Back when I was just starting out at WJZ-TV in Baltimore, I had a body I liked (130 pounds on the dot) and a colleague and soon-to-be best friend forever named Gayle. Unfortunately, I also had a powerful need to please everybody on a never-ending basis, and a shopping mall with a big fast-food court directly across from my apartment. After a full day of covering stories that often left me depleted, and saying yes when I needed to say no, I’d prowl that food court, starting at one end with a cheese-and-bacon baked potato and finishing at the other with a giant chocolate chip macadamia nut cookie.

Going places! From the Miss Black Tennessee pageant in 1971 to my first promo photo, for WJZ-TV, when I was 22.

By the time I left Maryland for Chicago, I was eight years older and 42 pounds heavier than when I’d arrived. I vowed to use the move as a fresh start: Whoever tuned in to watch me host AM Chicago would see a woman who’d gotten serious about losing weight. There was just one problem: The more I dieted, the more I gained; the more I gained, the more I ate.

But while I was gaining weight, my career was gaining traction. I was even invited to appear on The Tonight Show—my national television debut. Wow! The date was marked on my family’s calendars, the plane ride was first-class, the hotel was five stars, Joan Rivers was guest hosting, and I was ready!

Joan’s introduction was great. I made it from curtain to couch without tripping and launched into my amusing little anecdote about winning the Miss Fire Prevention pageant. It was all going smoothly; I was starting to settle in. And then it happened: Joan interrupted with perhaps the only question I hadn’t prepared for: “So how’d you gain the weight?”

Wait a minute—did she just use my national television debut to ask me why I was so fat? The studio started spinning. The word fat...fat...faaaaatttttt reverberated in my brain. Joan sat behind Johnny’s big wooden desk, telling me that she didn’t want to hear my excuses and that I shouldn’t have let this happen. The audience laughed nervously as she wagged her flawlessly manicured finger at me, pointed out that I was still “a single girl,” and challenged me to come back 15 pounds lighter next time she hosted. And the whole time I just sat there smiling breezily, wanting nothing more than to crawl under my chair.

When I was crowned Miss Fire Prevention, I never dreamed I'd get the chance to tell Joan Rivers about it someday. Or that Joan would turn around and ask me–on national TV–why I now weighed so much.

Naturally I went home to Chicago and started planning my next big diet. If all I had to do to make everybody realize how much I deserved my success—and their approval—was lose 15 pounds, then let the dieting begin! Again!

And so it went. Eventually, I would try them all: the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Grapefruit Diet, the South Beach Diet, the Scarsdale Diet, the Atkins Diet, the I-Don’t-Care-What-You’ve-Gotta-Do-to-Fit-into-That-Vera-Wang-Dress Diet, the Liquid Diet, the Beverly Hills All-Fruit Diet. The maddening part was, I got pretty good at the diet game. I could take the weight off—I just couldn’t keep it off. And when it inevitably returned, it always brought some extra along for the ride—a ride that didn’t end until I hit 237 deeply frustrating pounds.

If you asked me why I ate, I’d have forced a laugh and said it was because I loved food. But lots of people love food without crossing into obesity. So what was I really hungry for?

There was a night about two months into my now-infamous four-month liquid diet—the diet that ended with me wheeling a wagon full of fat onto the set of my show—when I came home ready to eat anything within reach. There I stood in the kitchen, ogling Stedman’s leftovers, when he walked in, saw I was ready to give up, and said, “Come here and let me give you a hug.” In that moment, I needed nothing more.

I believe Bruce Springsteen was right: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” So many of us just want to fill up on a large helping of unconditional love. When I was a girl, there wasn’t always enough of that to go around. As an adult, though, I came to realize that even when people have the time and strength to care for you, the deepest care must ultimately come from your own self-acceptance, self-respect, and hard-earned truth. When I feel emotionally depleted or deprived, when I’m overwhelmed by life’s pressures, food has always been my drug of choice—the way alcohol or gambling or shopping might be for someone else. But none of these are fixes. They’re all just empty promises. They don’t actually fill you up inside. They’re like junk food for the soul.

Gayle and I have eaten more meals together than I can count. And Stedman is my favorite person to cook for!

When I manage to nourish myself with the stuff that really matters, food tends to be much less complicated. These are the moments when I’m just genuinely hungry for a wonderful meal, a good sipping tequila, and a long talk with a few old friends. I might serve a lasagna made with veggie “noodles” and turkey instead of red meat—and cap things off with a luscious, fresh, not-too-heavy sorbet. I think of dishes like these as comfort-food makeovers. I know they lend themselves to a wonderful meal, for sure.

So glad my fridge-fighting days are over. There is a better way!

Photos from top: From the personal collection of Oprah Winfrey (3); Carson Entertainment Group; Courtesy of Gayle King; Mitchell Gerber/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images; Kevin Horan/The Life Images Collection/Getty Images.

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