve crossed the line into an addictive pattern with certain foods, abstinence may spell freedom from a sense of deprivation, from a sense of loss, and from feeling powerless to change.

Whichever eater we happen to be, we are all capable of eating nourishing foods in nourishing ways, and developing a healthier relationship to our precious, if particular, bodies.

Why we improve what and how we eat has to be a choice.

What that looks like depends on what kind of eater we are.


  1. Or, you know, incomprehensible demoralization. Tomayto / Tomahto.
Showing 24 comments
  • Sheila

    I think I was raised as an Obsessed eater. Not that we ever starved but there was little room for excess or “treats”. I remember as a little kid, trying to make sure I got my fair share (if not more than my siblings). I think when I got old enough to be out on my own, I became a stressed eater; always looking for something to soothe me. If something tasted great, then I rationalized it as some form of care. Then taking that obsessed/stressed self and took everything to the edge. Why order the small when I could order the SuperSize. I never wanted to feel like I missed out on anything food wise.

    Now, I know more. When I know better and I think I do better. I know I’m a sugar & carb addict. I know I cannot have it because when I do, it escalates quickly and soon I’m making a cake mix to eat before baking. So abstinence is what works. I do slip, but try to recognize it and forgive myself and then move on.

    • Kelly Coffey

      Thanks for this, Sheila. Good thing to think on – the fact that the people who raised us were whatever kind of eater they were, and that that couldn’t help but inform what kind of eater we became.

  • Izzy

    It all makes sense. Although sometimes it’s hard to find a healthier substitute that will satisfy a sugar/carb craving, when it hits. I know personally sometimes I will try to make a “better” choice, but it doesn’t hit the spot, so to speak. I wind up eating my way around the kitchen to avoid That Thing I Shouldn’t Eat, … but ultimately eating it anyway because nothing else satisfies the craving. Hah!

    • Kelly Coffey

      Izzy, I hear you. I hear you and I feel you. There’s a few different factors at play when that craving hits at 9 pm on a Wednesday. First, bio-chemical craving (the addiction) – this is a HUGE factor, but if we’re obsessed eaters, if and when we cleanly cut ties with the foods that trigger us, that physical craving goes away in just a few days. Of course, halting the biochemoical craving is the crucial first step, but it’s only the first step. Once that’s set aside, there’s a few things we can do to help ourselves over humps like 9pm. It helps most of us to stay sated – being genuinely hungry can only ever work against us. And then – and this is the interesting part – do something else with that time – that time that we would spend doing laps around the kitchen, eating everything but the thing we really want. Using that time for something other than eating foods we don’t relate to in a healthy way, or being caught in obsession or regret about food, is how we begin to slowly and steadily piece together the confidence and the sense of accomplishment that makes it easier to make strong choices tomorrow, and next week.

      Thanks for taking the time to write.

    • Michelle

      Me, too!!!!!

  • Lisa Benning-Johnson

    I think I probably started out as an emotional eater, back in my teens and 20’s, when I could actually ” stick to ” those deprivation type diets, and perhaps maintain the loss for a short time. Actually, my unhealthy relationship with food began as a child; I can recall a doctor putting me on the old diabetic ” exchange diet” when I was in 2nd grade. As I get older, I find it more difficult to adhere to a healthy lifestyle. I indulge in foods that I know are not good for me, and find myself falling into unhealthy patterns, going through the fast food drive thrus on way home from work, snacking when everyone goes to bed, etc. I find it more difficult to get to the gym, using work as an excuse. I am starting to feel powerless. I am going to try abstinence- nothing else has worked. It makes sense!

    • Kelly Coffey

      If addiction is underneath the behavior, the first step is abstinence. The second step is to employ the tool you learned in the first Principle, each and every time a craving hits, and it will. Lisa, I’m always here for you, and I want you to USE ME. You tell me how I can support you, and you’ve got it.

  • Michelle

    Is it possible to be a combination of two out of three? I think I am more on the Obsessed side, but there are hints of Stressed. I am definitely addicted to sugar and carbs, but abstinence….really? That is like saying there will be no more sunshine. With an addiction like this, how do we abstain without backsliding???

    • Kelly Coffey

      Michelle, I’ve had that experience of sheer terror at the thought of never having a taste of (fill in the blank) again. What I’ve learned is that, if we think of it that way – as “I can never have this again! AH!” – we are doomed to fail. We can’t conceive of life without whatever-the-hell, and so we don’t go without it for even one more hour.
      This is part of why long term goals and plans are so counter-productive when it comes to health and fitness for folks like us. Success for us depends on our ability to give ourselves permission to stay 100% focused on the moment we’re, and on the one choice we’re making in that moment. It sounds foolish at first, but that’s the only way most of us can wrap our heads around concepts like abstinence. And really, what else is there but the moment we’re in? Thank you for checking in!

  • MIchele Petryk

    I’m definitely in the addicted boat. How do I know this? Today, berries and nut heavy granola (modest scoop) for breakfast; mixed salad with chicken for lunch; aaaaaannnd four, count ’em FOUR dunkin donuts for dinner. Arrrrrgh!!! The last one didn’t even feel good. Maybe I’m stressed because tomorrow morning I start CrossFit for the first time in 4 years. Anyway, thanks for the space to vent.


    • Kelly Coffey

      You’re a riot, Alice 🙂

      • Michele

        Who is Alice?? And hey Coffey, I think you are a goddess and all that but what are ya doin’ up at 2:12am??? You’re the one who told me it all falls apart without good shut eye.


  • Gemma

    After the birth of my first child 8 years ago, while suffering PND, I become and emotional eater, and this has slowly led to becoming a obsessed eater. I sometimes wonder if I wasn’t single if it would be easier to abstain? Only because I would never overeat in front of anyone and never be with anyone who was also a stressed or obsessed eater??

    • Kelly Coffey

      Gemma, I bet there would be some thing that would feel easier, and some things that would feel like even more of a challenge. I married a guy who naturally maintains the same weight he was at 20 – when he eats more, he exercises more, naturally. I thought living with this alien creature would make that rub off on me. It didn’t. What it has done is give me a reason to resent him when I’m hunting for one. We are always who we are, with or without someone else. If anything, I believe the someone else makes us see just how ‘ourselves’ we really are 🙂

  • Beth

    I’m so glad that you mention the “Blessed Eater” because I have been trying to be one for most of my life. The result has been a 50 year roller coaster ride of repeated failure, frustration, shame and increased obesity. There is such a freedom in knowing that I can stop trying to fit my square self into that round hole of an eating plan that doesn’t fit. I need to learn some new coping skills for sure but right now abstinence seems more than I can manage. One step at a time, I guess.

    • Kelly Coffey

      Beth, I love the square peg / round hole idea! Yes! And you know what – if you’re a stressed eater, the abstinence approach isn’t necessarily the strongest choice for you, so don’t even worry about it. Fine the right hole, so to speak, and don’t fret about the rest. 🙂

  • Mary Alice

    Do you think it’s possible for the emotional eater to become addicted? When you talked about the emotional eater, I said “that’s me!”, but then I know I have an addictive personality. It’s hard to stop once I get started (not just food if you know what I mean) 😉

    Thanks for all your insight!

    • Kelly Coffey

      I sure do. I think that the emotional eater is more likely than the normal, or “blessed” eater, to become addicted, since the emotional eater is more likely to occasionally binge, and bingeing contributes to the development of addiction. Thanks for writing. I’m excited you’re here.

  • Sue Loomis

    I think I started out as a stressed eater with obsessive actions. As a child having problems with stress, depression and shyness I found “comfort” in food. Then as I’ve matured the Obsessed “ME” took over. The hard thing is to stop thinking about food all the time or is there a way of using that thinking in a different way? Right now I’m thinking “I wonder if the cafe has that great chocolate cake today?”
    On a good note I’m trying out the FitBit – it is helping me. I do better having goals and someone else to help me along.
    Thanks for the information!

    • Dana

      Hi Coffey! 😉
      So glad I found my way back here and to this feed… If anyone else ends up reading this, first let me say that taking Coffey’s Pleasure Principals course is changing my life… not overnight, but in the moments… and I NEVER believed this could be true.
      After (at least) three decades of food/body image related struggles things are shifting… and it’s F’ING amazing. What I’ve learned lately is not that I’m addicted (already knew that) and that I have volumes of attributing factors and experiences around this territory but more importantly, that I have an inner wisdom (sounds lame, I know… “if only it was that easy”) that I am learning to distinguish.
      I’ve been spending (yes, “spending” as my way of living has felt emotionally/physically costly) YEARS trying to “change”… then for YEARS trying to “accept”… neither worked to bring me any sustainable happiness/peace/etc (and it honestly didn’t matter if I could fit into “skinny jeans”, even when I was thin (which I’m not right now) I wasn’t satisfied… the underlining issues didn’t go away with the pounds, and they may have even been exacerbated during those periods – I am also not currently feeling free or comfortable in my bodies current state (this is to say acceptance and the “what the hell, this is just me” isn’t cutting it either, there is more to my story, I know this).
      Enter Pleasure Principals, the support, the community (Klatch) and a willingness…
      (which didn’t come at first either). I am working with the material, and more important with my own core beliefs… they are unraveling and at the base of the jangled, beautiful mess is me (and my wisdom) … always been there. I get to (yep, I give myself permission) to make my own choices (who was making them before?!? Not exactly sure. Perhaps it was the sum total of a shitload of fears, false beliefs, etc (actually, of course it was).
      And so I find myself checking in (often) and asking… are they loving and kind (choices) or are they going to bring more suffering ultimately (even if disguised as something oh so sweet… such a treat… and so on…).
      Here’s the kicker… I make the choice… PERIOD. Then, I experience the outcome… the more “grounded I am in healthier habits” (the ones I’m exploring and learning about via the course, and other members who are going through the similar processes) the more I am simply (sometimes not, but usually it is proving to be rather simple… go figure) DRAWN to make more of those choices… it’s blowing my mind… TRULY.
      And, there is no judgement either way – what’s the use? !?
      Curiosity… YES. Compassion… YES. Judgement… HELL NO.
      To someone who understands this struggle (private hell) and I KNOW there are many of us, it really is monumental when you find yourself driving around in your car, or walking around in your house able to experience space, and your own feelings (gasp) without turning the controls over to the autopilot (I think of the blow up guy in the movie “Airplane” 😉 ).
      This sense of being capable and conscious is morphing my being… it’s taking over (ha-ha) and becoming more and more present. I’ve become sick (literally) of resisting that part of me that wants to take care (rebelling against it, talking myself out of it, hiding from it). I want to show up for myself and am learning to do just that, moment to moment, and it feels like it’s saving my life (on so many levels).
      We can have a different story… absolutely.
      This is the first platform with all the crucial puzzle pieces (Coffey and all that encompasses) where I’ve been able to springboard off of into a knowing that things can be (and are) different (by doing the work – which is not “work” per se, as much as it is giving yourself the floor… about time right?!? ).
      And as positive as this all may sound, things aren’t perfect (of course never will be) and challenges persist. I don’t see huge change in my physical form yet but you know, I’m not sure how much I deeply care anymore because either way, this feels to good to give up!!
      HAH! THAT, was my staunch take on that which was harming me just a few months ago.
      Somehow, in the last few months of working this material (like the insightful information presented above and so much more) my new favorite thing is the next opportunity to make a “strong” choice…. kinda bizarre but it’s the truth… WORD.
      There is SOOOOO much in that moment,.. it feels like the very best “Gateway” drug… like a road map from where I’ve been and where I’m going yet the paradox is… it’s right THERE, in that MOMENT. And the more I explore this practice, the less interesting/intriguing going back to familiar landscape (behaviors) is.
      Please understand, (even if it’s just me who re-reads this… lol) I was resigned to a belief that I would most likely never get past this issue… I felt totally imprisoned.
      I no longer feel this way and haven’t for some time now (I’m pausing for a moment to acknowledge the magnitude… YES!!!).
      I’ve managed to get a hold of the keys and I’m seeing now what fits where and which ones I can toss.
      Well… I just went OFF didn’t I?!?
      I hope it helps someone, somewhere (me included).
      This is how I came across this site, writing in because I resonated with a post of Kelly’s (see below).
      I’m SO grateful the “autopilot” was on break when I did so.
      Lastly, THANK YOU COFFEY. <3 You're my lifetime pal. 😉,d.cGU

      Now… if only I could copy and paste the image of found of the "autopilot". 😉

  • Alison

    First and foremost THANK-YOU, for your honesty and humor. I am in the process of taking control of my weight issue. I admit for me making the decision to just not eat it or have it available (morning coffee with cream and sugar, favorite breads/carbs) has eliminated the cravings. Over the weekend I went to a family BBQ. I ate food that for me I shouldn’t have, and haven’t for 6 weeks. I woke up at 2a with horrible indigestion. The next day I had a very stressful work day, came home and again ate foods I haven’t touched for 6 weeks. I relate this to the carbs from the day before, creeping back, setting the cravings up for an appearance! This morning, I’m back on track. Have my meals for the day planned in my head, and trying to shut down the BEAST who wants a cup of coffee with cream and sugar! Down girl, down. Going to finish this and head over to the free weights, turn on some music and bounce around on the rebounder. You are surely making a difference in my life, a most sincere and heart felt thank you-

    • Kelly Coffey

      Thanks for taking a minute to write to me, Alison! Enjoy your workout. And sign up for the webinar I’m doing 4/1 @ 830 if you haven’t already! 🙂

  • Barbara

    Does anyone ever consider the person who doesn’t eat well because financially she just can’t afford to? For the sake of having a rhyming nickname, I’ll call this person the “Oppressed” eater (think: “oppressed by the ‘tyrant’ of Poverty.”)

    When I was a child, I remember my mother telling me that many poor people were fat, not because they were eating too much, but because they could not afford to buy healthy food and often had to fill up on cheap high-carb choices such as white bread, macaroni and so on. I pretty much found this to be true during a financially difficult couple of years not long ago, when husband was out of work and we were skimping along on food-bank contributions and the occasional temp-job paycheck, together with discreet money contributions slipped to us now and then by caring (and wealthier) friends.

    Food banks are a wonderful resource, and what we have received from them has often included some protein foods, fruits and vegetables. When you realize that what they give out is what they get from their donors (grocery stores and, sometimes, government surplus programs) you can’t blame them that there is also usually a very large percentage of highly-refined items such as sweet baked goods, white bread products, instant cereals, pastas and candy. When money is low, and you are hungry, and that’s what’s on the shelf, it is hard to say, “Better to eat nothing at all than that high-carb stuff that will just make me want to eat more and more of it.” Or to just give it away, or throw it in the trash, or maybe not go to the food bank at all, because after all we intelligent/educated people KNOW that it is poison–more or less, for everyone, but especially for those of us who find it hard to stop eating it once we have started. It’s hard to throw away (or refuse to accept in the first place) bad food when the chance of getting good food to take its place is minimal. In addition to natural hunger, there is the fear that others will say, “You’re too picky! Poor people should just be thankful for what they can get, even if it isn’t what they like best! Think of all those in the world who are starving, who would be thankful for even that loaf of white bread!”

    I am still trying to figure out how to handle being this type of eater.

    • Kelly Coffey

      Hey there, Barbara –

      You left an amazing quote on my blog last month, and I need to reach out to you to say it’s taken me this long to approve it because I’ve been waiting for it to arrive at the top of my list of priorities. Your point about poverty and it’s impact on being able to eat well and make mindful choices it spot on, and there’s no denying that it’s a serious problem, and one that simply may not be practical for many in poverty to work around.

      Because your comment brings up deeper social justice issues than what my audience usually comes to my blog to see, I wanted to give it a thoughtful response, likely with its own post.

      Please forgive me for being as busy as I am, and for holding this comment in mediation as long as I have.

      Take good care of you.

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