Fasting binge eating

Not So Fast: Guest Post from Gillian Riley

It seems that fasting has become the new standard of dieting, and also a central focus of the health community as well. Like most diets, it’s presented as the answer (or at least a partial solution) to many health and weight issues, and even as a potential solution for binge eating.

The new year is a popular time for people to go on diets, and I’m sure you know more than one person in your life who is on a fasting-type diet. I also know that fasting can be portrayed as “not a diet at all,” but as a lifestyle and way of eating that’s “more in line with how our bodies are designed.” These are complex issues, and although I would not make an overarching statement that binge eaters or recovered binge eaters can never fast under any circumstances, I think there are many compelling reasons not to.

I get a lot of questions about fasting, and although I’ve addressed it to some extent, I want to share a guest post today from Gillian Riley, who has great advice about this topic. Gillian is the author of Ditching Diets, which I recommend on the FAQ page of this website, and I also cited Gillian’s work in my second book, the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. You can read more about Gillian in her bio at the end of this post. As you read, know that Gillian doesn’t write specifically for binge eaters, but for anyone who struggles with poor eating habits, yo-yo dieting, and overeating. However, what she says is also applicable to those of you who binge, and I hope you find her well-informed guest post helpful.

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NOT SO FAST (by Gillian Riley)

When it was published in 2013, I bought a copy of the bestseller The Fast Diet to see what it was all about. In case you don’t know, it was published as a result of the interest in the BBC Horizon documentary about Intermittent Fasting (IF), written by the program presenter Dr Michael Mosley and journalist Mimi Spencer.

I believe that fasting is beneficial, but not necessarily advisable for everyone, so I wanted to read the book to discover new information and research, but also, I was curious to see if it contained any words of caution. There are words of caution about fasting; a paragraph on page 124 warns those with Type 1 diabetes not too fast, those with an eating disorder, children, and those who are already very slim. And anyone with any medical condition should consult a doctor first.

If you bought a copy of my book, Eating Less, between 1998 and the first half of 2005, you’ve got an edition that contains a chapter on fasting once a week. As well as instructions on how to fast in a non-addictive way, I describe some good reasons not too fast. In later editions, I took out all mention of fasting, partly because people weren’t paying any attention to those reasons. Perhaps it’s time now to put them back in (if I could) but here’s how they appeared in those first editions of Eating Less:

  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are desperate to lose weight, or if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you have a tendency to overeat either before or after a fast.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you go on a fast as a way to take control of your overeating.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are not in the best of health, if you’re coming down with an illness or recovering from one, or if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you don’t normally eat a high-quality diet at other times.

This has some similarity with Mosley and Spencer’s cautions, but also some differences. In particular, my caution not to fast if you don’t normally eat high-quality food would seem to contradict their advice to “eat what you like most of the time”. However, Mosley and Spencer say,

“You could pig out on your non-fast days…but you won’t do that. In all likelihood, you’ll remain gently, intuitively attentive to your calorie intake, almost without noticing. Similarly, you may find yourself naturally favouring healthier foods once your palate is modified by your occasional fasts. So yes, eat freely, forbid nothing, but trust your body to say ‘when’.”

So they seem to be saying that it’s fine to eat anything at all on non-fast days, but once you’ve started fasting you’ll end up eating healthy food anyway.

Now, I’m a great advocate of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach to everything, so if IF works for you, that’s wonderful. But all too often people struggle with such advice – and they blame themselves. They conclude, “for everybody else, fasting two days a week is not only fairly straightforward, but also sorts out all the rest of their crazy eating on the other five days. What’s wrong with me that I can’t even begin to do this?”

Maybe it’s not that fasting isn’t a good idea, but that there are other important steps for you to take first. To return to my cautions:

  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are desperate to lose weight, or if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia. Note that both authors of The Fast Diet took on fasting entirely for health reasons. The health benefits of fasting – such as dipping into ketosis from time to time and the fascinating process of autophagy – are well established (1, 2). There’s also impressive research showing a beneficial impact on brain health (3). But Mosley and Spencer seem oblivious to the fact that many people will be motivated to fast primarily to improve their appearance, and this makes a massive difference.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you have a tendency to overeat either before or after a fast – and – It’s not a good idea to fast if you go on a fast as a way to take control of your overeating. It’s clear that neither of the authors have ever had an addictive relationship with food – what many people call ‘food issues’. The research they cite on the success of IF from the University of Chicago studied just 16 obese people over 10 weeks. (4) I’m sure you know of people who complied with various protocols for at least 10 weeks and then regained their weight in the longer term. They were able to ‘be good’ and ‘follow the rules’ for a while, but this simply doesn’t last for the majority. I’m not saying that fasting is a bad idea; I’m saying it might not provide a complete and permanent solution for everyone who generally overeats.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are not in the best of health, if you’re coming down with an illness or recovering from one, or if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia. I’m no expert on these health issues, but I’m not at all sure that fasting is good for those with Type 2 diabetes and especially hypoglycemia. This is why those with diabetes are exempt from fasting on religious occasions such as Ramadan.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you don’t normally eat a high-quality diet at other times. This of course depends on what you call a high-quality diet, but my view would be low on the starchy carbohydrates such as grain-based foods and sugars. It’s important for your body to be very well nourished through eating the most nutrient-dense foods, so that it doesn’t go into ‘scarcity mode’ during a fast. In addition, fasting works much better in every way if your body has developed the ability to burn fat for energy, rather than only carbohydrate. If you normally burn only carbohydrate, you may struggle much more with hunger and low energy during a fast. (5)

I’ll add that if you exercise a great deal, if you regularly sleep badly, and/or if you are under quite a bit of stress, these also mean that fasting may not be right for you at the present time.

I suspect all this is sounding a bit negative, and the last thing I want to do is to dissuade you from fasting if it’s going to work for you. By all means give it a try. Notice and manage your addictive desire to eat and you can certainly find that it fits in very well with everything you’ve learned in my books and webinars.

The Fast Diet does advise against fasting for those with an eating disorder, and I agree with this. I’d take it further, though, because there are a great many people who have a tendency towards disordered eating who would do well to sort that out first, before considering a fast of any kind.

BIO

Gillian Riley is an author and webinar host who has been teaching her course on “Taking Control of Overeating” since 1997, at first in groups in London, England, and for the past three years online.
Her clients describe themselves as yo-yo dieters or ex-dieters. Instead of recommending what, how much and when to eat, Gillian teaches how to develop an entirely new attitude towards food, eating and weight loss. This way of thinking turns the diet mentality on its head, leading to a sustainable control of overeating.
Details on her free introductory webinars and one-week free trial of the membership site – starting January 26, 2020 – can be found at: https://eatinglessonline.com
NOTES

1. “Targeting insulin inhibition as a metabolic therapy in advanced cancer.” Fine EJ, Segal-Isaacson CJ et al (2012) Nutrition 28(10):1028-35
2. “The effects of calorie restriction on autophagy.” Chung KW, Chung HY (2019) Nutrients Dec 2;11(12)
3. “Meal size and frequency affect neuronal plasticity and vulnerability to disease: cellular and molecular mechanisms.” Mattson MP, Duan W, Guo Z (2003) Journal of Neurochemistry 84(3):417-31
4. “Dietary and physical activity adaptations to alternate day modified fasting: implications for optimal weight loss.” Klempel MC, Bhutani S et al (2010) Nutrition Journal 9:35
5. “Effects of a high-protein ketogenic diet on hunger, appetite, and weight loss in obese men feeding ad libitum.” Johnstone AM, Horgan GW et al (2008) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87:44-55

Identity and bulimia

Identity Reconstruction in Bulimia Recovery

I am excited to bring you a guest post from Katherine Thomson, PhD about recreating your identity as you stop bulimia and binge eating disorder. Katherine contributed some extremely helpful ideas and advice to The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, and she also shared great insights and information in three of my podcast episodes so far: Episode 35 on Fostering a Positive Mindset in Recovery, Episode 52 on Food Addiction, and Episode 53 on Weight Obsession

In this post, Katherine will help you understand how to gradually break free of your identity as a person with bulimia and binge eating disorder, and encourage you to stop forming your self-image around your weight and how you look. You’ll learn creative and refreshing ways to reconstruct your identity and improve how you feel about yourself during recovery and beyond. 

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Identity Reconstruction in Recovery, by Katherine Thomson, Ph.D.

I was “skinny chic” for all of ten brief months in my early 20s and then spent the better part of the next decade chasing after a body and self that would have been better off put to rest.  For me, recovering from an eating disorder was a painfully slow, tedious process, and it’s only now that I can look back and see the things I could have done differently to cut myself some slack, things that would have sped up the entire recovery process considerably.

It’s Easier to Recover if you Feel Motivated

People recover from bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating disorder using all sorts of methods and techniques.  What worked for me can basically be boiled down to plain, old fashioned behavior modification, using classic tools like setting goals, rewarding progress, and slowly shaping behaviors until they began producing desired results.  Habit formation. I believe this approach works brilliantly when people can turn the process into a game and make it fun. And therein lies one of the biggest challenges in my approach, one I face with clients repeatedly: How can people get excited about shaping a new future if they’re stubbornly attached to the past?

Because I was attached to the past, I postponed everything, telling myself that I’d do all the things I wanted to do once I was satisfied with the number on the scale, the contents of my fridge, the contour of my cheekbone, and my ability to never, ever – God forbid – eat a pack of Oreos after a stressful family get-together.  The problem with this mindset is that it not only robs you of joy, but it isn’t very motivating.

How I Discovered Identity Reconstruction

I landed upon the importance of identity reconstruction in recovery thanks to a dear friend I met eons ago in an eating disorder support group I attended in my early 20’s.  I had recently gained a significant amount of weight over the course of 12 months. Unbeknownst to me at the time, both the low and high weights were numbers I would never again see on the scale, and I would have felt better if I’d known that.  But all I could think about at the time was how heavy I was and how terrified I was of gaining yet more.

Each day was a struggle to leave the house and be seen by the world, and many mornings I didn’t succeed.  My wardrobe at the time consisted of half a dozen ankle-length floral skirts from Goodwill paired with dark, long-sleeved tees.  To make matters worse, I was still bingeing fairly regularly and saw no signs that I would or could ever stop. I logically knew it made sense to be kind to my body and that I should I find a way to do so, but I couldn’t bear looking in a mirror, let alone taking candlelit bubble baths or slathering myself with scented lotions.

After one meeting, I asked a woman in the group, someone I admired who was about six months ahead of me in the process, how she managed to stay optimistic and feel good about herself.  “Dramatic flair,” was her answer, pointing to the miniature french braids at the crown of her head and shimmery scarf looped around her hips. This young woman was artistic by nature (today, she is a professional artist and owns her own business), and it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe she hadn’t always looked the part so thoroughly.

She took me to her place one afternoon and cracked open a photo album.  Together, we scanned over pictures from her skinnier days. It is very sensitive for someone with bulimia or other forms of disordered eating to show others photos from all-time-thin days, and I am eternally grateful that she shared this with me.  The photo I remember most clearly was of her riding a bike, skinny arms and legs flexed over the frame of a beach cruiser, and a tensely grinning face with enormous eyes. Her clothing was nondescript: shorts, tank, and flip flops.  I was stunned by how childlike she looked. She was in her early 20s in the photo but could have easily passed for a high schooler. There were no signs of her artistry, her wisdom, her “dramatic flair.”

I asked a few more questions about how she landed upon her updated personal style, and later that week, I set out to update my own appearance.  I went through my closet and tried on all the items that still fit until I found something that made me feel somewhat elevated: a red v-neck tunic with ¾ sleeves and a hem that hit slightly above the knees.  I straightened my wavy hair, made a center part, and added dark lipstick and large hoop earrings. I looked in the mirror and felt nothing short of relief. I looked older, more womanly, and most importantly, I had driven a wedge between myself and the waiflike ghost that haunted me.  Did I like how I looked? Not really, because my self-judgment ran very deep at that point in my life. But it was a welcome lateral move: I had taken myself out of the harsh lights of self-scrutiny. I could work with this.

Things got Easier

For the next year, I dressed like this pretty much every day. One of the first things I discovered was that there were in fact parts of my body I could like and appreciate at my larger size.  I liked my neck, upper chest, and calves. I hadn’t really noticed them much because I had been so fixated on the hated roundness of my face and softness in my middle. The more comfortable I felt with my appearance, the easier it became to eat in self-respecting ways.  Overeating didn’t seem as worth it, and I didn’t have as much to hide from.

In the many years that have transpired since, I’ve been through several identity reiterations.  What I’ve come to learn is that whenever I’m experiencing a period of not liking how I look, it’s nothing more than a symptom of growing pains.  It sounds so cheesy to say this, but I’ve come to appreciate the seasons of life, and I have a lot of respect for how hard it is to struggle toward something that doesn’t yet exist, something that is still struggling to take form.

Focus on the Future

Today when I work with clients, I press the importance of getting excited about the future.  The goal is to take all that motivation and euphoria that used to be linked to dieting and funnel it into the more expansive goal of self development.  This is a major feat because almost everybody I work with is still trying to reclaim something that no longer exists. More often than not, clients are completely stuck between a rock and a hard place, knowing they can’t go back to restriction but feeling uninspired toward the future.  How many times have I heard people tearfully insist, “I’ll always be fat! I’m doomed to become my mother! There is no point.”

I try to drill in the idea that everything will be smoother if they can abandon such thoughts.  I know it’s not easy, not at all. It takes discipline to choose not to believe these thoughts.  Let me say it again: It is NOT easy to let go of grief and self-pity.   But doing so will get you everywhere. I tell people that chances are, they will be happy with their bodies and appearance again.  Most people with eating disorders eventually settle into a body that is slimmer than she or he had predicted, but it usually takes time because the legacy of starvation is profound.  Early in recovery, even small amounts of weight loss can set the stage for rebound bingeing.

Try it out Yourself

How can someone get started on this process and create a transitional identity that allows them to look eagerly toward the future rather than longingly toward the past?  Here are some concrete recommendations and journaling prompts to help get you started.

  1. Think of a person that you have found to be attractive across a range of body sizes.  Maybe you have a coworker who was very slim before having children and is now larger but beautiful in a different way, or maybe you know someone who used to be a petite gymnast who is now a sculpted rock climber or sultry dancer.  If you can’t think of anyone who fits this description, do searches for celebrities who have recovered from eating disorders.
  2. Reflect on this person or people and ask: What are some of the uniquely beautiful attributes of this person in their larger form? Do they look more loving? Mysterious? Glamorous?
  3. Now, it’s time to shift your attention inward.  When you find yourself longing to reinhabit your former, thinner self, which specific qualities are you yearning to experience? Confidence? Delicacy? Grace?  (list at least five)
  4. Of these five qualities, which of these are actually independent of body size and can just as easily apply to someone medium sized or larger?
  5. What five things can you do this year to evolve your personal style?  Don’t limit yourself to your appearance. Would you like to be a better conversationalist, learn carpentry, become more ecologically responsible, practice minimalism, learn to surf, or master a culinary artform?
  6. Think ten years down the road.  How old will you be? How do you hope to be at this age?  Be bold and ambitious. It’s never too early or too late to be a politician or stand-up comedian.
  7. How can you begin branding a new identity using safe, reversible symbols and accessories?  Consider temporary tattoos, ear cuffs, funky shoes, new drapes, or slowly replacing your cosmetics or kitchenware with eco-friendly varieties.
  8. Now, choose three concrete actions you will take this week and schedule them into your calendar.  Make the time.
  9. Choose one simple action you will take today before going to bed tonight that affirms the direction you want to develop yourself.  This could be buying a how-to book, setting your alarm 30 minutes earlier than usual, or cleaning out your backpack or medicine cabinet.

Why it Works

I’m a social scientist by training and in heart, and I can’t miss the opportunity to wax theory a bit.  When eating disorders were first being seriously researched in the early 1980s, one of the earliest discoveries was that they seemed to crop up during significant life transitions.  The most common of these tend to be puberty and the year following high school graduation. Subsequently, relapses are most likely to occur after college graduation, once small children are grown, once grown children leave the house, after career changes, after divorces, at retirement, and when people enter assisted living environments.

What’s going?  At all of these junctures, people are experiencing fear of an unknown future.  When someone is scared of becoming someone with a whole new set of responsibilities and social interactions, what do they do? They become obsessed with trying to reinhabit a smaller, earlier form; and that obsession drives them to take up harmful dieting behaviors that lead to eating disorders.  It feels safe and familiar to focus on getting to a desired weight or body size.  It’s scary to go away to college. It’s scary to retire. And it’s not at all surprising to me that eating disorders are becoming more of a problem than ever among people who are middle aged and elderly because we live in a society that shuns aging.

By becoming enthusiastic about what lies ahead, we get in touch with personal power again, and this gives us the confidence and momentum to get into action.  From a state of feeling even slightly more empowered, mood improves. Eating improves. Life gets fuller, you have new experiences, you take yourself slightly less seriously, and eventually you’re able to access a wider range of problem solving abilities using experimentation, creativity, and fun.

Katherine Thomson, PhD is a medical sociologist in Berkeley, California and has been helping individuals recover from bulimia and other forms of disordered eating, as well as recreate themselves since 2013.

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If you want additional help ending bulimia and binge eating disorder, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF

Episode 54: Stop Purging in Binge Eating Recovery: Interview with Ali Kerr

Episode 53: What Can Hold You Back in Binge Eating Recovery, Part 2: Weight Obsession (Interview with Katherine Thomson, Ph.D.)

Orthorexia and binge eating

Orthorexia and Binge Eating: Guest Post from Elisa Oras

If you struggle with binge eating, you may also have obsessive thoughts about eating healthy.  Extreme or excessive preoccupation with healthy eating that results in unhealthy consequences is called orthorexia.

Like other forms of restrictive dieting, orthorexia can lead to binge eating, and orthorexic tendencies can fuel the binge and purge cycle. Trying to eat well to nourish the body is a good thing, and I’ve addressed how you can approach this in my post, What is Healthy Eating? However, when healthy eating becomes a stressful obsession, it is no longer healthy for the mind and body. 

I have a guest blog post to share with you today, from Elisa Oras, on the topic of orthorexia and binge eating. Elisa is the author of the new book, BrainwashED: Diet-Induced Eating Disorders. How You Got Sucked In and How to Recover. I asked her to talk about this because I do not have personal experience with orthorexia, and I think you will benefit from hearing her story. If your healthy eating has gotten out of hand and is harming your life, I hope you will find inspiration in this post from Elisa.

elisa

When Eating Healthy Becomes Unhealthy – by Elisa Oras

When I was 21 years old, I went through a very hard time in my life and developed depression that lasted for three years. With that, my health got worse. Suddenly, I had to deal with severe acne, hair falling out in chunks and a lot of terrible digestion issues.

I started to search the internet for solutions and found out that leaving out some foods from my diet could improve my health.  The advice I received was to skip eating processed and junk foods and move towards a plant-based diet with an abundance of raw foods, and to start doing occasional water fasts and raw food cleanses.

Of course, now I see that all these health issues were mostly just the side-effects of the stress and depression I had, but then I did not see it that way and opted for a complete diet change instead.

I didn’t want to simply take drugs for my physical or mental health but wanted to heal naturally. I believed I was capable of healing my body and mind inside out if I just made an effort.

As you can see, I had good intentions. I wanted my body to be able to support its healing and not simply mask the symptoms by taking some drugs with serious side-effects. Eating more fruits and veggies and leaving out junk foods can definitely improve health, but at the same time, I didn’t know that healthy diet could be taken too far.

In 2011, I went to Australia with a work and holiday visa. I started to eat even more raw foods, and a few times, I went 30 days completely raw. I saw improvements in my skin, my energy levels, and my weight. I started a raw food blog and gained some following. There were people looking up to me who were inspired by my journey. I felt empowered and motivated to continue.

During that time, I also noticed it had become more difficult to digest some foods I had previously eaten, and I became very sensitive to a lot of stuff. I thought this was the proof that cooked food was indeed toxic to my body and I had to limit or avoid it even more. My ultimate goal was to be 100% raw for optimal health.

But my body did not seem to have the same goal as me. The more raw, clean and pure was my diet, the stronger food cravings I got. The healthy eating became more and more extreme as I was following the low-fat raw vegan diet. The “healthy” eating had to be free from salt, oils, very low fat, no grains or legumes, nothing artificial or man-made and of course, no processed or junk foods. Basically eating only raw fruits and veggies. I became more rigid and obsessed about foods than ever!

This “lifestyle” did not recommend restricting calories (which was good) so I was still eating above 2000 calories a day, often about 2500-3000 calories (and way more if you include the bingeing sessions). So I wasn’t simply dieting for weight loss at that point, but I just wanted to be healthy.

The more you let yourself be pulled into one specific way of eating, only interact with the people in the same boat, read the same books, websites, and recommendations, the more “right” it seems to you. You start to think that this is the only way to be healthy and happy and it is the sole answer to everything that is wrong in your life at the moment. Your mindset becomes brainwashed. You can’t even separate the fact from fiction or where to draw the line.

A rigid diet led to cravings and binges

I had to deal with constant cravings. I craved more fatty and salty foods, cooked food and even junk foods. The last one was particularly worrying for me because previously I had never been a big junk food eater. I wasn’t raised like that and never had such strong cravings for it. But the interesting thing is that the more I tried to eat super clean and pure, to eat only raw fruits and veggies, the more unhealthy junk food cravings I had.

As I was the raw food “inspiration” for many people or at least I thought I was, I felt very anxious and guilty to have those cravings. Like I was about to commit a serious crime. Like I was about to abandon my religion. I felt so conflicted. What I believed in my head and what my body craved did not match. I felt like I was living two separate lives where one was the good way to live and the other was bad.

Of course, the willpower only takes you so far and I could not resist my cravings for too long. I started to buy all the foods I craved and secretly binged on them. After I came out of my food coma I started eating healthy again and promised to never repeat this kind of bad and destructive behavior. I believed I just needed more willpower and more resistance. I still believed that if I only stayed raw long enough, my cravings would disappear and my taste buds would change.

A miserable cycle of orthorexia and binge eating

But every time I went back to my clean healthy eating I somehow ended up bingeing on the “unhealthy” foods I truly craved. Every time I binged, I promised myself that I would be back to 100% raw the next day. “This is the last time!” I would tell myself. But it never was because the harder I tried to restrict the foods I craved, the more I ended up bingeing.

Then one day I decided to do another 30-day raw food challenge. I had done them before but this time, I really believed I needed it to end all my junk food cravings and to be healthy once and for all!

I still had cravings on a daily basis this time, but I was able to stick with the challenge somehow. I did, however, have a never-ending craving for a burrito that sometimes kept me up all night.

After the 30-day challenge was over, I still had the burrito craving and decided to have one: “Just to get it out of my mind and get over it,” as I told myself. I thought this way my body will get what it wants, get over it, and I can just continue with my perfect raw food diet.

But that first bite turned into a two-month junk food binge and purge episode. I felt so sick, guilty and disgusting and I knew the purging to be the only way to “undo it” or to relieve some of the guilt and the uncomfortable sensation I felt with a stomach full of junk foods.

I felt miserable, stuck, and bloated. I felt like my own worst enemy. Someone who I had no control over. I had turned into this food smashing monster who was greedy and did not care about her own health. I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to eat the most nutritious foods on the planet, foods we are supposedly biologically designed for as taught in the raw food books.

To fight this binge-purge situation I was in, I decided to do a three-day water fast. I thought that maybe I just needed to clean my system and my taste buds, and then my body would naturally start to crave healthy foods again. I could start fresh. At this point, I was just so desperate to end this unhealthy bingeing and purging.

Before the first day of my water fast, I planned one “final” binge, promising myself that from tomorrow I will never eat junk again. I bought all of my usual binge foods, ate them all, felt disgusting and bloated, and then vomited. Now I was truly “motivated” to start over with my three-day water fast.

I fasted those three days and felt great afterward. I felt clean and pure, and I lost weight. When I decided to eat again, I first started with some raw juicy fruits. I knew that for the first days after a fast it is not good to eat overly much, but gradually increase the food volume. It was all good in theory, but in practice, it was somewhat different.

I felt my digestion working again and true hunger signals kick in. By the next day, I felt so ravenous that I went to the shop, bought all of my usual binge foods and binged again!

The cycle had just continued. My eating disorder was worse than ever. I purged till the blood vessels in both of my eyes broke, and I walked around with completely red, bloody eyes for about a month.

I was in shock. I was crying and felt the worst I ever felt. I realized I was totally out of control and lost.

After that, I gained weight. I usually NEVER gained too much weight because previously I did not do any calorie restriction. But after the three-day period of no food whatsoever, with reduced metabolism, with the binge and purge session that followed it, I gained about thirteen pounds. I was at my heaviest at that point, and I felt so uncomfortable.

After that, I started to eat cooked foods again without any will to be 100% raw anymore. I just realized it wouldn’t work.

However, my eating disorder was not cured, it was just the beginning. I continued with the high carb low fat vegan diet – the cooked food version. I was still eating a lot of raw foods but included cooked foods too. This was a little bit more sustainable, but I still could not stop the bingeing on junk foods or eating until I felt sick.

I was still trying to eat clean, and I still felt guilty about certain foods, but since I wasn’t doing any calorie restriction or fasting, I slowly lost the extra weight. It took me a whole year to lose that weight by not restricting calories. I also stopped purging for a good while that year, so that helped with normalizing my weight.

But my mentality was still eating disordered, I still wanted to eat as clean as possible – I was not recovered. I was still overeating for most meals. The bulimia came back later on because I did not understand that by restricting the foods I craved, I couldn’t recover. This continued until the start of my recovery in 2013.

Letting go of strict food rules to gain control of bulimia

In September 2013, I was still planning to eventually return to raw foods one day. This was simply what I believed to be the only answer for me. I did not see any other way. I was too focused on eating only healthy foods and limiting all unhealthy foods.

I remember planning to start another 30-day raw food challenge from October 1st. But as usual, this meant going on a “last and final binge” so I could start “fresh” from tomorrow.  So I did it, and felt incredibly sick afterward and purged.

I  remember crying and suddenly I started seeing how sick it was what I was doing. How stuck I really was. And based on my numerous attempts to be fully raw previously I KNEW this 30-day raw food challenge would just lead to another binge and purge. I had simply seen it happen so many times.

I started to wake up and see the vicious battle that I was in. For the first time, I started to realize that maybe the bingeing and purging was not the thing that had to be stopped. Maybe it was the RESTRICTION that had to be stopped first.

So, from that realization, instead of doing another 30-day raw food challenge, I started my recovery. From then on, I wrote in my diary (where I always wrote down my restriction goals) to “eat what I truly crave.”  I was just so tired of fighting against my body at that point. I was willing to try a different approach.

Finding balance and freedom from orthorexia, binge eating, purging, and food obsessions

It was a process of one year during which I totally re-evaluated my food choices, learned about my body signals, how to not restrict and eat what I craved and returned back to intuitive eating. It was a process of trial and error to find out how to recover. But one year after my final binge and purge session I was fully recovered from my bulimia and orthorexia.

I do not believe that eating fruits and veggies and trying to improve one’s diet to be healthy directly causes eating disorders. But when your healthy eating makes you binge-prone, obsessed with foods, fearful of foods, causes you to have too much stress over foods and eating, it overrides the health benefits and replaces it with more damage to your health and well-being instead. We have to know where to draw the line because there is a point where eating healthy can become unhealthy.

Now I am completely recovered from my eating disorder. I am able to eat when hungry and stop when full. I eat what I want when I want and how much I want. I have clear skin, good digestion, normal healthy weight, and no more cravings or junk food binges. I lost the ability to overeat and do not have a “good or bad” foods mindset. My health and eating are way more balanced now by listening and trusting my body than when I tried to actively control everything.

Even now, I still sometimes look back at my journey and am so thankful and amazed how the body is able to recover and find balance again with food and eating, if only given the right tools and conditions to do so. By not fighting against it but working with it.

Find out more about Elisa:

www.followtheintuition.com

Read more posts related to this topic:

Healthy Changes After Recovery Part I, and Part II.
Eliminating Foods in Binge Eating Recovery Part IPart II, and Part III.
Episode 41: Q&A: Why Can Other People Eat Healthy and Lose Weight?

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For more help ending binge eating, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF. It is a 30-page guide to help you understand why you binge and how you can take control back.   

Fear in binge eating recovery

Facing Fear in Binge Eating Recovery (and Life!)

There’s an often confusing contradiction that appears in people who struggle with binge eating and want to recover, and that is—binge eaters sometimes fear recovery. I definitely experienced this and didn’t understand why. Even though I knew I didn’t want to remain a binge eater, there was something scary about not knowing what might be on the other side of recovery.

The unknown can bring up fear in many different situations, and you may find yourself facing a variety of fears in binge eating recovery. You may be afraid of what may happen to your weight, you may fear learning to eat certain foods in moderation, you may fear giving up the distraction of binge eating and letting go of whatever temporary pleasure it may bring (even though you know binge eating is causing you so much pain).

A Lesson in Overcoming Fear

I want to share a personal experience I’ve had recently that relates to overcoming fear, and I hope you can apply what I talk about to whatever you are afraid of as you recover from bulimia or binge eating disorder. This experience is not food related, but it will help you understand how the brain can unlearn fear, and that can empower you to face your own fears.

For about five years, I was afraid of driving on expressways (interstates/freeways, whatever you may call them). I rarely drove on expressways, and by rarely, I mean maybe twice a year. I had no problem riding with someone else driving, but every time I tried to drive myself, I experienced panic and anxious sensations. I found it easier on my nerves just to stick to slower roads. When I lived in Phoenix, AZ, this was not much of a problem, because it’s possible to get anywhere in the metro area without ever getting on an expressway, even though may take much longer.

Our family moved to a new city about seven months ago, and that’s when I decided it was time to change. Both my mother-in-law and my mother don’t drive on expressways because of fear, and their current problems date back to when they were about my age. Maybe it’s a self-preservation instinct in a young mother to become more fearful; but whatever the cause, I didn’t want this fear to stick around and limit my travel options now and in the future. We are lucky enough to be living closer to my family now, and my goal was to be able to pack up and drive to visit them whenever I wanted—without my fear getting in the way.

During the seven months since our move, I’ve overcome this fear about 90 percent. I take expressways nearly every day; I’ve driven eight hours to get to Tennessee, six hours to get to New Orleans and back twice; I’ve gone through Atlanta rush-hour interstate traffic a few times. I now feel I could conquer nearly any driving situation, and although I still get nervous passing big trucks, I still go too slow in the rain, and I still don’t like going over tall bridges, I feel so much more free.

The Fear Response Can Become Linked to Certain Situations (or Foods)

I know it was an irrational fear, even though there is certainly some real danger in driving. Most people drive on expressways without fear or with minimal fear, just as the majority of people eat without fear. For me, the fear response became temporarily linked in my brain to driving, and it’s possible that for you, the fear response has become linked to certain foods or ways of eating, or linked with your attempts to overcome your eating problems.

I’ve been thinking about the way that I’m conquering my driving fear, and how it could help someone overcome fears in binge eating recovery. In Brain over Binge, I explained how binge eating is usually ego-dystonic—meaning not in line with what you actually want when you are thinking rationally. I think that it’s often the opposite with anorexia and restrictive dieting, in that those behaviors are often ego-syntonic—meaning it feels like what you are doing is in line with what you actually want.

When I was stuck in the fear of the driving, my avoidance of the expressways felt ego-syntonic. I felt like it was what I truly wanted. I felt like it was fine to take the slower roads because I believed my kids and I were safer by staying off of the expressways. Even though that may have been statistically true, my fear limited me very much and caused me to waste a lot of time I could have spent doing other things. But, I didn’t have much motivation to change, and I became rather complacent.

Each time I avoided an expressway, I cemented the pattern until it became a strong habit. It became something I simply didn’t do, and for years, I rarely even entertained the option of taking an expressway. It was only when we moved, and visiting family required interstate driving that I snapped out of my complacency and felt a desire to change. I realized that what started out as a fear response linked to driving had turned into a an ego-syntonic behavioral habit.  But, based on my new situation and goals, the desire to avoid expressways suddenly felt ego-dystonic.

Thoughts Fuel Fear and Urges to Binge

I realized that all of the thoughts that convinced me to keep avoiding expressways were well-ingrained and had become automatic, just like my urges to binge had done in the past. Because of my experience ending the binge eating habit, I knew that the habitual thoughts and feelings discouraging me from driving on expressways were not going to stop just because I now wanted to drive on expressways. Like with the urges to binge, I knew those thoughts and feelings would only go away if I stopped believing them and stopped acting on them.

I didn’t bother trying to go back and figure out where the fear originally came from or what else I could change in my life to help make that fear subside. I knew what would make the fear go away: simply driving on the expressway day after day. I had some doubts about whether it would work as well as it did with ending the binge eating habit, because I certainly don’t believe that the way I stopped binge eating is the solution to every problem (for more information on how I stopped acting on my binge urges, you can download my free PDF).

Act in Spite of Fear, and the Fear Can Simply Fade Away

The first few times I entered the on-ramp of an expressway, I felt extremely anxious. But, I knew that despite the feelings of fear welling up in me and the thoughts telling me to pull over, I could control my motor movements—I could check my mirrors, press the gas pedal, and merge left even if my hands were trembling a little.

I just want to stop here and say that I realize some people with phobias experience a much more extreme panic reaction and may feel like they have no control of their motor movements, so I am not saying that everyone can simply face their fears head on without professional help. But, I still believe it’s possible to decondition fears over time, with practice and support when necessary.

As I practiced driving in these situations, I reminded myself that my reactions were automatic, and I tried to detach myself from them, focusing instead on the motor movements I needed to perform to drive the car. The fear started to subside even more quickly than I thought it would. Within a couple of weeks, I was using the less-busy expressways in our city with ease, and with much, much weaker fear reactions. I began challenging myself by driving longer distances, on busier stretches of interstate, through traffic, and even straight over the Great Smoky Mountains (which was not expressway, but still something I would have never done just a year ago). Yes, there was anxiety, and there still is in certain situations, but I’ve come a long way in a short time, and taking the interstate feels normal to me again. I sometimes wonder why I was ever so scared.

Giving Up Restriction May Feel More Scary than Giving Up Binge Eating

When it comes to recovering from an eating disorder, I think this discussion may apply more to giving up restrictive dieting than it does to giving up the binge eating itself. You may want to lose weight or maintain a low weight, and therefore fear eating normal amounts of food or certain types of food. In order to avoid the anxiety and fear that eating (and thoughts of gaining weight from eating) causes, you may try to stick to a strict diet, which becomes habitual, and also leads to urges to binge that are impossible to resist because you are not eating enough food.

If you’ve become so used to trying to restrict, it may feel scary to sit down to a normal-sized meal. Regardless of the reason you started dieting in the first place, dieting has become your habit and eating normally has become linked to the fear response. Because it feels scary to stop dieting, you may keep avoiding normal eating just to avoid those uncomfortable anxious thoughts and feelings. But, avoiding your fear over and over only perpetuates the problem and makes the harmful habits stronger.

Once you realize that you need to eat enough food in order to quit the binge eating habit, and in order to have freedom and health in general, you’ll have motivation to change. (To learn more about the importance of ending dieting, listen to Episode 9: Avoid Restrictive Dieting to Stop Binge Eating).

However, just like with my driving, wanting to change doesn’t make the habit automatically go away. You will need to eat normally despite the anxiety and fear response you experience around food.  You have to know that you can still control your motor movements to pick up the food and put it in your mouth. This takes a lot of courage initially, probably more so than me merging onto the expressway the first several times; but it is well worth it. As you repeat the act of eating normally, the more normal it becomes until the desires to restrict fades, and normal eating becomes your new habit.

It’s common for people to think that restrictive dieters or anorexics have an abundance of self-control because they avoid eating. But the error in this logic is this: what looks like self-control to an outsider is actually far from it. It takes much more self-control for an anorexic or restrictive dieter to eat normally in spite of her anxiety and fear than it does for her to keep restricting. Once the restrictive eating is a habit and there is a fear response linked to normal eating, then avoidance of eating for the dieter or anorexic is just like a binge eater following urges to binge, and just like me avoiding the expressway when I was afraid. An anorexic feels automatically driven to restrict in the same way a bulimic feels driven to binge—her restriction is not a sign of willpower.

You Can Experience Fear of Stopping Binge Eating, and Still Stop Binge Eating

If you have fears about giving up binge eating itself, the same concepts I’m talking about here can apply. You can realize that it’s possible to experience fear of giving up the habit without allowing that fear to lead you in the wrong direction. As you continue not acting on binge urges, in spite of the fear, the less the fear will arise until being binge-free becomes your new normal. Then, you’ll wonder why you were ever scared of letting the behavior go.

Deconditioning the link between your fear responses and your behaviors can take time and practice. Sometimes—even if you are doing well—situations can catch you off guard, and you may find yourself anxious about giving up dieting or binge eating. But if you can remember that you maintain control of your motor movements, and focus on that, it can help you keep performing the actions that move you toward recovery, regardless of what messages you might be receiving from your brain.

There was a time while I was re-learning to drive on the expressway when my fear caught me by surprise. Because of a wrong turn, I ended up having to go over a very tall interstate bridge that I had not planned on taking. As soon as I realized where the road was leading me and there was no way out, I started to panic. I was shaking and felt terrified, but I also knew I had to keep control of my motor movements, as I had 3 young kids in the backseat depending on me.

I was caught off guard in a situation I’d never had to handle before during this process, and it wasn’t easy; but because I focused on what I could control, instead of the fear, it became doable. This is how athletes are able to compete in pressure situations—by focusing on the exact motions they need to perform, instead of their anxiety.

People have conquered much bigger fears than driving on the interstate and learning to eat normally, and that’s not to minimize your problem; but I do think it’s important to remember that everyone experiences fear. I’m not saying you have to go face all of your fears right now, but I do want to encourage you by telling you that it’s okay to be scared and that being fearful doesn’t need to get in the way of recovery. I understand that it’s easy to become complacent in avoiding the things that cause anxiety. The thought of facing a fear may initially feel intimidating, but it’s well worth it to change harmful habits or challenge yourself to accomplish new things.

*Update 2020:
Since this post, I have taken many road trips, the longest of which required me to be behind the wheel of my car for 46 hours over 11 days. The panic sensations I used to experience are gone. My old fear of driving seems so distant now and makes me grateful for the plasticity of the brain. I hope this post encourages you to get out of your comfort zone in recovery or in other areas of your life. I also want to add that I recently
interviewed the author of the book, F*ck Fear (Richard Kerr), and I think you will benefit from hearing his extremely helpful perspective in Episode 65:  Managing Anxious Feelings During a Crisis, in Everyday Life, and in Bulimia Recovery

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As you are changing your harmful eating patterns, it can be helpful to have some guidance along the way. I’ve created 15 coaching audios that you can listen to daily, in order to stay focused on becoming binge-free. Learn more or preview an audio.

The Anorexic and Bulimic “Voice”

It is my belief that in bulimia/BED, the urges to binge are the one and only cause of binge eating. Most of the time, these urges have a “voice” – one that sounds like your own – which strongly encourages the destructive eating behavior. In bulimia/BED, the woman usually views the voice as her enemy; she knows (at least on some level) that the voice is not expressing what she truly wants. In Brain over Binge, I briefly talk about how this situation is sometimes different in anorexia, because many anorexics believe the voice that encourages the destructive eating behavior (restriction/starvation) is expressing what they truly want – to lose weight. I recently came across a summary of a study which aimed to systematically examine this voice in anorexia, and I wanted to share it here along with some insights for binge eaters.

This study aimed to investigate experiences of and reflections on living with an anorexic voice. Participants were invited to write about their anorexic voice in the form of a poem, reflection, letter, or descriptive narrative. The written contributions were then analyzed by researchers. The study found that anorexics bestowed both positive and negative attributes to their anorexic voice; it was found that anorexics viewed the voice more positively in the beginning stages of the disorder and more negatively over time as the disorder developed. The participants felt an affiliation toward the voice, which researchers said could explain their ambivalence to change. The researchers recommended that therapists persist in their endeavors to penetrate the tie between anorexic patients and their anorexic voices.

I think that once the anorexic patient begins to view her anorexic voice negatively in any way, that is the opportunity for the patient to penetrate the tie. Just as in bulimia, the anorexic doesn’t lose volitional control of her actions; she retains the ability to override the anorexic voice. Whereas to stop binge eating, one must not act on the urges to binge; to stop anorexia, one must act (eat) in spite of the urges to starve. She must put food in her mouth despite what that voice is telling her; but to do this, she has to believe (at least on some level) that the voice is wrong.  If she thinks that voice is right – if she has an affinity for it – she will continue following it.

Even though individuals with bulimia/BED usually don’t have much trouble viewing their destructive voice as negative, I thought this study could still be useful for binge eaters, especially those who are just learning to separate themselves from their urges to binge. Like the participants in this study, you could write a poem, a reflection, a letter, and/or a descriptive narrative that reflects on your experience with the voice that urges you to binge. Getting to know the voice is helpful in order to recognize the many ways it presents itself. You could write about what you hear (in your head) that encourages you to binge; you could list all the “reasons” the voice gives you to binge; you could describe all the sensations you experience when you hear that voice. It is my hope that in doing this, you will realize that all of this “neurological junk” is not truly you, and you do not have to follow that voice.

“Triggering” Numbers (Weight, Calories), and Portia De Rossi

Portia De Rossi’s (Portia DeGeneres) new eating disorder book Unbearable Lightness has received some criticism for centering too much on weight, calories, and food and exercise rituals. Portia uses numbers (describing her weight, calorie intake, and exercise) extensively, and some critics say there is danger the book will give weight loss “tips” to extreme dieters and anorexics. As one Amazon review put it, it could teach a reader “how to be a good anorexic.”

On many online eating disorder support forums, the use of these types of numbers is not allowed; the reasoning being that weight/calorie related numbers are potentially “triggering” to those with eating disorders. This means that hearing/reading these types of numbers can potentially fuel their obsession with weight and put them at risk for engaging in eating disordered behaviors like starving, binge eating, and/or purging.

While writing my own book, I debated whether or not to use numbers as it related to my weight, calorie consumption during binges, and amount of exercise. I don’t disagree with support forums forbidding the use of numbers (after all, we wouldn’t want these forums to turn into places for members to compare weights, measurements, calories, and exercise); however, I ultimately decided to use numbers (sparingly) in my book. There were three reasons for this:

1) The numbers help give a more accurate description of my life as a bulimic. Simply saying I was “underweight” from dieting, “gained a lot of weight” from binge eating, “ate a lot” during binges or “overexercised” would be avoiding the whole story. I decided that in order for binge eaters/bulimics to relate to my story, I needed to bear all of it. That being said, weight and calorie numbers are not a focus of my book, as they are in Unbearable Lightness.

2) Avoiding all “triggering” numbers isn’t possible or necessary. One look at the magazines in a grocery store check-out line shows that there is too much information on calories, weights, and diets out there. Women, and many men too, talk frequently of weight, calories, and exercise. It’s not a good thing in our society; but it is unrealistic to think you can void it all. Learning to not be bothered or “triggered” by these numbers is a better solution than avoiding them.

3) Avoiding the “triggering” numbers would take away from my message of self control. To recover, I had to learn that regardless of what I heard, saw, thought, felt, or read, I could control my actions. In other words, I had to learn that nothing could “trigger” me, and I hope my readers take that message away from my book. Then they can read read Unbearable Lightnesswithout all the numbers being a problem.