self-control in binge eating recovery

Overeating, Part II: Don’t Overdo Self-Control

(Part I)

To recover from binge eating, you are not aiming for heroic control of everything you put in your mouth; and this is very important when it comes to discussing overeating. Ending binge eating is not about ending all overeating, but many binge eaters want to address their overeating behaviors as well. In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide and in my course, I suggest that people who believe they overeat should first consider how they define overeating, because it’s possible they are not overeating at all. To better explain this, here is a paragraph from the “Overeating” Chapter of the Recovery Guide:

“Many people think that they are eating too much when they are in fact eating normally – just not dieting anymore. Individuals who have a history of starving themselves might view what are actually normal portions as excessive; and since people with eating disorders can be perfectionists, there may be an element of “being too hard on yourself” involved in what you perceive to be overeating.  For example, if a dieter is trying to restrict calories to 1,500 per day and “overeats” one day to reach 2,200 calories, they haven’t truly overeaten at all, just eaten more in line with their calorie needs.”

In other words, make sure you aren’t holding an unrealistic standard for yourself.  Breaking resolutions to stick to overly restrictive eating plans is not overeating.

Let’s say you are someone trying to maintain a too-low calorie intake; for example, 1,300 calories per day. If you go over your “allowed” amount of calories and think you overate, you may hear faulty thoughts telling you that you “have no self-control and you might as well binge and then start over tomorrow.” Remember that voice making excuses for binge eating is from the lower brain; those thoughts are not logical or rational and don’t need to be given any value or attention.

Of course it makes no sense to binge because you have eaten more than your restrictive diet allowed. But, if you continue down the path of not giving your body enough food, the binge urges will persist and giving into them will be inevitable. The best course of action is to abandon the restrictive diet, not abandon your resolve to stay binge-free. 

You may be thinking that your overeating is more than just breaking a strict diet. If you determine that you are truly overeating (and not simply being too hard on yourself), here are some thoughts for you:

If you are someone who is still binge eating and trying to end that habit, my advice is to acknowledge any overeating you engage in, but don’t focus too much attention on correcting the overeating right now. I think that tackling too much at once may actually prevent you from overcoming your main problem of binge eating, and here’s one explanation of why, which also explains why trying to strictly control everything you put in your mouth is not helpful:

Recent research shows that too much self-control is not good for you. The following is from The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal:

“Just like some stress is necessary for a happy and productive life, some self-control is needed. But just like living under chronic stress is unhealthy, trying to control every aspect of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior is a toxic strategy. It’s too big a burden for your biology. Self-control, like the stress response, evolved as a nifty strategy for responding to specific challenges.  But just as with stress, we run into trouble when self-control becomes chronic and unrelenting. […] You will have to choose your willpower battles wisely.” (pg. 49)

When recovering from binge eating, I think it’s best to use the “nifty strategy” of self-control primarily for binge eating and not worry much about overeating or any other eating imperfections. If you start trying to dismiss every non-hungry craving, or try to detach from every thought encouraging you to eat a few more bites, you will wear yourself down. This doesn’t give you a pass to overeat all of the time; it only means to avoid putting so much pressure on yourself to get your eating exactly right. If you find yourself having a few more bites (or another serving) when you are already comfortably satisfied, it’s okay. Just move on, and put your focus on dismissing the binge urges.

To help you put aside your overeating concerns for now, it may help you to write those behaviors down. That way, you know aren’t ignoring any eating behaviors that you feel are problematic.  You are fully acknowledging them, but you are disconnecting them from your binge eating recovery. Keep your list in a place where you can come back to it after binge eating stops. You may find that some of the overeating habits go away on their own with the cessation of binge eating, and you also may find that what you considered “overeating” simply isn’t a big deal after recovery and there is no need to address it. Conversely, you may find that some of the eating issues do indeed interfere with your life after binge eating stops and you need to work on them. Welcome to the world of normal eating!

Another benefit of having your overeating habits or any other problematic eating behaviors written down, is that you’ll be less likely to fall for those lower brain thoughts that tell you that you “might as well binge” because you aren’t eating perfectly. You can detach from those harmful thoughts, remembering your list and that you will work on resolving overeating or any other eating problems after recovery, if you deem it necessary when that time comes.

So, instead of getting upset at yourself for overeating, and instead of binge eating in response to overeating, try this:

If you find that you’ve eaten in a way that isn’t ideal (but is not a binge), then just add it to your list, and acknowledge that it’s something you may need to address at some point in the future when you are binge-free. Don’t over-think it; don’t dwell on it; don’t put yourself down because of it; and most importantly: don’t think that you are destined to binge binge because of it.

(Go to Part III)

Lose weight after binge eating recovery?

Are You Hoping to Lose Weight After Binge Eating Recovery?

Are you wondering how to lose weight after binge eating disorder? 

Are you hoping you can stop bulimia without gaining weight, or even shed some weight after recovery?

You are not alone if you have these questions and more—weight is a common concern for recovering binge eaters.  In this post, I want to help you with your questions and give you healthy ways to think about weight as you recover and after recovery. I want you to start trusting your body and stop worrying about weight gain, or about how to lose weight after binge eating disorder and bulimia.

Before I go further, I want to say that I’m not a nutritionist, a personal trainer, or an MD.  This post is not to be taken as medical advice about how to lose weight or gain weight after binge eating recovery (or at any time), or how to have an ideal diet. Please know that these are my own opinions about the issue of weight as it relates to stopping bulimia and binge eating disorder, and this does not substitute for nutritional advice. Also know that weight is a big topic, and if you want to dive deeper, you can read my post—Addressing Weight Issues in Binge Eating Recovery.

Recovery from Binge Eating is Not About Weight Loss

When it comes to weight, the reality is—everyone is different, and binge eaters come in all shapes and sizes. In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I explained that even if I never would have lost a single pound, recovery still would have been 100 percent worth it. Binge eating brought so much misery to my life, and the weight gain was only a small portion of that misery. Sure, it was good to eventually get back to my regular size after recovery, but that was by far not the greatest benefit.

Although the issue of weight will affect everyone differently, I think that wanting to lose weight and actively trying to do that while also trying to stop binge eating can prevent any progress in recovery. Also, if you are focused on trying to stop bulimia or binge eating disorder without gaining any weight, it can have the same effect of harming your recovery efforts. If you struggle with bulimia/purging, it’s possible you may fear recovery because you think that giving up purging will inevitably lead to weight gain, so you may feel tempted to tightly control your food intake during recovery.  This is going to make recovery more difficult, and make it harder for your body to heal and eventually find it’s natural and healthy weight.

I strongly feel that anyone who wants to quit binge eating—regardless of how much they weigh or how much they desire to weigh— should try not to focus on weight loss or on preventing weight gain during recovery.

There are two primary reasons why I feel this way:

1. Weight Can Take Care of Itself After Binge Eating Stops

For me personally, and so many others, stopping the binge eating is all that’s needed in order to lose weight after recovery and return to a weight that’s normal and natural for the person’s unique body. When binge eating, food restriction, and purging stops, metabolism can start working the way it should and therefore, there is no need to try to shed the extra pounds. Weight is only higher than normal because of the binge eating, and when you take the binge eating away, your body adjusts. I believe this is the case for the vast majority of people with BED and non-purging bulimia, and even most bulimics who self-induce vomiting—because a large percentage of the calorie consumed during a binge are still absorbed.

Some people seem to think that extra weight from binge eating just stays there until you do something (diet/exercise) to make it come off, but that’s usually not true. Some patience may be needed while the body regulates itself, but if weight is elevated over your natural range due to binge eating, pounds should come off by stopping binge eating alone—and here is an explanation for why that happens:

Caloric expenditure increases with body weight (people with larger bodies typically burn more calories per day than people with smaller bodies, when controlling for activity level). The reason is because it requires more energy to carry extra weight as you go through your daily activities, and extra surface area on the body also means more energy lost as heat. For example, one study showed that slender people used 2,481 calories per day, and obese people used 3,162.*  This fact can help you understand why weight gained from binge eating can naturally come off after recovery, and let me explain that using myself as an example:

I was about 20 pounds above my natural weight when I stopped binge eating. My normal diet at the time was about 2,300 calories, but with the binges added (approximately 4 binges per week, around 8,000 calories each), it upped my weekly caloric intake by 32,000 calories. If I spread that out over 7 days for this example, my daily average food intake was around 6,870 calories. Exercise was my form of purging, and I was putting in many hours at the gym to try to compensate for the binges, but my purging didn’t come anywhere close to burning all of those calories. Even if I would have been dieting restrictively between binges—which I was doing in the earlier years of my bulimia—eating let’s say, only 1,000 non-binge calories each day, the daily average with the binges added would still be 5,570 calories.  It’s important to see that restriction and purging aren’t erasing the binge eating problem from a calorie standpoint, and the dangerous behaviors are harming your health.

To sum up what I’ve been talking about: binge eating increases daily calorie intake, and quitting binge eating reduces calorie intake, and the difference is usually significant.  I realize this is common sense to an extent, but what I want to address now is how this leads to weight loss.

Going back to myself as an example, I probably still eat somewhere around 2,300 calories per day now (I don’t count anymore), and my weight stays the same; so why did that same amount of food lead to about 20 pounds of weight loss after bulimia recovery?  It was because of the fact I mentioned previously—more body weight means more calories burned.  When I stopped binge eating and was still above my natural weight, I may have been using around 2,600 calories during a normal day’s activities, but I was eating less than that (2,300 calories), which lead to gradual weight loss. I want to say here that I realize using simple calorie math is oversimplifying things because weight loss is not a simple calories-in/calories-out equation, which I’ll explain more later in the post. However, I still think it’s important for you to see that eating normally after you stop binge eating can allow your body to release the binge weight. This is not the same as putting yourself in a purposeful calorie deficit to try to lose weight after recovery; this is just how people naturally lose weight after consuming too many calories for too long. The body can gravitate back to it’s normal size, because the larger size can only be maintained with an overabundance of calories.

So, while there is something you need to do (binge) to maintain a larger size, there is often nothing you need to do to slowly gravitate back to normal. The extra binge weight is not permanently stuck there until you diet it away, and trying to diet it away would have the adverse effects of slowing your metabolism and increasing your urges to binge. No, the binge weight won’t come off overnight, but it’s healthier in the long run to lose it naturally and gradually, and it will help you avoid repeating the diet and binge cycle in the future.

I want to say a little more to people who purge because you may think you are “getting rid” of those binge calories by self-induced vomiting. You may be even more focused on trying to stop bulimia without gaining any weight, or you may have hard time believing that recovery could lead to gradual weight loss (if you are above your normal, healthy weight). *If you are currently below your normal weight range or think weight gain is inevitable after recovery for another reason, then please see my post Weight Gain from Binge Eating Recovery?  Like I’ve already mentioned, a majority of the binge calories are still absorbed even if purging occurs, and studies have shown that calorie absorption may begin much earlier in the bulimic’s body and metabolism is suppressed so that the body becomes more effective at storing the calories—which are the body’s natural ways of protecting itself. Your daily calorie intake with bulimia is likely still much greater than the number of calories you’d consume through a normal diet—with no binge eating or purging. For more on how to stop purging, you can listen to Episode 54: Stop Purging in Binge Eating Recovery: Interview with Ali Kerr.

2. If Weight Doesn’t Take Care of Itself, You’ll Be in a Much Better Position to Tackle the Problem.

As I said earlier in this post, weight loss is not a simple calories-in/calories-out equation, so it’s possible that the binge weight doesn’t come off in a predictable way after recovery.  If you are over your natural weight and don’t gradually lose weight after binge eating disorder or bulimia—even after you are very patient about it—I still feel it’s very important to avoid focusing on weight loss during and after recovery. In Episode 53 of my podcast, What Can Hold You Back in Bulimia Recovery, Part 2: Weight Obsession, Katherine Thomson does a great job of explaining why this is the case. Letting go of a focus on weight does not mean you will be ignoring the problem or giving up on your health; it means you will be focusing on your healing and on allowing your body to regulate. Once you are confident in your ability to avoid binges, there may be some healthy changes you want to make to help your body reach it’s natural weight; but this never has to involve a diet or food restriction. You can address any weight issue you have in a way that shows compassion for your body and honors it.

If you are someone who does not gradually lose weight after binge eating stops, I want you to be aware that your lower brain might use a lack of weight loss as fuel for the binge urges. If you don’t see the scale dropping (and I wouldn’t even recommend getting on one during this time), you may hear thoughts like, “you are not losing weight so you might as well binge.” Rationally, you know how ridiculous that sounds, because obviously binge eating will only bring you further away from ever finding a solution to your weight issues; but in the moment, it can seem like a convincing thought. Always remember that you can stop binge eating for good even if you are not the weight you want to be.

We all come in all different shapes and sizes, and what’s a healthy weight for one person might not be a healthy weight for another, even if those two people are the same height. It’s possible to be fit and healthy even if you technically overweight, and BMI isn’t the best indicator of health. However, if you are well above the weight your body is naturally inclined to be due to a harmful and painful habit (binge eating), weight loss after recovery would be a welcome, healthy change.

I am not against healthy and gradual weight loss without dieting, but I feel strongly that advice to simply restrict calories or entire food groups is completely misguided and does more harm than good—especially in those susceptible to binge eating—and just doesn’t work in the long run. For example, I think the typical 1200-1400 cal/day weight loss diet for a woman is starvation. Low-calorie diets lead to a slower metabolism, malnourishment (which some claim is one of the causes of obesity), and more weight gain in the long run. It’s also simply unrealistic to think you can maintain a 1,200 calorie per day diet to lose weight and then keep that weight off for life.

So how does someone lose weight after binge eating disorder or bulimia without restricting calories, if that weight loss doesn’t occur naturally?

First of all, when I say “don’t restrict,” I don’t mean eat whatever you want whenever you want in an excessive manner. I mean eat adequately, eat to nourish yourself well, eat what your body needs. Of course, overeating happens from time to time even in normal people, and that’s completely fine, but overall daily intake should be within a normal range. *If you are someone who has trouble figuring out how to eat, know that my course includes ample information and guidance to help you determine a way of eating that works for you.

That being said, I know that excessive eating and overindulging isn’t always to blame, and I definitely think there are a myriad of other problems that can contribute to not losing weight after binge eating recovery or in general (for example: hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, food allergies/sensitivities, thyroid problems, not enough activity, not enough water, not enough sleep, too much stress…etc).

If you go from binge eating to eating in a normal way, and you don’t eventually lose weight; then I believe it makes sense to look into what might be preventing that from happening. Reasons for not losing weight can be multifaceted, and science currently has an incomplete understanding of why some people can lose weight easily and for others, it’s a struggle; but I don’t think the complexity should prevent us from looking for answers.

I believe that making some reasonable and healthy changes to food choices (without letting it become an obsession and still allowing for flexibility) can be helpful, and is a much better approach than simply slashing calories. Focusing on eating a lot of nutrient dense, nourishing foods can lead to more weight loss in the long run without ever putting the body in “starvation mode.”  Some people might find that changing diet composition to add more protein and fat helps them feel better and lose extra weight, while others find that adding more plant-based foods and high quality carbs help them achieve the same results. I am also a big advocate of healthy, enjoyable, non-stressful exercise as a way to move the body toward a healthy weight.

In my opinion, the goal for anyone trying to lose weight, whether they have a history of an eating disorder or not, should be to gain better health, not to simply see a number go down on a scale. I think when people are truly focused on becoming healthier, it becomes an effort to nourish the body well, to feel better, to gain energy for living, and to prevent disease. It ceases to be about how many pounds they can lose or what size jeans they can fit into. And usually, if you focus on becoming healthier (and you are above the weight range that’s right for your own body), the weight will come off naturally.

Focusing on health can also help you let go of weight obsessions if you are someone who desperately want to be super-thin, because it helps you realize that trying to maintain an unnaturally low weight is harmful. Focusing on health can also allow you to appreciate food for it’s nourishing qualities, without worrying about how many calories the food contains or if the food may possibly lead to weight gain.

But making these gentle, healthy, nourishing shifts that can lead to gradual weight loss is not possible when binge eating is still occurring—because when you fundamentally feel like you don’t have control of what or how much you eat at times, it’s hard to implement and be consistent with any positive eating changes. So, the best strategy is to focus on stopping the binge eating habit first and allow your body plenty of time to heal, and then address weight issues that remain after recovery. Improvements in health, weight, and your attitude toward your weight are just some of the positive changes that recovery can free you up to make.

To help you end the binge eating habit I’ve created a downloadable guide that gives you the basics of the Brain over Binge approach.

You can also learn more about my course for more answers to your questions about weight (the course contains 84 Q&A audios and over 120 total audios to guide you). 

*Leibel RL et al.  Changes in energy expenditure resulting from altered body weight. N Eng J Med. 1995 Mar 9;332(10):621-8

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:
_____________________________

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.

_____________________________

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 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 Course.