MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we're going to talk a bit about something many of us have experienced. If you've lost a job or had a relationship break off or maybe just a really bad day, have you ever reached for the chocolate ice cream or a big bowl of mashed potatoes? People call that stress eating or emotional eating, and it's something people seem to expect women to do. There are even jokes about it. But our next guest says men do this, too, including African-American men. Kaleb J. Hill says a series of personal traumas led him to eat his way up to 360 pounds, and he thinks the only way this negative cycle stops is if people start to talk about it. He wrote an essay about confronting this emotional eating habit in theroot.com. That's an online publication. It's titled "Black Men and Emotional Eating: If No One Else Will Talk About This, I Will." And he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
KALEB J. HILL: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: You were saying in your piece that this cycle of emotional eating started after your father died. Tell us a little bit about that, if you would, and I'm very sorry for your loss, by the way.
HILL: My father was on his way home, and he actually had a accident. But he was an emotional eater, too. He actually had type two diabetes that he didn't really treat. And because he died traumatically - it was a year after Hurricane Katrina, so we were still coping with the loss from Hurricane Katrina. And I noticed that myself, I had picked up some of those same habits. And with men - you know, they talk about the chocolate ice cream or the - any type of fatty and sugary foods with women. You always see the picture of women sitting in front of the TV eating with the tissues and crying, but with men, sometimes it's pizza or steaks or even alcohol. So you never notice that the pounds start adding up so fast when you're eating like that. But with my father - losing him tragically was - it kind of triggered it.
MARTIN: You make two points in your essay. One is that you feel that a lot of people just don't recognize that this is happening with men. For example, you say that our definition of masculinity has an influence on the way a lot of us process our experiences. You're saying that, you know, you weren't encouraged to talk about it, I guess. You weren't encouraged to express your sadness. Would that be right?
HILL: Right. The way I was raised, you normally internalize things, and you try to fix it yourself. You don't necessarily talk about your problems and the crutch that we have can be food or it can be lashing out emotionally on the people that actually are caring about us. So that's how I ended up being 360 pounds 'cause some of the foods I was still eating was somewhat healthy, but it was the quantity that I was eating.
MARTIN: You said that there's an extra kind of racial element of it in your view, which you write about in your piece. You say that the black community often touts loyalty to others as the metric of realness, but this can come at the expense of living a fulfilled life. What is it about, like, this whole keeping it real thing? You feel if you wanted, you know, salad instead of mac and cheese, then somehow people would make fun of you, or you were not being - keeping it real or something like that?
HILL: Right in some ways - 'cause I lost 114 pounds over two years. When I did start changing the ways that I eat - if you don't want to eat the foods that you've grown up on, you know, people can take offense. So you want to be loyal to them, but sometimes it comes at the expense of your health because they're not thinking about the calorie intake. They're mostly thinking of the time that they put in to prepare, and that's their way of expressing love.
MARTIN: So what made you realize something had to change? Do you remember?
HILL: The first thing that triggered it is I couldn't wear any of the clothes in my closet. I was wearing pants with elastic. And I wanted to go to a concert, and there was a suit in my closet, and I couldn't wear it. That's when I realized I was larger than I thought I was 'cause I always been kind of stocky, but I didn't realize I had gained so much weight 'cause I hadn't been going to the doctor and weighing myself. And the other thing is my family has a history of chronic illness, and I was my grandmother's caregiver. She had type one and a half diabetes and I was her caregiver from a small age, so I watched her have to change everything that she did with her life around that one disease. And like I said, my father had it, and that was just not something I wanted to have to include in my life.
MARTIN: How did you go about getting a hold of the situation? I mean you also mentioned that there were a lot of other underlying issues involved. I mean people call it emotional eating for a reason. You had a lot of stuff to deal with. You know, you were having panic attacks and anxiety and a number of other things that you were dealing with. So what's your word of wisdom about this? I mean, is it total focus on that issue? Like, throw everything at it - focus on everything at once, or did you do the weight first, and then the other stuff followed? What's your guidance on this?
HILL: For my experience, I actually started volunteering for a gym, and I offered to clean the gym twice a day in exchange for the services that they offer with fitness and nutrition. And once I started to exercise, I noticed that I started to have more energy, and I was more confident. So the mental aspect was addressed with exercising. 'cause I was recluse for a long time after my father was killed. So me getting up and just getting out the house and just walking at least half a mile to get fresh air was just a little bit of a confidence boost. So when I started to lose the weight, the mental health issues were addressed. I spoke to a therapist for about six months. Now I have those tools to help with the anxiety. And if I notice anything triggering that might make me go back into emotional eating, I have tools from the therapy sessions that help me. That's one of the things I want to encourage people that share my racial and ethnic background is to seek therapy if they need it. If you need professional help, as far as getting the tools that you need to cope with whatever it may be, anxiety - it could be anxiety and depression 'cause sometimes, they go hand-in-hand, but if you need that professional help, go get it.
MARTIN: How do you feel now that you put it out there?
HILL: I feel good because I feel, like, in society if we don't see things, we do believe that it happens. We feel like it's just us. So for me, to put myself out there - I want other brothers to feel like they can talk about the issues that they're having before something tragic happens.
MARTIN: Kaleb J. Hill is founder and CEO of Fitness Fleet. His Essay "Black Men and Emotional Eating: If No One Else Will Talk About This, I will" appeared on the online journal the Root. We reached him in New Orleans. Thanks so much for speaking with us Mr. Hill. Good luck to you.
HILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.