Episode 3: Molly Carmel - Food Addiction Therapist and Coach

Molly discusses the nuanced world of food addiction and how to get healthier. 

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Episode #3 Podcast Transcript:

Welcome to the Choices Podcast and online AA coin and recovery store. 

How are you?

I'm so happy to be here.

I am, too. I'm so glad you agreed to come on the podcast, and I want to welcome you to the "You Always Have Choices Podcast."

You know I'm in love with this name.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. I want to tell our people a little about you before we start, okay?


Today's guest is Molly Carmel. She is a leading addiction and eating disorder therapist and founder of Beacon by MC. Known for her straight talk, no chaser attitude, she is also the author of Breaking Up with Sugar and the former podcast host “What's Your Craving.”  Molly is fiercely devoted to helping people break free of their destructive relationship with food, dieting, and negative body image through the use of DBT. She's also involved with Reiki, breath work, meditation, and more. Her work has been featured on The Today Show, The Dr. Oz Show, Dateline NBC, Anderson Cooper 360, the LA Times, and the New York Times. Welcome.

 I'm so happy to be here.  And happy to chat with a friend.

Yes, and that’s what we are.  So, let's jump right into it. So, what brought you to this field? What, how did you get here?

I've known that this is what I've wanted to do since I was 13 - I've known that I have wanted to help people heal. And that's essentially a function of my trauma, my own story. I'm what you call a ‘wounded healer’. I'm now a healed healer or a healing healer because I don't think there's an endpoint to this healing.

From a young age, I struggled with issues with food issues with “more.” I think at the time when I had a lot of trauma in my upbringing; my dad passed away tragically when I was three years old. And I turned to food, and my mom was so outmatched by that. And, of course, she sent me to a nutritionist, and this and this and this. I remember being nine, sitting in a nutritionist’s office with her teaching me the size – what I should eat for protein and knowing in my soul that my problem was not with food. I can stop eating. My problem is not with food.

And so, I was sent to all the traditional treatments that you would send any person, young or old. My mom sent me to weight loss camp, which was fun and the best time ever. Josh Cohen was my boyfriend. We had the time of our lives. But I also remember being at weight loss camp, being like, “I'm going to gain all this weight when I get back. No one was helping me. They were running me and feeding me and having great dances.  I felt included it was amazing, but it wasn't healing me. It wasn't helping the problem. And so, I remember when I was 14, and I was in home economics in ninth grade in my skinny jeans, and the button popped off of my jeans, and that demoralization. I felt very hopeless.  When I was 13 years old, I was at this camp and had this knowing - this is yours to solve, Molly at 13.

And sadly, from 13 to 30, I had experiences that informed my training.   I decided to do training as a therapist, and I decided not just to be a talk therapist but also to involve the mind in my work. I have two specialties - addictions and eating disorders.  My initial training in addictions - the singular way that eating disorders were treated when I was getting trained was not something that I thought was useful for me.  Eating disorders and all addictions are individually biological, emotional, and spiritual.  The one way that it was treated was toxic for me.  I knew I wanted to create a very different paradigm for people who didn't find healing in the intuitive eating and health at any size.

And I have nothing against that. It's just that if somebody tells you there's one way, run away. I knew an addictions model, that concept, in a very different way than maybe alcohol or drugs - that abstinence-only model. It's a very interesting way that I found works for people to help them with their issues with food. My path and journey as it goes, had to get so ugly and gnarly so that I could be prepared. It's fearless in helping other people find the same.

Interestingly, as the years have passed, my podcast is on hold. It's nothing formal, but I started this podcast called “What You're Craving” because there's this excellent slogan and one of the 12-step groups and it says “it's all about the food, and it's not about the food.” And many of us know what's wrong, but getting to the solution is hard. And that's where therapy, coaching, spiritual practices, connection, or some combination is needed. I'm working on helping people with burnout because that's fueling so many of our issues. We aren't getting to that root cause, so we're tapped out emotionally, physically, spiritually.

We're constantly self-debting. Of course, we're turning to food. And, of course, we’re in unhealthy relationships because we can't get to the bottom of any of it. So that's my answer on how I got into this.  I got into this because I was told, like you and your store over, it was brought to me, and there's never been a moment where I thought to do anything else, to be honest.

That's great, that's great. You know, I've always said it. That's what this podcast is about. There are many roads to Rome. And it's not always the same thing for every person. Some people must go to this road, that road, or the next. But it seems like as you are doing this work, it's helpful to you when you're helping others. 

Of course. It’s funny.  I don't know another way because I've been a therapist since the minute I could be one.  I've been a therapist since I was 22, and I'm 46 now.  before that, I worked at these weight loss camps.  I don't know another way. I imagine...when I think about what other people are struggling with, and if I ever make a comparison, I think, well, I'm surrounded by it all day. So, of course, I'm thinking about it.  I think about the other pieces.  

I want to say this to people that feels really important, which is me being a therapist and a coach is not me doing my work. Those are very separate entities to me. I do my own therapy. I have my own recovery that is very separate from going to work.  I say this because I feel like people, talk about choices, Jay. I feel like people don't think they have choices for getting help.  I have never sat with a therapist in my life where I have not said to them, talk to me about your own self-care. Do you go to therapy? I don't think people know they're allowed to do this. If your therapist or your coach is not actively seeking and healing themselves, I wouldn't engage in therapy with that person.

I hear you. When I started my journey, I remembered someone I looked up to as a spiritual leader in my own life who said that when you go to a therapist, interview them.  Ask them, “How long have you done this work?” Talk about your problem and say, “Listen, this is what I have. Do you think you can help?”

There's a deeper question, especially in what's happened to the recovery world, where I think many, and I'm not here to judge sober coaching, but are you getting your own help? Are you in recovery? Are you doing therapy thinking like, I don't want to be someone's healing. I like them to have their coach outside of this, do they have their own recovery outside of this, and then bringing their best self to work. 

I have very separate entities.  I have my own recovery programs. I have my own sponsor. I have my own therapist, and then I go to work. And I don't think that is the same for every therapist and coach. 

I love this because, hopefully, we're educating people in that sense. When I first got the store 21 years ago, I'd be working like crazy here.  I put so many hours into it I stopped taking care for myself. I realized I was angry, hungry, and lonely. All those things were happening to me because all I did was try to get the store going.  

Right. You prioritized the store above yourself. You're making a considerable investment, not just in money, but in trust. It's not just the experience. I have great experience, but if I'm dry, you don't. One of my patients told me the other day, “Molly, you're going to be mad at me.”  I said, “If I'm mad at you, fire me. Right now. I'll help you find a new therapist.”

 What people are willing to take from their therapists. I want to remind everybody of that: fire them and find someone you feel supported by.

The other reason is that here's what the research says. This is the only piece of research that is true across every board. Right?

Some research says intuitive eating works; some research says intuitive eating doesn't work. Some research says abstinence from alcohol works; some research says harm reduction in alcohol works.

However, the research that is across the board. The number one determinant of success is self-determination it is the first determinant of long-term success. Self-determination is owning it for ourselves. We determine the path that works. We have an investment. We have a horse in the race and a dog in the fight, as we say. So, for people to be able to feel empowered, if you're sitting with a therapist and they're saying, you need to quit, you need to do it this way, and you're saying, no, I need to do it this way, and you're in a thing with them, you're in a power struggle, get out. Get out. Say something or get out. 

Yeah, yeah. And it took me quite a few years to find someone I really liked and trusted. And what's lovely is that she never told me, “You have to.”  She said you should look at it this way or maybe have this approach. And it just opened my eyes completely. 100%

Oh, yeah. One of my teachers always says healers are humans. And you see this in the rooms. So the 12 steps to you know, someone will relapse and then the other freak out about it. And I say, “That's their stuff, that's not yours.”  that happens in therapy, too. There's this thing in therapy called supervision.  I supervise people who work for me, and we talk through what issues are coming up with them that are preventing them from being the best therapist that they can be. And that's just normal, right? 

Yeah, yeah. So, if I came to you and was just starting and had several issues, let's talk about food first. Tell me, what's the process? What would you suggest I do because I just walked through the doors, and I am unsure how to help myself? 

With food, there are many different ways to identify what is happening to us. In the book I wrote, ‘Breaking Up With Sugar’, if you're feeling like, okay, like it feels like substance to me, it feels like when I eat a scone. It doesn't satisfy me. It doesn't sit with me. I want more. I want more. And that feels troublesome to me.

I want to say one thing. There's another school of thought that exists with intuitive eating. Intuitive eating would say, well, then you eat that scone until your body has enough of it that it needs, and your intuition will return. I don't subscribe to that personally. That particular way of healing an eating disorder almost killed me personally.

And this is the whole thing. This is why you need to be with someone well-researched and comfortable with self-determination. And that way has worked for so many people, right? So it just depends. It's exactly what you're saying—many paths.

So, there are really good evidence-based tests that you can take to see if you're on this scale of food addiction. In chapter four of my book, the whole You can go Google it, Yale food addictions, or whatever. You can just start to, if that feels important to you, if the knowing isn't loud enough, and you're like, am I? Like, take the test, you know, like great.  

That's great that somebody has a way to find out; yes, this is what I can identify with in alcoholics anonymous and all of that. Is it the same in food in the sense that, you know, with an alcoholic or a drug addict, their life begins to spin out of control? Is it the same thing with food?

Oh my God, it's wild. You can take that substance criteria in many ways and spin it into food in a fascinating way.  One of my favorite criteria of addiction is use despite negative consequences. And the amount of people that I've treated where they're A1C, which is the indicator of diabetes, is like... 11, 12, 13, and the doctor's like, hey, you got to back off some of this sugar. It's impacting your endocrine system and the amount of people who get that information and are still doing it.

That's it, you and I know, that's addiction - straight up. Or we stop doing enjoyable activities; the addiction prevents us from doing the things that we love. The amount of people I met who loved dancing and stopped dancing or got isolated as a result. There are so many parallels in the diagnostic criteria of addiction that you can do with food.

And then, and then, the solution is so different because you can't stop eating. And this is my opinion. I want to say two things. I just talked about intuitive eating. There's another school of thought and food addiction. That's like very intense, like it's very rigid, and it's like, no, no this, no that, and bring your scale out. To me, that doesn't feel like food freedom. There's a real balance. And honestly, from a research perspective, it's called harm reduction, and we know that addiction affects so many people. And yet, some people need a much more rigid approach. Just like some people need this kind of looser, intuitive eating approach, and that's what's healing them, great. Some people need an incredibly rigorous approach. It would have me defiant and hopeless and doesn't work for me. So, this idea of there being a complete abstinence is challenging for a lot of people. So, challenging that it's like I shouldn't even start, right?

So the way with the food, which is different than if you're experienced, if you have abstinence with alcohol, you have abstinence with drugs.

You still have to eat.

You still have to eat; of course, you never really have to eat sugar again. And yet, you're probably going to.  Maybe it's going to be in this teriyaki sauce, and you didn't know it was full of sugar, or perhaps it's going to be that you had the worst day of your life, and you decided to do it. You just decided to use like the thing that comes in hard with food issues is diet culture.

And the impact of diet culture on so many of us, which is like, I believe like almost like ancestral, like my mom was on a diet and my grandma, like it's so in my bones to want to be skinny and the good and the bad and the morality of it.

So it's in our mind to say, cause you really can't recover from this and be on a diet. And yet, to recovered from this, you need to have some structure and eliminate some stuff that's triggering for you. You see this balance? You see this, and, almost definitely going to do it imperfectly. Much of my work is teaching people how to do things imperfectly. Because diet culture teaches us, and this is the analogy I use, diet culture teaches us we're driving down the street, We get a flat tire; diet culture teaches us to get out of the car with our flat tire, get a knife, slice all four tires, light the car on fire, and walk away. It's crazy how we behave with food. It's like, oh wow, I had a handful of M&Ms, may as well go at it. There's no wisdom in that. And so, a lot of what I teach people to do is to turn their brain on to find some synthesis of a solution. That appeals to what's wrong.

What I’m hearing, Are you saying that diets don't work? It would be best if you had an overall change of lifestyle.

You have to have an overall change, as they say in the addiction; you have to have an overall change of attitude and vision and everything. That's the interesting part. It is like what we know recovery to be: a change of perspective, a change in attitude, a change of behavior. That integration is really important.  so that’s why, in the years I have done this, you know. what to eat. Clearly, we have to heal something else. Nobody's sitting there eating a cupcake, thinking this is amazing for me. Nobody's sitting there eating six cupcakes at 11 p.m. in their house alone; nobody's sitting there saying this is a loving act. We have to get down to causes and conditions, to the bottom of it.

And that's really what the work is. The second piece of the work is finding this balance between creating guidelines, getting you on a tricycle and then a bicycle, and understanding that sometimes we just screw it up, in the research of it all. 

It's so funny when you talk about that analogy with cupcakes. I know at different times I know what to do, I have the knowledge, and I have the knowledge, I'm intelligent, but I'll choose another way. And then when I choose that other way comes the guilt, shame, remorse, knowing that, the next day the scale will say something different. I'm going to feel different because I really think it's about what you eat as far as how you feel too.  When I eat healthy, I think better, I'm physically stronger, it all comes together. When I eat badly, it impacts me so negatively.

I am a therapist, So I deal with the soul and the mind. Still, there's a lot wrong with our world, but the research that has come out about gut health and the gut being an indicator of depression, an indicator of anxiety, and longevity. There is something about taking care of our health. Understanding why we're doing this is really important. To make any change.  Wanting to be skinny is not going to fit the bill. It's ot going to allow you to integrate what you need to integrate for long-term change. It's short-term change, fine, but short-term change usually comes with a big rebound; it comes with the donut at the end of the race.

Yeah, yeah, you know, it sounds like with alcohol, it's the symptom. It's not the cause; it's not what's going on. I drink, I’d say I drink for this reason, but there's much more behind it. And in order to heal, that's what we must find out. That's why there's 12 steps. There are all sorts of different ways to heal it.

There's a man, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist named Michael Moss and his second book he wrote was named Hooked, great book on food addiction. And he wrote that book thinking we were all overreacting a bit when calling food addictive. And by the end of that book, he was like, whoa.

Because you have to remember the psychological implications of food, for example. When you go to a baseball park, what do you think about other than the team? Hot Dogs. And if I say the word like Dunkaroos to you, like you get psyched, I get psyched. I love Dunkaroos. I wanted to steal them. Look at how attached we are. Now, that attachment, if you think about alcohol and drugs, I understand a lot of people started early, 11 even. But when we're talking about baseball games and Dunkaroos, we're talking about one, two, and three, like where your brain started to get hooked and the emotional attachment to food. The only thing I'm not talking about here, by the way, is opiates because those synthetic things, like, wow. And I don't know, someone was saying, I mean, you'll appreciate this joke.

But someone was saying to me, you know, they say that like sugar is as addictive as cocaine. And I was like, then you've never done cocaine. Like, you know, I understand that theory, but we're talking about rats and I'm sorry there's nothing as addictive as cocaine and opiates. But food is very addictive. We must treat this thing comprehensively for healing because it isn't just about food. If it were, this thing would be healed. 

So, in this fast-paced world, and I even know myself, I love immediate gratification. So, when someone sits down with you and says, okay, this is my problem, can you fix me? How long will it take? Is that because I want to be fixed right away? I don't want to wait five years; I want to be fixed nowHow do you let someone understand the process?

There are three things. How long is the problem going on? Usually, when I'm talking to people, they're  40, and this has been going on since then, and there's that great Buddhist idea, right? Seventeen miles into the forest, 17 miles out. I mean, 17 miles into the forest, I think I can usually get us out and, like, I don't know, eight miles. Like, we can do it pretty fast.

You have to start with that first step first.

But that urgency, so I've done a lot of trauma training, and this urgency that comes with it ignites the fight response in you 're in a fight response, and our brain does not work accurately, our vision is skewed when we have that kind of urgency. So, for me personally, I'm a little irreverent. I've been doing this a long time and I'll say to people, probably not the person you want to work with. If you're on that timeframe, I can't give, I don't know that you and I should work together because I'm not really, short-term solutions are not, like I, that feels malpractice-y to me. And there's a lot of, and you know, irreverently, I'll say, there's a lot of people, there's a lot of coaches and a lot of personal trainers and a lot of therapists that will do macros with you and all of that, that's not, that's not what I've, that's not where my specialty lies.

You're going in depth. You're not putting a band-aid on something. And if you want the quick fix, that's a band-aid. It's not a solution. 

Yeah. Well, a quick fix usually has a rebound and I'm really not invested at this point in my life and my career and my own code of ethics to contribute to someone's story that they can't get well. I had a therapist say this to me once, which is very powerful when I was screaming a, saying exactly that, like, “H saying exactly that, like, “how long is this taking, Michael? This is taking too long.” And this beautiful man just said, Molly, it's like asking how long it takes for a bone to heal. You would never be screaming at your doctor. The bone takes as long as it takes to heal. And I think for anybody listening that's like identifying with this, like I also want you to understand, throwing urgency into healing delays healing. You know, like that's it.

So it takes as long as it takes. And the more we can stay in what I call a ventral vagal, the more we can stay in this calm, focused place, the quicker it will go.

I don't know about all this outcome business. It's just not, I don't know, the older I get, listen, I think there was a time in my life where I had the audacity to buy into that, Like 30 days or whatever. The other thing I want to say, maybe most importantly, is that You have to have two relationships in this world. Two, you have to have a relationship with yourself, and you have to have a relationship with food. There is never a moment in your life where you will not be in a relationship with food to sustain life. So even if there is an endpoint, the day after that endpoint, you're still in a relationship with food. And anything that I know about relationships is that they require management.

So... this urgency that people have is to what end? There's no end point to this. I don't, you know, my sales (approach) isn't so good, but here we are.

I think you're doing fine.

 We're going to wrap it up, but before we do, I'd like to ask you, what should we hold onto? What's your best thought or advice, something that we can put out there to the world to even maybe help them begin this wonderful journey and change their life?

Yeah, I got it. I have it. So here's the thing about our relationship with food. The first time you try doesn't always stick. I've listened to a lot of stories of people in my office. I've listened to many stories of people in my healing journey. And I've heard it hit on the 22nd time. I've heard it hit on the second time. I've heard it hit on the 80th time.  And so if you're struggling with the food or anything, your commitment is just to not give up.

The commitment is not to give up, to think about it more scientifically, and to say, oh, this one didn't work. Let me get quiet. Let me take a breath. Let me ask for some help. And let me see if there's somewhere else, some other way I can heal.

My journey was treacherous and then treacherous. And then, one day, I found the solution, and even that's been imperfect. And to start to conceive of healing in less of a black-and-white way is so helpful to us personally, but also to the global us, which is equally important. So, never give up. That's the deal.

Don't give up. That's a great message, great. I want to thank you so much for being here. You know how I feel about you. You're spectacular. I would like to say thank you to the world for joining the podcast where you always have choices.

Bye, Molly.

Thanks, Jay. Great.

Thanks so much, Molly.