How CBT Helped Jenna to Stop Overeating

A Story of How CBT Can Be Used to Treat Food Addiction

Model poses as woman overeating
Jenna's overeating was an ineffective way of dealing with her feelings. Echo / Getty Images

This story is an example of how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helped Jenna stop overeating. While the characters and the story are fictitious, the characteristics and circumstances described are often seen in people who come for treatment for food addiction. Jenna’s story is presented for illustrative purposes, to help readers understand how CBT can help people stop overeating.

Jenna was a binge eater, who binged on candy, cookies, and chocolate several times a day.

Her overeating had started in childhood, when she would eat candy in secret at night. She described her binges as emotional eating, because she ate when she felt upset. Jenna did everything she could to prevent weight gain, including skipping regular meals, exercising for hours, using laxatives to "clear herself out," and occasionally, making herself vomit. Her family doctor became concerned that she was developing problems with incontinence from laxative overuse, and she referred Jenna for CBT to help her stop overeating.

Lisa, Jenna's cognitive behavioral therapist, guided Jenna in recording the thoughts and feelings she experienced before, during and after bingeing on sweet food. By analyzing the thoughts and feelings Jenna had around food, they came to understand that Jenna had become addicted to food because of a type of faulty thinking called emotional reasoning. As Jenna’s weight has increased, her self-esteem has worsened.

Many times a day, Jenna would interpret small chance occurrences as reasons to feel bad about herself. Once Jenna started keeping track of her thought processes, she realized how often this was happening. For example, if someone pushed in front of her in line, and she would feel that this must mean she was a worthless person, and would immediately buy a bar to chocolate to eat and make herself feel better.

One day, a colleague didn't respond when she said "Good morning," and she reasoned this was because her colleague disliked her, so at her first opportunity, she made an excuse to slip out and buy a pack of cookies, and ate the whole pack. Her performance review at work was rated "good," and she thought that anything less than "excellent" meant she was terrible at her job, so spent the evening eating cake and ice cream. Each time a minor disappointment of this sort occurred, which was almost daily, she would go to her secret stash of chocolate or head to the grocery store for a binge. In spite of this well-established pattern of behavior, although Jenna did want to stop overeating, she just did not know another way to handle her uncomfortable feelings of worthlessness.

Lisa explained to Jenna that her binge eating was based on emotional reasoning, and, although eating might make her feel temporarily comforted, would not help her feel better about herself. In fact, overeating was having the opposite effect, and was actually making her feel worse about herself, which would then worsen her overeating.

Together, they planned a different approach to handling disappointment. With practice, Jenna was able to interpret people’s responses to her more realistically, so she was not constantly feeling inadequate. She also practiced methods for improving her self-esteem. As her self-esteem improved, Jenna became more able to refrain from snacking and bingeing, and began to eat more nutritious food.

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