Karen Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed.
Food Disorder Counselor
Karen Koenig, LCSW, M.Ed., is a psychotherapist, national educator, international author, and expert on the psychology of eating. For over 30 years she has taught clients and readers the skillful art of developing and maintaining a balanced and healthy approach to food. Koenig has garnered world recognition in her field as well as extensive media coverage with respect to the 6 books she has written; all of which enjoy publication in a multitude of languages:
- Starting Monday
- The Rules of Normal Eating
- The Food and Feelings Workbook
- What Every Therapist Needs to Know About Treating Eating and Weight Issues
- Nice Girls Finish Fat
- Outsmarting Overeating—Boost Your Life Skills, End Your Food Problems
Koenig is also co-founder of the Greater Boston Collaborative for Body Image and Eating Disorders and a former member of the Professional Advisory Committee of the Multi-service Eating Disorder Association of Massachusetts.
How did you decide to become a social worker/counselor?
I received a B.A. in Elementary Education in 1969 and taught for 3 years. Then I did other jobs—administrative and secretarial. I received an M.Ed. in counseling in 1979.
I was working in a program running groups for over-eaters and binge-eaters and found that group members wanted to meet with me for individual help. Gradually, I realized I needed a stronger degree to meet their clinical needs and applied to Simmons College School of Social Work. I started a practice in Boston, MA, then started another when my husband and I moved to Sarasota, FL in 2005.
Why did you choose to specialize in food disorders in your counseling practice?
From the time I was young I was either a restrictive eater or a binge eater. Sometimes I would only consume 300 calories a day; other times I would eat a whole pie or a dozen doughnuts. Even though I knew when I was full, I would continue to eat. This was because of the times when I was a strict, chronic dieter. Eventually, through therapy and reading books, I went through a transformation. Along with dealing with my issues, I learned how to eat according to my own appetite. When I think back to that time when I was in the throes of a terrible relationship with food, it makes me think, ‘Who would have thought back then that one day I’d be speaking about it, writing about it, and would become an expert on it?’ I think that if people with problems can look at it as though they never know where their problems will lead them, they can realize that it can end up being something very positive in their lives.
It is unusual for a social worker or counselor to have his/her own history and personal issues exposed to clients. Because you are a public figure and author, the particulars of your life are well-known. How does this affect your relationship with your clients?
It connects people to me because they know I have gone through what they are facing and that I have the wisdom they are trying to acquire. They know I can guide them to acquire their own wisdom which might even be different than mine; and that’s fine because they have their own journey just as I do.
What is the most difficult or challenging aspect of your practice?
The most difficult aspect is helping troubled eaters be compassionate toward themselves, to be self-nurturing towards themselves, and to be patient about their progress.
Why do you think so many people struggle with unhealthy eating habits?
While most people know what healthy eating is, there can be something that happens called the “boomerang effect.” In other words, when a person is completely inundated by the media on information about food and nutrition they tend to tune it out. Not only do they stop listening, they also don’t like being told what to do. People rebel against the strictness of healthy eating. It seems to happen most with clients who had a strict upbringing; they were constantly told what to eat and what not to eat as a child. This continues in our psyches long after our parents are gone. One part of us says, ‘Eat the salad’ while the other part says, ‘I’m going for the hamburger.’ The way to get out of that is to understand that you are rebelling. Understand that you are hurting yourself. Instead, make the choice to have part of that hamburger or have the whole thing this time and enjoy it. The key is to make it a conscious choice and not a war you wage against yourself.
What are your famous “4 Rules to Normal Eating?”
I always put the word ‘normal’ in quotes because there is no such thing as a ‘normal eater.’ The 4 Rules are based on how people who eat ‘normally’ behave.
- Eat when they are hungry or have a craving.
- Choose foods they believe will satisfy them.
- Stay connected to their bodies and eat with awareness and enjoyment.
- Stop eating when they are full or satisfied.
What is the most fascinating aspect of your work?
I’m an expert in the psychology of eating—the how and why, not the what—and love helping people go from being anguished over their eating problems to more comfortable around food and in their bodies.
What is your favorite client success story?
My favorite story is when I had a client come to see me to stop binge-eating and to lose weight; she realized she was in an emotionally abusive marriage with a man on whom she was financially dependent, and then she started her own travel agent business with an eye toward being financially independent.
What qualities do you have that have made you a good social worker/counselor?
I am an active listener, highly empathic, very curious about people, and simply love what I do.
What would you say to someone whose dream is to become a social worker and counselor?
Being a social worker offers lots of flexibility in terms of career, and I’m proud of being part of the social work community.