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.

binge eating journal

Before Therapy for Binge Eating: A Telling Journal Entry

I often kept a journal as a kid and teen, and continued journaling as I began to struggle with binge eating. Writing was an outlet for me and seemed to help me process things I was going through. When I started to feel so out of control with food, my journal often felt like the only place I could turn, because I was too ashamed to tell anyone about my binge eating and didn’t think anyone would understand.

A Binge Eating Journal in Therapy Was Complicated (and Didn’t Stop Binges)

Once I began therapy for binge eating, my therapists encouraged me to journal as a way to try to uncover deeper emotional reasons for my binges. I learned to use my journal as a way to try to find patterns in my binge behavior, and figure out which events, feelings, situations, interactions, and stressors preceded and supposedly triggered my out-of-control eating episodes.  Because therapy taught me that binge eating was a coping mechanism for problems and emotions, I also wrote in my journal as a way to help myself cope, thinking that would take away my desire to binge.

In Brain over Binge, I explained the many reasons why mainstream therapy concepts didn’t work for me and why thinking my binge eating was due to deeper underlying problems or a need to cope was not helpful. The way I used my journal in therapy may have helped me have some insight into my life, and problems, and emotions, but it did not help stop my binge eating. It made my binge eating seem meaningful and important, and also made it like a mystery that I needed to solve. (You can learn more about why digging into emotional and psychological issues is not always useful in recovery my blog post: What Makes Recovery “Work”? Part III (You Don’t Need to Work so Hard)

Pre-Therapy Journal Entries More Accurately Described My Binges

I did write about binge eating a bit before I started therapy. I think my pre-therapy journal entries are raw and telling, and more accurately interpret what my binge eating was about: It wasn’t about coping, it was about the food.

I wrote the journal entry below a couple months after I turned 18—about a week or two before my first appointment with a therapist regarding my binge eating/bulimia. At the time, I was still underweight from anorexia, but I had been binge eating for about 7 months, and the binges had been steadily increasing in frequency and quantity of food. It’s evident from this journal entry that I had not been introduced to the idea of binge eating being a coping mechanism. Instead I had a couple intuitive and clear ideas of my own about my binge eating. I think these ideas can be summed up as:

1. I feel like I can’t control myself around food   

2. I think I might like to binge, even thought I hate it’s effects

At this point in my eating disorder, my strong cravings and urges to binge were the result of my survival instincts. The binges were an adaptive response to my extended and extreme dieting; and those urges were generated by a primitive part of my brain, which I call the lower brain. But all I knew at the time was that I couldn’t seem to control myself around food, and I hated myself for it. I didn’t realize that the part of me that seemed to like binge eating wasn’t really me at all, but a primal part of my brain that was driving me toward massive amounts of food in order to defend against starvation—and that part of my brain was steadily becoming more and more addicted to the binges. Each time I binged, I cemented the pattern a bit more until it became powerful habit, and my body and brain seemed to become dependent on large amounts of the foods that were initially so attractive to my survival instincts—foods higher in sugar/carbohydrates and fat.

If you want to know more about survival instincts and habit and how they lead to urges to binge (and how to overcome those urges) you can get my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics

This is the journal entry from October 1999:
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I don’t know who I’m writing to or why I am writing, but I thought it might help me to get this out. Basically, I’m out of control. I can’t stop eating or thinking about food. I’ve been bingeing almost every other day. Since last night, I have been really really crazy. Before I went to bed, I had 3 bowls of cereal, 3 Nutri-Grain bars, 1 pudding cup, 1 bagel, a half a can of beans, a piece of cheese, a few handfuls of Fruity Pebbles, and 7 pieces of bread with butter. Then, I woke up at 12:30am and ate another pudding cup and a cup of milk, and another Nutri-Grain bar. Then, I woke up at 2:00am and ate another Nutri-Grain bar. Then, I woke up at 5:30am and had 2 more Nutri-Grain bars (totaling 7), a cup of milk, a cup of juice, then a piece of bread, then about 20 crackers, and a protein bar. I finally had to stop because it was time to go. [*I was leaving with my cross-country team to drive to South Carolina for a race, which was to take place the following day.The next part of this entry was written on the road with my team. I was sitting in the back of the team van, where no one could see my writing]

We just stopped at Cracker Barrel for lunch on our way to Clemson. I was still so full from last night so I decided to just order a turkey sandwich and a side of green beans. That would have been ok, but then I ate 2 pieces of cornbread & a biscuit as well. I was doing my best to eat slow and be normal, but I really just wanted to dig into everything. I’m like this almost all of the time now, and I don’t know why. Last night it was like I almost wanted to binge. After the first part of the binge that ended about 10:30pm, I actually felt good. But, then when I kept getting up at night and after lunch today, I just feel like a big failure. I spent so much time and energy and used so much self control to get down to this weight. And, now I’m ruining it. I weighed myself yesterday before dinner and this morning and  I gained 5 pounds in one night! That’s absolutely ridiculous. 

Do you think my body is just trying to tell me something? Or am I just crazy? Sometimes I feel like if I had a choice of what I wanted to do, I would choose to just sit in my room and stuff myself. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I enjoy it. After I binge, I just lay in bed and go to sleep. If I could just learn how to throw up, I could binge and not gain any weight. [*I left this here to show the desperation that goes on in a bulimic’s mind, but I want you to know that self-induced vomiting is never a solution and only makes the problem worse. It’s an extremely dangerous behavior and I’m thankful that I was never able to self-induce vomiting, because I might not even be here to write about my experience and recovery. For help with this, you can read a guest post from Ali Kerr: Tips to Help You Stop Purging.]

I think I just need to stop being such a baby. It’s sad but sometimes I would rather eat than do anything. Every time I do it, I swear to myself that I’m never going to do it again, but I always do. Right now, I’m feeling so nauseous and sick, but if I were alone in my room, I know I would eat more. I need a babysitter 24/7. My parents and sister know some of what is going on, but, they don’t know how to help me. I told the sports psychologist about the problem this week and I went home after the appointment and binged. It was like the whole day, I just knew it was going to happen. I went to Wal-mart with [two of my friends] and I bought the Nutri-grain bars knowing I would probably end up eating a ton of them, but not thinking I would eat the whole box in one night.

I feel like no one eats as much as me in the entire world, but I’m skinnier than the majority of people I see. How is that? I know it’s going to catch up with me very soon if I keep this up. I hate myself so much right now.I just want to be normal. I just want to eat and forget about it. I don’t want to think about food all day long. I feel so alone.

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I think this entry is telling because of my honesty—admitting that I liked the binges. As I said earlier, this was a lower-brain-driven, primal form of pleasure that I didn’t understand, but still, this type of honesty was extremely rare in my journal entries after therapy—when I became convinced I binged for complicated emotional reasons and it was a coping mechanism for life’s problems. In later journal entries, I attributed my binges to things like feelings, stressful events, daily inconveniences, problems from my past, or relationship issues; and I rarely said what I said here, which was basically: “my cravings feel out of control, but you know what?…it feels good (temporarily) when I give in.” It only made sense that it felt good—of course there was great pleasure in the relief from self-imposed starvation.

Simplifying Recovery Based on What My Binge Eating Was About

The last paragraph in this journal entry is also telling in that I say “I want to be normal“. Even thought there was an unsettling pleasure in it, I didn’t want binge eating in my life, and I was taking steps to try to get help. I was receptive to help—to therapy— which I began shortly after writing this. Once I began therapy, I didn’t need to learn that all of this was a symptom of underlying emotional issues spend years digging through and trying to resolve those issues. I needed to learn that I was starving and my body and brain were reacting to try to protect me. I needed to learn that trying to maintain such a low weight was the cause of all this, and if I stubbornly continued to put my body in a calorie deficit, there would be no chance of stopping the binges.

It’s not that my dieting was completely ignored in therapy. I did learn that food restriction was part of the problem, but even when I normalized my non-binge eating—which wasn’t too difficult because I was motivated to do it—the binge urges persisted. As I discuss in my books, this was due to the persistent nature of the survival instincts and also due to habit. Simply normalizing my diet wasn’t enough; therefore, I also needed to learn something else—how to say no to each and every urge to binge.

In other words, I think my therapy, and the therapy for most bulimics or people with binge eating disorder, could be made simple—consisting of only 2 components:

1. Learn to eat adequately

2. Learn to resist urges to binge  [*I now say dismiss urges to binge, and you can learn about this in the free PDF]

I do not believe that the exact same methods that helped me resist urges to binge will cure everyone; but I do not believe in making recovery unnecessarily complicated, time-consuming, and difficult. I believe the key is finding what works for you to help you say no to the binges and therefore erases the habit. You can find more guidance in this blog post: What Makes Recovery “Work”? Part II (The Work You Need to Do.

If you need even more help, you can learn more about my Coaching Audios or Course.

Paleo binge eating

My Recovery Diet & Thoughts on Paleo as a Binge Eating Cure

I understand what it’s like to be confused about what to eat, and to feel like maybe if you just have the right meal plan, or if you eat all of the right foods, you can finally stop binge eating. Many people have asked what I ate at the time that I recovered, and today I’m going to share those details.

Since this post will address my diet and paleo eating, I want to say right away that I did not eat paleo when I stopped binge eating, and in fact, my diet was quite the opposite of paleo. Paleo is becoming a popular way to eat to pursue better health, weight loss, and even binge eating recovery. But, for reasons I’ll explain in this post, I do not believe paleo eating is a cure for binge eating disorder, bulimia, or any form of binge eating.

What I Ate During Binge Eating Recovery

I didn’t share exact details in my book, because I didn’t want people to feel like they should follow my way of eating. Everyone has different needs, and I certainly didn’t recover because of my specific diet. I am using the word diet in this sense to mean way of eating, and not a form of restriction.

My diet at the time I recovered in 2005 was not very healthy compared to today’s standards, especially if you believe that paleo eating is the healthiest. For example, when I recovered, whole wheat and whole grain food items were mostly considered healthy, and now some experts think they are at the root of many health problems and diseases. Also, low-fat dairy seemed to be considered healthier than full-fat dairy, and now many experts claim the opposite, or that dairy isn’t healthy in any form.

What I considered a pretty good diet then isn’t what I consider healthy today; and sometimes I am not even sure what I consider healthy (you can see my What is Healthy? post for a discussion about this). Nevertheless, I want to share what I ate in hopes that it will help you realize that you don’t have to eat perfectly, and that it’s important to eat enough.

Most of the time, I ate 3 meals plus 3 or 4 snacks per day, likely averaging about 2300 calories per day. I usually stayed in the range of 2000-2500 calories, sometimes slightly more, sometimes less. I didn’t count calories at the time, nor do I today; but I was pretty knowledgeable about calories, as most people with a history of eating disorders are, so I knew generally how much I was getting. I was very active at the time, because I was on my feet all day working in a special education classroom with kids who had severe and profound disabilities, and I exercised about 5-6 times a week for 20-30 min.

Even though I ate pretty regular meals and snacks, the meal/snack times and what I ate were very flexible. Sometimes I’d inadvertently miss a meal, sometimes I’d eat more that usual at a meal, and sometimes not as much. Below, I’ve included a small sample of some of the meals/snacks that I ate, and if you want to learn more about my overall thoughts on food intake, you can read my post, How Much Should I Eat?. Note that any measurement I give in this sample is just an average because I didn’t measure my food.

Breakfast:

  • Bowl of cereal (about 1 ½ cups dry cereal and 1 cup of 1% or 2% milk) and fruit. The cereal was usually something low-sugar/whole grain like Bran Flakes, but sometimes I’d chose a more sugary option.  or…
  • 2 whole grain waffles with about 2 tbsp peanut butter, and fruit. or….
  • Whole grain bagel with about 2 tbsp Cream cheese, and fruit. or….
  • 2 eggs (scrambled, fried, or hard-boiled) with 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast and butter, plus some fruit. or….
  • Bowl of oatmeal (2 servings based on the label) with a little low-fat milk and some fruit.

*The fruit that I ate with my breakfast was something like an apple, banana, grapes (maybe 15 or so), or an orange.

Snack #1:

  • 8 oz container of flavored yogurt or….
  • Granola bar or….
  • Protein bar or….
  • Low-fat cookies (about 4) or….
  • Cheese or peanut butter-filled cracker sandwiches (I believe 6 came in a pack)

Lunch:

  • Turkey and cheese sandwich (2 pieces whole grain bread, about 1 tbsp mayonnaise, 1 piece of cheese, a few slices of deli turkey), with chips (about 15) and a vegetable (usually a small can of green beans; or fresh celery or carrot sticks) or…
  • 1 can of soup (lentil, chicken noodle, black bean, tomato) with wheat crackers (about 8) or 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast, fruit- Lean pocket (usually 1, sometimes 2), vegetable, wheat crackers (5-10) or chips.

Snack #2: Generally the same choices as snack #1 above.

Dinner:

  • Whole wheat pasta and meatballs (about 1 1/2 cup cooked pasta, 2 medium meatballs, marinara sauce), with a serving of vegetables like corn or green peas, and a roll with butter.
  • Pork chops with gravy, brown Rice (1 1/2 cup cooked), a serving of vegetables, and a piece of garlic bread.
  • Tuna salad sandwich (2 slices of wheat bread, 3/4 can of tuna, mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, with chips (about 10-15).

Snack #3:

  • My late night snack was usually a bowl of cereal (about the same serving size as when I had it for breakfast). It was usually a cereal I thought was pretty healthy at the time; but I’d have a sugary option probably once every couple of weeks.

Desserts:

  • I had dessert an average of 2 times a week (usually after dinner). Desserts were something like 1 cup of ice cream, 1-5 cookies, an average size piece of cake, ½ of a chocolate bar, or just a couple of hard candies after a meal.

Eating out:

  • My husband and I were not the greatest cooks, and we did eat out a lot. We ordered pizza about once every two weeks for dinner, and I would usually eat 2 to 3 slices, depending on the size of the slices. We got fast food at least once per week for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I ordered either a breakfast sandwich, or hamburger or fish sandwich with fries (usually small, but sometimes a bigger size if I was more hungry).

Drinks:

  • I drank mostly water at the time, but I’d often have a cup of orange, grape, or apple juice sometime during the day, and I drank a diet soda a couple times a week. I also drank coffee each day with 1% or 2% milk in it. I had one or two alcoholic drinks (beer or wine) a couple times per month.

The Opposite of Paleo

Considering that I thought whole grains/whole wheat were healthy, this seemed like a decent diet to me. It allowed me flexibility, foods that I liked, and variety. But, as it turned out, my diet was nearly the antithesis of the way of eating that many experts now claim is healthy, and that’s paleo eating.

The paleo diet has been popularized especially in the past couple years by books like The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf (2010), and The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain (2010). The paleo theory basically argues against consumption of all wheat, grains, legumes, dairy products, sugar, and processed oils. In the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about this way of eating, and the implications for binge eaters.

When I first heard the theory that whole grains and whole wheat are not healthy, it honestly caught me off guard, because I’d spent so much time believing they were good for me. I could completely understand why someone would say that sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods were unhealthy, but whole grains? It also shocked me that legumes and dairy (foods I assumed were healthy for many years) are excluded from the paleo diet. I did some research, and realized there is compelling evidence behind the idea that these foods are not the best choices for our health.

Is Paleo a Healthy Way to Eat?

The basic theory is that humans are not genetically adapted to digest grains, dairy, legumes, and the other foods that the paleo diet eliminates, and these foods act like toxins to our systems. There is still a lot of controversy about this theory, and I’m not saying I’m 100 percent sold on the idea. There are studies and experts who refute it, and some say it’s just another fad diet.

Personally, I still eat grains and beans, albeit less and especially less wheat; and I’ve been eating more meat, eggs, fresh veggies, and a lot more fat (in the form of coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.) I still eat dairy as well; but now I always buy full-fat dairy.

If grains are a culprit in a lot of health problems in our society; I find this news pretty hard to take. One walk through the grocery store shows that most food manufactures promote “whole grain” food as a healthy option, or as a positive addition to any food. It’s one thing when you eat sugar or processed food and you know it’s not the best for you, but also okay in moderation; but it’s quite another when you eat something for years and years thinking it’s healthy, and you find out it probably wasn’t healthy after all.

A more bothersome part about this is that I’ve fed a lot of whole grains and beans to my children, basically since they started eating solid food, thinking I was doing something good for them. I bought a book about preparing healthy and natural baby food when my first born began eating solids. The book was more vegetarian in nature, and it recommended starting a baby’s day with a breakfast of homemade porridge, consisting of whole grains and beans blended together. When I think of all the whole grains and beans I bought in bulk from the health food store, and all of the nights I stayed up late cooking beans and grains for my babies, and how I went through a lot of extra trouble to lovingly feed them something I thought was healthy; I feel terrible to think all of it may have been in vain, or even toxic to their systems.

Again, it’s one thing to give your kid a cookie or candy knowing it’s primarily for pleasure and that they aren’t getting nutrition from it; but it’s quite another when you find out the majority of the “healthy” food you’ve fed your kids might not have been healthy at all. But enough of me venting about my personal feelings on this matter; now I want to turn to talking about how paleo eating relates to recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Paleo as a Fix for Binge Eating?

Special diets as cures for binge eating and bulimia are nothing new. In Brain over Binge, I talked about the addiction model of treating binge eating. Addiction treatment is based on the idea that the foods a binge eater typically binges on, which are usually foods high in sugar and carbohydrates, are physically addictive; and to recover, the binge eater must abstain from those addictive foods, often indefinitely.

One of the pioneers in the addiction model of treating binge eating, compulsive eating, and food addiction was Anne Katherine, author of Anatomy of a Food Addiction. In her book, Katherine recommends avoiding what she believes are the culprits of a food addiction – sugar and refined carbohydrates. She recommends “converting to whole wheat eating,” and says that “nearly every beloved flour product can be replaced with a sugar-free, 100 percent whole-wheat product.” This book also recommends converting to other whole grains, like eating brown rice instead of white rice.[i]

Now, some are taking it one huge step further, by making a paleo diet a requirement, or at least an important step in recovery. While paleo eating might be helpful to some people in some ways, I would hate to see a situation where binge eaters are told they must give up many food groups in order to live free of binge eating. To make these types of sweeping changes in the way you eat is very difficult. I know several extremely health conscious people, and none of them follow a perfect paleo diet. Quite simply, asking binge eaters to only eat paleo foods in order to fix binge eating is asking too much, when even normal eaters can struggle greatly with eliminating foods from their diets.

The Problem with Paleo as a Potential Solution to Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder

The reality is, grains are everywhere and we have learn to live with them. If we choose not to eat them, I believe it has to be just that – a choice – not a requirement for recovery. Avoiding certain foods for health reasons might be a beneficial choice for certain people, as long as the person is making sure they are eating enough calories and getting enough nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. However, as far as being helpful in recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder, I think there are several reasons why a paleo diet is not the answer, and I’ve explained those reasons below:

  1. Avoiding certain foods with the belief that one bite of those foods will spiral into a binge can be self-fulfilling. What happens if the former binge eater decides to eat grains again one day? Does this mean she or he is destined to relapse? Feeling like you can control yourself around any food seems to be the safer option.
  2. Binge eaters can binge on anything. Even though carbohydrates are the most common binge foods, the reality is that binge eaters can and do binge on all types of foods. If you don’t break the binge eating habit, the primal brain will continue looking for opportunities to binge, and will find them on any eating regimen, including the paleo diet.
  3. A paleo diet does not take away the desire for the temporary pleasure of a binge. Binge eating alters the reward system in the brain and it becomes a habit of pleasure (which ultimately leads to pain). Just because the paleo diet says to eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates does not shut off the urges to binge on those foods. If a paleo diet is going to alter body and brain chemistry to eventually reduce cravings for certain “addicting” foods, it still doesn’t guarantee that the desire to binge will go away.
  4. Telling a binge eater to eat a paleo diet fails to address behavioral conditioning. The habit becomes wired into the brain so that the brain can produce cravings for binges automatically, regardless of what the person is eating.
  5. A paleo diet does not address the lack of self-control binge eaters feel.  A sense of lack of control over eating is fundamental to all cases of bulimia and binge eating disorder; so telling a binge eater that the solution to their problem is to use a ton of self control to avoid many foods simply doesn’t make sense.

Can Paleo at Least Help Eliminate Some Cravings and Urges?

Getting past these problems, if binge eaters could manage to eat a paleo-type diet for a long time, would it eliminate urges to binge?

If the person did not binge during this time, then I believe the urges would lessen or go away, but not due to the paleo diet itself. Not acting on the binge urges weakens the habit in the brain, and the urges fade, whether or not you are eating paleo. So, it’s not the paleo diet that eliminates the binge eating habit; it’s not binge eating that eliminates the binge eating habit.

If a person eats paleo, and binges on paleo foods, then they still have a binge eating habit. If a person eats a diet including all foods, and binges on none of those foods, then they do not have a binge eating habit. I realize this is obvious, but I think it’s important to point out that a certain way of eating is not the cure; the cure is to stop acting on the binge urges. (If you are new here and want to learn how to avoid following your urges to binge, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.)

Then the question becomes: Is it easier to stop acting on urges to binge if you are eating paleo? I think the answer is possibly, for some people. If eating grains, sugar, and carbs typically leads to binge urges for you, then eating a paleo diet could potentially create a situation where you have less urges to deal with. That’s assuming you can stick to a paleo diet, but based on the problems I discussed above, it’s very difficult.

On the other hand, feelings of deprivation and restriction are some of the main drivers of urges to binge, so the elimination of certain foods may have the opposite effect of giving you more urges to deal with. Additionally, given that many binge eaters claim that stress brings on their urges to binge, it’s possible that the time, effort, and money it requires to eat a paleo diet might end up leading to more frequent urges. This is not to say that you need to eliminate stress or that you can’t try to eat healthy.  I’m just pointing out that binge urges arise in many different situations and in response to eating many different foods, and it’s not always predictable.  That’s why I believe it’s important to view the urges as the problem, not the situations or foods.

I didn’t eat a paleo diet, and neither have many others who have recovered; yet we managed to end the binge eating habit for food. Maybe if I would have eaten no sugar, dairy, wheat, grains, or legumes, I would have had less urges to deal with…or maybe more? Either way, looking back, I’m glad I recovered the way that I did; because now no food is dangerous to me. I can eat whatever I want without having to worry about it leading to urges to binge or to relapse. Furthermore, I don’t have to worry if and when science makes new discoveries that change what we currently know about nutrition, and gives us a whole new set of guidelines to be healthy or remain food-addiction free.

Brain over Binge is Not a Way to Stick to Diets

I want to end this post by telling you that the Brain over Binge approach is for ending binge eating, not for resisting every urge to eat something unhealthy or something that’s not paleo.  When you recover, you are saying no to urges to binge; you are not saying no to hunger signals, or all cravings, or all desires to eat in a way that may not be ideal. (I’ve talked about this thoroughly in Episode 12: Dismissing Urges to Binge is Not a Dieting Strategy, and Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?).

 

[i] Katherine, Anne. Anatomy of a Food Addiction: The Brain Chemistry of Overeating. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 1991. P. 189-190

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For more help with ending binge eating, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF, or learn more about my Coaching Audios or Course.

Healthy eating and binge eating recovery

What is Healthy Eating?

In this post, I’m going to address the topic of what “healthy” eating means. This a big topic that one post could not possibly cover, but I’m going to give you some ideas that I hope will help you as you overcome binge eating. Before I begin, you need to know that I am not a nutrition expert, and I do not claim to have the answers on what to eat to maintain optimal health. I’ve been recovered from binge eating for a very long time, but that does not mean I eat a perfectly healthy diet.

Eating in a healthy way and stopping binge eating are two different objectives. You can be completely free of binge eating without eating healthy foods; and on the other hand, you can eat only healthy foods and still binge.

In other words, you don’t have to eat healthy to recover from bulimia or binge eating disorder. Thinking that healthy eating is a requirement for recovery can actually make recovery much more difficult, because healthy eating can be a difficult endeavor even for someone who does not have an eating disorder. Try to start viewing healthy eating as a life improvement goal that is not specific to eating disorder recovery.

I’ve definitely made improvements to my eating habits since I let go of the harmful binge eating habit. Those improvements came rather naturally once I was no longer sabotaging my health with binge eating. I don’t eat as many processed foods as I used to, and I try to cook more and eat more “real” foods. I still would like to make more improvements in my family’s eating habits; but lately, I’ve come upon a stumbling block of trying to sort out what is healthy and what is not.

It seems like if you name any food, there is some expert who could label it unhealthy. We’ve all heard that sugar and processed foods aren’t good for us; however, more and more foods are being villainized based on some scientific study, popular theory, or anecdotal evidence. (On a side note: I don’t think it’s helpful to label foods as “bad” or “forbidden”, and I think that everything in moderation is okay, provided there are no major health problems.)

There are nutritional experts claiming that dairy, wheat, soy, meat, eggs, starches, fruit, anything that isn’t organic, certain oils, coffee, and even all whole grains and legumes are detrimental to our health. To make matters even more confusing, there are usually experts on the other side saying those same foods are fine, or even very healthy for us. Then, expert opinions can change over time and new research can prove previous advice wrong.

I personally can get a bit overwhelmed by this, and I know I’m not alone. I think ultimately, we all have to decide what foods/eating habits work for us, regardless of what the popular consensus is, or what the latest nutritional research claims to prove. I think it can be great to learn about nutrition, but I also think it’s important to keep in mind that nutrition is highly individual. What might be healthy for one person might not be for another, because of food sensitivities, allergies, health conditions, various physiological factors, or simply preferences.

If you are someone who wants to focus on healthy eating, I would suggest for you to be open to what “healthy” may mean for your personally. Don’t get locked in to what one expert or theory says. Just make the best choices you can based on your own knowledge, common sense, and feedback from your body, and know that it will never be perfect. Experiment with what you like and don’t like, aim to nourish yourself well, and know that once you stop binge eating, it will be much easier to make other eating improvements.

It’s important to remember that nutrition is not the only factor in good health, and it can be very helpful to focus on the other factors so that you don’t become obsessive about food. Turning your attention to improving relaxation, recreation, sleep, and hydration are all great ways to take care of yourself without getting overly concerned about what you are eating. For many people, going through all of the extra trouble (and spending the extra money) in order to ensure a perfectly healthy diet can cause so much stress that it offsets any benefits of the healthy eating. It’s okay if you can’t manage to always eat organic, gluten/dairy/soy-free everything; because there are other ways you can improve your health.

I think an ideal way to approach healthy eating is to keep it simple, allow for imperfections, and eat in a way that you think is healthy for you personally (without worrying much about constantly changing nutritional advice). Also, don’t let the goal of improving your health lead to unhealthy stress in your life.

To end this post, I want to share a quote from my wonderful friend who went back to school to get a master’s degree in health education and who always has great advice on this topic. She told me recently that she believes in balancing nutrition with sanity”. I think that’s a great perspective, and can help you as you make any healthy changes to your eating.

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I typically recommend for binge eaters to end the binge eating habit first before putting too much emphasis on making other healthy eating changes. If you want help in stopping the binge eating habit, you can download my free eBook The Brain over Binge Basics when you sign up for my newsletter.

Is binge eating subjective?

Subjectivity in Binge Eating

If you never binged again, what would that mean to you? I’m not talking about all the ways in which your life would be better or the relief you would feel to put your eating disorder behind you; I’m talking about something much more simple. I’m talking about defining the behavior you want to get rid of.  If you commit to never binge, you may need to give some thought to what you won’t be doing, because binge eating can be a subjective experience.

Defining Binges

There is not a calorie cutoff where any more is a binge and any less is not, and the clinical definition of binge eating leaves room for interpretation. According to the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), a binge eating episode is characterized by:

  1. Eating a larger amount of food than normal during a short period of time (i.e., within any two hour period)
  2. Lack of control over eating during the binge episode (i.e., the feeling that one cannot stop eating)

The DSM also says that binge eating episodes are associated with three or more of the following:

  1. Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
  2. Eating large amounts of food when not physically hungry
  3. Eating much more rapidly than normal
  4. Eating alone because you are embarrassed by how much you’re eating
  5. Feeling disgusted, depressed, or guilty after overeating

All of my binges had the characteristics above; but I think more importantly, I could define my binges by what they felt like. There was an unmistakable mindset and way of eating; I just knew on an intuitive level what I considered a binge, and what I did not consider a binge. It seems to me that the majority of people who binge also have the same intuitive clarity about defining their binges, or they develop that intuitive clarity by observing their behavior and increasing their awareness surrounding their eating. However, some people do get stuck trying to figure out what is a binge for them and what is not, and if that’s the case for you, it is even more important for you to give some thought to what quitting binge eating will mean.

Don’t Let Perfectionism Influence Your Binge Definition

I believe it’s important not to overthink what is a binge and what is not. A lot of people with eating disorders have perfectionistic personalities and might get caught up in trying to have an ideal diet. If you are aiming to eat perfectly, you may find yourself wondering if all non-hungry eating should be considered binge eating, or if overeating should be in the same category as bingeing, or if you should include eating any amount of junk food in your definition of a binge. It’s important for you to know that these behaviors should not be automatically classified as binge eating.

You never want to have a definition of a binge that requires your eating to be overly restrictive or requires you to eat perfectly.  There is certainly a point when overeating or eating junk food can become problematic and can cross the line into binge eating, but there is subjectivity in where that line is, and only you can truly decide.

I think I would have driven myself crazy if I would have treated every craving for junk food or every desire to eat when I wasn’t hungry as an urge to binge. I think it was important that I defined my binges by what I knew them to be, and not by over-analyzing or creating rigid food rules for myself. I do value health and eating well, but eating in a way that is less than perfect is perfectly normal.

Awareness Helps You Define Binges and Dismiss Urges

Be curious about defining your binges. Try to see when you personally, subjectively feel like you are going from normal (imperfect) eating to what you would consider binge eating. Heighten your awareness to notice what is happening, how it feels, what you think, and what behaviors are present that are typical of your binges.

When you are first learning to recognize your binges and separate them from your more normal eating habits, you may only have insight into what happened after the binge. But, if you remain aware, you will start to see clearly what’s happening during a binge, and then before you start a binge, so that you can choose not to act on the urges and not engage the habit.

For help learning to stop acting on urges to binge, you can download my free eBook The Brain over Binge Basics.

kathryn hansen books

My Book’s Journey: A Mission to Help Binge Eaters (Brain over Binge)

I want to introduce myself:  I’m Kathryn Hansen and I stopped binge eating in 2005. Now, I am awaiting two exciting deliveries—the delivery of the Brain over Binge books to my doorstep, and the delivery of my new baby girl. The baby should arrive in about a week (and we have yet to decide on a name!), and the shipment of newly printed books should arrive in a little more than two weeks.

Writing this book has been a long journey for me. I began taking notes and writing rudimentary chapters in early 2006, slowly documenting my experiences and ideas. Considering this was less than a year after my recovery, it may have seemed bold.  How did I know my recovery would last?

I just knew. My bulimia was over for good, and I was fully convinced that I had a powerful story to share.  Writing that story was a great challenge, and a great joy. Some months brought much productivity; but other months brought lulls, indecision, frustration, and simply a lack of time. When my son was born, I took a six-month break from writing, and I did the same when my daughter arrived. This is why, when we found out we were expecting baby #3, I knew I absolutely had to finish before my due date.

I’ve worked hard these past nine months to make this a reality, spending many weekends writing at coffee shops while my husband watched the kids, and staying up way too late most nights. The months seemed to fly by, but I’m proud to say it is finished.

My perfectionism tells me the book could be better, that there is more I can say and better ways I can say it, but it’s time to let my words stand as they are. I had a mission in mind when I set out to write Brain over Binge, and I believe I’ve fulfilled it. More importantly, I think the book holds great promise for helping others.

As for how the book will be received…Who knows?  Who cares?  It could cause only the tiniest of ripples in the field of eating disorders, or it could create a big splash. Either way, that’s not what my mission was about. It was about telling my story – embarrassing parts and all – to other bulimics/binge eaters who may want to listen and learn from my hard-learned lessons.

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Update (2018):  It’s hard to believe that this post was so many years ago, and I’ve now written a second book, (The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide), created an online course, a podcast, and had a 4th child! It’s been an amazing journey and every time someone shares their story of recovery with me, it makes all of the long nights worth it, and fuels my continuing commitment to my original mission. You can read reviews on Amazon to see what others have thought about Brain over Binge since I wrote this post.

If you are looking for somewhere to begin, you can start with my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics. It will teach you the fundamentals of the approach that helped me and many others end the binge eating habit for good.