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. 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 binge eating recovery, so I want to share a guest post from Gillian Riley, who has great advice on 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 Riley 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.
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.
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
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
I also did a video podcast episode with Gillian Riley (Episode 64: Stop Yo-Yo Dieting and Take Control of Overeating) where we discussed many topics related to developing a healthy relationship with food:
Watch the video interview with Gillian Riley on Youtube
Listen to the audio-only version on the Brain over Binge Podcast
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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)
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- Now, choose three concrete actions you will take this week and schedule them into your calendar. Make the time.
- 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.
If you want additional help ending bulimia and binge eating disorder, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF.
If you have bulimia or binge eating disorder, you’ve most likely experienced weight gain from binge eating. You may wonder what will happen as you recover…will you lose the weight you’ve gained? Will you gain more weight as you begin eating normally? What will your weight be as a binge-free and diet-free person?
It’s important for you to understand that recovery from binge eating is not about weight loss or avoiding any further weight gain. Overcoming binge eating is about letting go of a harmful, health-sabotaging behavior, rising above the shame and pain it brought, and moving on with your life. However, the reality is that weight concerns are very common in recovering binge eaters, so I want to give you some help in this area.
I’ve addressed weight thoroughly for the first time in my 2012 post, “Weight After Recovery” and other posts after that (see a list of my weight-related blog posts), as well as in The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. Today, I’m also going to talk about possibility of gaining weight during and after binge eating recovery, and how you can deal with this in a healthy way.
When I Stop Binge Eating, Does that Mean I’ll Stop Gaining Weight?
Usually, yes. It only makes sense that binge eating recovery commonly involves a cessation of weight gain and eventual weight loss as the out-of-control eating episodes decrease and go away. When you stop eating abnormally large amounts of food, your calorie intake goes down to a normal level, and it follows that body weight naturally goes down to the level that is normal for your unique body.
Eventual and gradual weight loss is even common in people who self-induce vomiting or use other forms of purging after binges, because a significant portion of the binge calories are still absorbed, and stopping the binge/purge cycle still leads to an overall decrease in calories. Even if there is some bloating when you first stop purging, the body can regulate, and any weight gained from bulimia can be slowly released. (For help stopping purging and dealing with bloating, read these Tips to Help You Stop Purging, and listen to Episode 54: Stop Purging in Binge Eating Recovery: Interview with Ali Kerr.
The fact that stopping binge eating reduces calories also holds true if you are dieting restrictively between binges. If you consider your overall calorie intake from restrictive dieting plus binge eating, you’ll realize that the total is likely more, and often much more, than the calorie total of a normal diet. For example, I recommend a daily minimum of 2,200 calories to help you recover from restriction and binge eating. Someone who is restricting and eating only 1,200 calories per day, but then having 6,000 calorie binges a few times a week, is actually averaging over 3,500 calories per day.
Like I said at the start, recovery is not about weight loss, but the simple fact that quitting will reduce calorie intake goes a long way to alleviate some weight-related fears of recovery You may have previously worried that giving up restriction and purging would make you gain weight; but when you also factor in that you’ll be stopping binge eating as well, you may feel reassured to know that your overall calorie intake will go down to a normal level. You may feel more willing to eat enough food on a daily basis, which is absolutely necessary, because recovery won’t happen if you keep yourself in a state of starvation.
If I Keep Restricting, Can I Speed Up Weight Loss in Binge Eating Recovery, or Avoid Weight Gain?
No. If you keep restricting, you will keep binge eating, and keep your calorie intake higher than if you just ate normally. Some people think that they can stop binge eating without stopping dieting and other dangerous weight-control behaviors like purging; but you simply cannot recover while your body is in underfed. This is why I teach that recovery comes down to two basic goals:
- Recovery Goal 1: Dismiss urges to binge (stop giving urges attention and stop acting on them)
- Recovery Goal 2: Eat Adequately (eat enough decent quality food)
It is impossible to accomplish Recovery Goal 1 on a consistent basis without implementing Recovery Goal 2.
If you’ve read this far and still find yourself having significant resistance to Recovery Goal 2 (Eating Adequately), this could be because you believe you believe you are an exception to what I’ve explained above about binge eating recovery usually leading to a cessation of weight gain and eventual weight loss.
What if I Think I Will Gain Weight from Binge Eating Recovery?
To understand how weight gain is possible from binge eating recovery, let’s shift gears for a moment and think about anorexia recovery. It is a given that weight gain is a part of the process of restoring the recovering anorexic back to health. Weight gain is necessary and beneficial, and I believe this is also the case when weight gain is a part of binge eating recovery.
Stopping the binge and purge cycle and learning to nourish your body may lead to an overall calorie increase for you. This can be the case if you binge infrequently, if binge on smaller quantities of food, and if you restrict severely between binges. Even if you know you want freedom from the binge and purge cycle, the thought of weight gain may make you worry and make you want to avoid making healthy changes.
So, how then do you alleviate fears of weight gain from binge eating recovery? How do you convince yourself to eat enough food every day? How do you avoid giving in to the temptation to restrict?
In the rest of this blog post, I’m going to give you 5 tips to help with these concerns:
Tip 1: Realize the Futility and Danger of Your Current Path
In my own personal recovery, I was in the majority. Stopping binge eating led to an overall decrease in calories and my body gradually went back down to its natural weight. So, when giving these tips, I want you to know that I’m speaking of a challenge that I did not personally go through. Nevertheless, I believe my personal experience shines an important light on this issue that I hope you will find helpful.
The reason I did not go through the challenge of weight gain in binge eating recovery was due to the time in my disorder that I recovered. I recovered after the binge eating had already brought me well over my natural weight. If I would have recovered in an earlier stage of my bulimia—when I was still underweight from restricting and anorexia, and before my binges had gotten very frequent and very large—then I would have indeed gained weight in recovery.
I look back and wish that I would have recovered at this earlier stage when I was still below my normal weight, both because it would have saved me valuable time that I wasted to bulimia, and it would have been safer and healthier than spiraling further into binge eating.
My binges got worse and worse over time, and the quantity of food I ate during binges increased; and I put on weight in an unhealthy and shame-producing way. Gaining weight by eating normally would have been so much less stressful and less painful, and I would have gained much less weight than I eventually gained by staying bulimic.
If you fear recovery because you are still under your natural weight due to harmful restrictive behaviors, you need to realize that this won’t last. You are on a dangerous path and it will only hurt you. It’s simply not sustainable to starve yourself or purge frequently to try to fend off weight gain from binge eating. It will only make the binge eating get worse and worse, and you will eventually gain weight—and likely more weight than if you learn to let go of those unhealthy behaviors now and accept natural, normal, and healthy weight gain.
*If you are severely restricting and/or underweight, it’s important to seek medical and nutritional help to gradually reintroduce a normal diet and restore weight.
Also know that the effect that restriction has on your metabolism adds to the futility of your current path. Starving yourself and purging slows your metabolism so that it will be increasingly more difficult and even impossible to maintain your current too-low weight. Thinking about what you are doing from a long-term perspective can help you realize that you can’t keep up these harmful behaviors forever. Restriction and purging cause too much stress, exhaustion, shame, and health problems.
Additionally, for all of the trouble and pain you are going through, your calorie intake (after factoring in the binges) is likely not much lower than what a normal diet would be. You may only be managing to eat a couple hundred calories less than you’d be eating if you stopped all of the dangerous behaviors. Wouldn’t it be easier to just eat and digest the small amount of extra food? Wouldn’t any weight gain that results be worth it, in order to be free of the painful daily struggle?
Tip 2: Weight is Not All about Calories. Be Patient.
If you are underweight or under your natural weight, then of course, you will need to gain weight, just as someone in anorexia recovery would. But, you are close to what you believe is your natural weight range, know that an increase in calories does not necessarily equal long-term weight gain. Recovery might involve some initial bloating and simply more food being in your system, which the number on the scale can temporarily reflect; but that doesn’t mean that extra weight is permanent.
As your body gets used to processing a normal amount of food, and you get any necessary help with digestive issues, you allow your metabolism to start working normally again. Calorie restriction makes the body more efficient at using calories, so that it gets the most out of every calorie you give it. This metabolism-suppressing effect can make you feel trapped into always eating less and less, which is impossible, and will lead to increased binge eating. (For more on this, listen to Episode 9: Avoid Restrictive Dieting to Stop Binge Eating).
Once you eat normally for a while and your body realizes that you are no longer starving, it can start to use calories for energy instead of storing them in preparation for the next “famine” (restrictive diet). This means that, even though you may be eating more overall, you won’t be gaining weight. This regulation of metabolism can take time, so patience is required. By feeding yourself adequately, you are giving yourself a gift that will last—a normal and healthy metabolism.
Tip 3: View Feeding Yourself in a Positive Light, Focus on Adding Foods that Benefit You
When you give yourself enough food, you are doing something good for yourself, and it’s helpful to keep this in mind. Think of all the nutrients you are putting into your body, and focus on adding foods that make you feel good. Of course, it’s fine to have all types of foods, even unhealthy ones; but if you are feeling hesitant about eating more, incorporating foods you feel really good about can help you feel less self-critical. It can take you from a mindset of thinking that you are overindulging (which you aren’t!) to a more positive mindset of knowing you are doing something very good for your body. This positive mindset will encourage you to keep going down the healthy path, and not slip back into restriction.
Another aspect of viewing normal eating in a positive light is to avoid thinking that you are overeating. If you are used to trying to maintain a daily restrictive diet of 1,200 calories, then initially, eating 2,200 or more on a daily basis may feel like it’s too much. Even though you likely binge on much more than that, your digestive system simply isn’t used to consistently getting that nourishing amount of food each day.
Know that this isn’t specific nutritional or medical advice, but if eating more food leaves you feeling overly full, you can try adding the extra calories as healthy fats and other healthy calorie-dense foods. Think of butter or coconut oil for example—there are a lot of calories packed into a small volume of food so that it doesn’t leave your stomach feeling too stretched during the time when you are increasing calories and regulating digestion. Adding healthy fat also has a positive effect on your metabolism’s ability to use calories for energy.
Tip 4: Think of How You’d Want to Feed Someone You Love.
If you are tempted to restrict, think of what you’d want someone you love to do in your situation. For example, if you imagine having a daughter who had this problem, would you want her to try to get by on the absolute minimum number of calories? Would you want her trying to starve herself while trying to stop binge eating, or at any time in her life?
Or… would you want to make absolutely sure she was getting enough nourishment? Would you want to make sure her body and brain got the message that binge eating was no longer needed? You can see that if you are thinking about someone you love, you want to make sure that person is well-fed; and you deserve the same kind and compassionate treatment.
Tip 5: Be Open to the Recovery Process and to Your Natural Weight
It is possible that—at this point—you aren’t even sure what your natural, healthy weight is. You may have dieted and binged for as long as you can remember and never allowed your body to find it’s normal set weight range. If this is the case for you, eating normally and stopping binge eating will be a leap of faith as far as weight is concerned. What can help in this situation is to know deeply that wherever you eventually end up weight-wise, it will be better than where you are now—trying desperately to control your weight and then feeling so out of control with the binges.
If you can allow your body to just be and gravitate toward it’s natural weight—whatever that may be—you will be free to live your life. Will you end up being the weight you want? There is no way to know. If maintaining the weight you desire is or has been a stressful struggle and required starvation, you need to listen to your body. An “ideal” weight that is impossible for you to maintain is not your natural, healthy weight and it just isn’t worth it. Trying to fight your natural weight is a losing battle, and if you are open to accepting your body’s unique size, the binge eating recovery process will be much easier on you.
For help learning to stop the binge eating habit, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF. The Brain over Binge Course also contains thorough answers to many questions about weight and eating.
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.
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:
Read more posts related to this topic:
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.