When Erika Kendall decided to start working out, she went all in. Every night, she toiled at the gym, lifting barbells and fighting through grueling elliptical courses. Every night, she worked until she’d burned 700 calories.
And then, every night, she went to Taco Bell.
“After each training session, I’d get nachos as my post-workout meal. I’d come home and eat taquitos and sour cream and then I’d go to sleep,” she recalls. “Because [I told myself], I worked out earlier. It’ll be fine.”
But it wasn’t fine—because she wasn’t losing weight. In fact, she was at her heaviest: After the birth of her first child, Kendall weighed 330 pounds. She knew she needed to make a change for both herself and her new baby, but she was paralyzed by a thirteen-year battle with emotional eating—a battle even the toughest workouts can’t conquer. “I had reached a point in my life where food was my only salvation,” she says.
Today, things couldn’t be more different. Kendall, 31, has lost a total of 170 pounds and created the popular A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, a blog with more than 130,000 fans who seek out her site over of thousands of others because of her unique perspective on body image, race, the financial and social barriers to clean eating, and the overwhelming feat of sticking to your guns in a world where junk food looms around every corner. She’s even certified as personal trainer by National Academy of Sports Medicine, with specialties in women’s fitness, weight loss, and fitness nutrition.
How did she do it? In short, Kendall started to eat clean. And she says it didn’t just change her life—it saved her life.
Kendall’s struggle with emotional eating began over a decade ago, when she was a teen. Whenever she was stressed or upset, she’d steal snacks from the pantry and eat them in secret, even after her mother installed locks on the pantry doors. In college, she hid a stash of junk food in her closet and spent days in her dorm room bingeing. By the time she became pregnant with her first child, she had developed high blood sugar and was so lethargic she could hardly stay awake. After the baby was born, that cycle of seeking food for comfort continued. And even though she started those gung-ho gym sessions, she quickly lost enthusiasm when she looked in the mirror and saw no improvements.
“It’s like being in an eight-foot hole and the walls are completely straight and solid,” she says of her emotionally triggered food binges. “You see that you’re in the hole, but how do you get out? It’s absolutely okay to say to somebody, ‘Please help me. Throw me a ladder, tell me what to do, give me some kind of insight.”
And that’s exactly what Kendall did. She reached out a close friend who was a therapist to talk about her emotional eating. With a push from that friend (and inspiration from a book called The End of Overeating), she resolved to fight back. She had to enact tough measures at first: She stopped carrying cash and even her entire wallet to keep herself from buying junk foods when she was stressed out—and as both a single mother and small business owner, there was more than enough stress go around. Then she developed new ways to cope with stress and unpleasant emotions. She watched a heartstring-tugging movie or read a favorite book to let out pent-up tears. She entered potentially triggering situations (like visiting family) with a plan to drink unsweetened tea instead of her go-to packaged cookies. She eventually started practicing yoga to prevent the buildup of stress before it reached a critical level. She even played the occasional round of Grand Theft Auto to let off steam.
Then, Kendall began eating clean—not by choice, but by accident. “I’d become sick, and the only thing I could keep down was the raw veggies,” she says. “And I realized that I was losing weight. I just kept eating them, and then tried to find ways that I could keep eating dishes that were predominately veggies with a little rice for filler.” She scaled back on processed foods and ate meat less frequently, too. She learned to reroute that old ingrained belief that ‘diets’ mean subsisting on grapefruits and feeling irritated while you count down the days until you can stop dieting again.
“It was never clear to me before that a diet is the way you eat every day, and that you shouldn’t go on a diet that you ultimately have to come off of because it’s so restrictive,” she says. And finally, with the combined forces of a new, clean diet, healthy ways to cope with her emotions, and some of that good old-fashioned exercise, the weight started really coming off.
A little over a year later, Kendall had lost 90 pounds. That’s when she decided to create a blog about her journey.
“In the beginning it was solely fun,” she says. “It was this place where I dumped all my thoughts and my feelings. And then I started connecting with people and they were like, ‘Wow, I really understand this.’ I looked up one day and there were 40,000 likes on the Facebook page.”
Now, the blog is a full-time job, and Kendall is affectionately known by her fans as “The Fitness Fairy Godmother” and (still affectionately) “Evil Fitness Barbie.” That’s one hell of a nickname for a former couch potato and Taco Bell regular.
But to focus only on the opposite ends of Kendall’s extreme transformation is to miss the real point of the story. It’s no accident that the home page of A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss displays a series of Kendall’s progress photos over time, not just those starkly different before-and-after pictures. It’s a reminder that changes like hers are hard-fought.
“People always think that everything happens immediately, and it doesn’t. It’s like looking at a switchboard with a thousand dials. You have to tweak every single dial to figure out exactly which way is going to light up the path to success for you,” she says. “What physical activities do you love? What kinds of foods do you enjoy and how can you make those foods healthier? It’s a process, and we have to engage in that process while we have jobs, kids, family to care for, or other responsibilities. It’s not simple. It’s not easy.”
It’s absolutely true. When you face a world stocked with addictive processed foods (and diet sodas) and an endless supply of damaging fad diets, losing 170 pounds and recovering from emotional eating isn’t just “not easy,” it’s mind-bogglingly hard. Perhaps that’s why Kendall’s most important piece of advice on clean eating has nothing to do with protein or leafy greens or post-workout snacks—it’s about being kind to yourself while you fight to change your lifestyle for the better.
“Don’t feel bad that you’re stuck in that eight-foot hole to begin with,” she says. “Don’t feel ashamed of the fact that it takes you so long to get out. And once you do get out, use that same compassion on the next person who needs it.”