If you’ve read Brain over Binge, you know how much trouble I had with cereal during my dieting and binge eating days. But now, many years after recovery, I don’t eat much cereal at all, and it’s not a struggle to avoid it. I never would have believed that was possible when I was a binge eater, because cereal seemed to control me. It often consumed my thoughts until I ate bowl after bowl of it during binges. I never thought it would be possible to simply walk away from cereal without feeling extremely deprived; but to my surprise, it happened quite naturally. I want to share more about this healthy change with you, in hopes that it gives you some insight and ideas for how similar healthy changes may occur in your own life after binge eating recovery.
I don’t have a rule against eating cereal, but cereal has mostly lost it’s appeal, and my days of binge eating cereal are long gone. I actually do eat cereal sometimes, but the vast majority of the time, it’s not the kind I used to crave when I was dieting—sugary cereal—which eventually became the kind of cereal I binged on frequently.
Before I dive deeper into talking about how I stopped bingeing on cereal and craving it, I want to mention that this post is the second part of a two-part series about healthy changes after recovery. You can read Part I: Moderation, Choice, and Creating Your Way of Eating to learn more about feeling in control around all types of food, deciding what’s best for your unique body and lifestyle, and being patient with yourself as you make healthy improvements to your eating habits. Both Part I and this Part II post are primarily for people who are now binge-free, or who do not actually struggle with binge eating, and instead have other problematic eating habits like overeating, grazing, or feeling addicted to certain foods.
My Healthy Change: From Cereal Binges to Not Even Thinking About Cereal
I used to eat sugary cereal often for breakfast as a kid and teen. My mother—like most 80’s/90’s moms—used to buy the “fun” cereal brands like Lucky Charms, but she also tried to balance it out with varieties that were viewed as healthier at the time, like Raisin Bran (the kind with sugar-coated raisins, which of course is far from what is considered healthy today). I ate various types of cereal in normal amounts, and I always stopped when I was comfortably satisfied without thinking about it at all. It wasn’t until I started restricting my food intake (in order to try to control my weight) that I began labeling sugary cereal as “bad,” and began trying to avoid it…and then ended up eating more of it than I ever thought possible.
At the time I started dieting (1997), dietary fat was mostly considered the villain, and because cereal was generally low-fat, my reason for thinking it was “bad” didn’t have much to do with its nutritional content or high sugar. I thought it was bad because of the way I started feeling around it. When I was restricting my food, I suddenly craved cereal and I had trouble controlling myself around it, and had trouble stopping once I started eating it. I seemed to want so much cereal, which I’d never experienced before and which scared me. I feared that eating too much of it would give me too many calories and make me gain weight, so I decided to try avoiding it altogether, which made me crave it even more.
I shared in Brain over Binge that my first binge was on sugary cereal—8 full bowls of it. In hindsight, it’s easy to see exactly what happened, and what turned me from a normal-cereal-eater to someone who could binge on 8 bowls of cereal. The short version is that I was starving. I wasn’t eating enough, and because of that, the appeal of the cereal skyrocketed. Calorie deprivation increases the reward value of food*, especially food that is highly palatable (which usually means it’s high in sugar and carbs and/or fat). My strong cravings for cereal made sense from a survival perspective—my brain was just trying to make me eat large amounts of the foods it sensed would help me survive the “famine” I’d created for myself by dieting.
Before I was in a calorie-deficit, I could totally forget we had cereal in the house, and in my life today, it’s the same. But, when I was in that calorie-deprived state, I would often wake up in the morning and go to bed at night obsessively thinking about the cereal in the pantry. Then, once I binged on cereal once, it quickly became a habit. Eating bowl after bowl of cereal became a regular part of my binges, and during binge urges and binge episodes, it felt like my body truly needed that much cereal.
At certain times during my binge eating years, I read information about foods being addictive or people being powerless, so I tried to give up cereal (and other foods) from time to time. However, this never worked, and seemed like such a baffling approach to tell someone who feels so out of control around a food to simply never eat that food. If I couldn’t stop my cereal binges, how was I supposed to give up cereal altogether? Maybe that approach would have worked for me if cereal suddenly no longer existed on earth; but in my world of living in a college town with roommates, there was no way to fully escape cereal.
I also tried moderation approaches with sugary cereal, which made more sense to me, but proved to be frustrating as well—because I actually did learn to eat sugary cereal in moderation…and I still binged on it. At the time, I didn’t understand that it was the binge urges that caused the binges, not the sugary cereal. (If you are new to this approach and want to learn more about binge urges and how you can avoid giving in to them, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics).
Looking back, it makes sense that I could only eat sugary cereal in moderation when I did not have binge urges. But, if I had an urge to binge before, during, or after eating the cereal, it was very likely that I’d follow that urge and binge on the cereal.
I Stopped Bingeing on Cereal When I Stopped Acting on My Urges to Binge on Cereal
Once I learned how to stop acting on my urges to binge, which I talk about thoroughly in Episode 7: Dismiss Urges to Binge: Component 4 (Stop Acting on Urges to Binge), those urges went away—even when I was eating my former binge foods, like sugary cereal. Then, I could eat sugary cereal in moderation again—every time—without it being difficult.
I resumed my normal life and simply ate cereal when I wanted. It was a common breakfast food for me after recovery, although I’d try to mostly buy the kinds that were a little “healthier.” (I put that in quotes, because today, processed cereals of all types are generally not considered healthy). I still ate high-sugar varieties now and then as well, primarily as a night snack. After binge eating ended and my appetite stabilized, I quickly realized that eating too much sugar in the morning didn’t make me feel good. Choosing the low-sugar varieties if I was eating cereal in the morning, and then sometimes having a high-sugar treat at night was what seemed to work for my body, and not something that I forced myself into.
As the months and years went by, nutrition research pointed more and more to the idea that sugar and processed grains cause harm to health. My carefree cereal-eating days seemed to be in question. Although I had never been under the impression that cereal was super-healthy, I didn’t think it was causing harm.
I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the idea that I could absolutely have anything I wanted in moderation, but also that some foods are— without a doubt—not healthy. At the time, my binge eating days were long gone, but I was also firmly set in an anti-diet mentality. I knew dieting caused harm; I knew I never wanted to go down that path again, but would not eating sugary-cereal be “dieting”?
The short answer is no, it would not be dieting, but it took me a little while to truly see it that way. I gradually came to believe that making healthy changes in a gentle, non-stressful way—while making sure you are nourished and eating enough—is not dieting. It’s simply trading out foods that are no longer serving you, with foods that serve you better, and it never has to mean banning foods completely.
What Helped Change My Relationship to Cereal After Binge Eating Recovery?
Fast forward to today, I can’t even remember the last time I ate the types of cereal I used to binge on. I sometimes eat types of cereal that are more natural, such as granola—still typically as a night snack—but it’s not very often. I may eat it for a couple of nights, and then forget I have the box for weeks or months, or I simply won’t want it.
How is it that I’m not craving sugary cereal like I used to? How can I (mostly) not eat sugary cereal, but also not feel restricted at all? How can I basically never eat the brands of cereal I thought about morning and night as a dieter, and no longer think about them?
Like I mentioned in the beginning of this post, my past self would have never believed this to be possible. So, I want to share some practical tips and ideas to help you if you feel like you don’t have control around certain foods, and you want to make healthy changes.
Here’s a rundown on what helped me change my relationship with cereal, and hopefully it will help you see how healthy changes can be possible for you too.
I no longer feel out of control around cereal because…
1. I know I can have cereal if I want it. I can absolutely go buy a box of cereal right now—even a very unhealthy kind like Lucky Charms—and have a bowl and enjoy it, no big deal. It’s not forbidden in my mind. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure (in moderation) is not always a bad thing. It’s fun, it’s delicious, and we all have to find that balance in our own lives between pleasure and focusing on our health.
2. I’m no longer calorie restricted. Sugar doesn’t hold that high appeal that it did when I was starving and it was so attractive to my survival instincts. It’s amazing what eating enough will do to help your cravings! It’s so important that half of my 8-lesson online course focuses on helping you learn to eat adequately, so that you have the ability to stop binge eating.
3. My decision to reduce my cereal intake came gradually and naturally. My slow shift away from cereal came partially from nutritional information I read, but also from my own insight about how the cereal was making me feel, as well as from learning to expand my tastes to other, more nourishing foods. I never felt like I was fighting against myself, or holding myself back from something I truly wanted. Also, the changes came when I was ready to make the changes, not because someone else told me that’s what I should do.
4. I don’t believe I’m powerless against cereal, or any other food. I know I can eat a normal amount of cereal without a problem, so there’s no fear around eating it. Conversely, there’s no fear that not eating it will lead me to crave it more. When I tried to give up cereal during my binge eating years, it was out of a sense of fear—because I thought that one bite would lead to 8 bowls. Fearing a food tends to keeps it on your mind, and keeps your attention focused on that food. Now, there is relaxation around cereal, and I rarely think about it. (To learn more about why giving up certain foods isn’t a cure for binge eating, and what to do if you need to avoid certain foods for medical reasons, you can read my 3-part blog series on Eliminating Foods).
5. I do not have a restrictive rule to “not eat sugary cereal.” This is similar to reason #1, but I want to expand on it by saying that when you make a genuine choice to eat in a healthier way and it feels good, you feel in alignment. You don’t feel restricted. You don’t fantasize about the unhealthy foods that you’re not eating. You simply choose (most of the time) to have other things, and don’t really miss what you aren’t having.
6. I’m simply older…and I don’t think many adults are still eating Lucky Charms for breakfast. It’s okay to walk away from childhood foods that aren’t benefiting you in adulthood. This is not dieting. You could simply call it “growing up,” or learning to take care of yourself.
I don’t want to give the impression that my eating is perfectly healthy. There are many other unhealthy foods that I still choose to eat! But, I wanted to share this personal story to let you know that giving up binge eating and giving up dieting does not at all mean giving up on health. After binge eating ends, you are free to make (or not make) any healthy changes you want, in a way that works for you, and on a timeline that works for you.
Making those healthy changes is not part of binge eating recovery, it’s simply part of life. However, as a former binge eater, you will want to make sure you make changes in a healthy way that doesn’t involve putting yourself in a calorie deficit or becoming obsessive or overly restrictive about foods.
If you want more guidance in learning to eat normally, and ending the binge eating habit, you can try a free preview of the Brain over Binge Course.
For more on this topic:
*One example of research demonstrating this: Stice, E., K. Burger, and S. Yokum. “Calorie Deprivation Increases Responsivity of Attention and Reward Brain Regions to Intake, Anticipated Intake, and Images of Palatable Foods.” NeuroImage 67 (2013): 322-330
The idea of eating all foods in moderation or allowing all foods (provided there are no allergies, sensitivities, or medical conditions) is common in the eating disorder recovery community, and I’ve also promoted this idea in my blog, books, and podcast. Health-conscious people can often be skeptical about this advice, because they may imagine that allowing all foods involves eating Lucky Charms for breakfast (more on cereal in Part 2!), McDonald’s for lunch, take-out pizza for dinner, then maybe some candy for snacks, and being totally okay with eating like that every day. Eating everything in moderation can involve eating that way sometimes, and I’ve had days since I stopped binge eating when my eating closely resembled what I just wrote; but if any of us ate like that for more than a few days or weeks in a row, we’d feel awful, and set ourselves up for health problems.
This post is the first of a 2-part blog series on creating healthy changes for yourself after binge eating recovery, without ever dieting again or feeling like you are deprived or restricted. Even if you’ve never binged, you’ll learn the benefits of eating everything in moderation and how you can make eating improvements in a healthy way.
As it relates to binge eating recovery, there are no requirements when it comes to creating better health. Ending bulimia/binge eating disorder comes down to stopping the bingeing (and purging), and eating enough to nourish your body. You don’t need to achieve a certain level of health or fitness to be considered recovered or to maintain your recovery. You simply have to not binge, not purge, and eat adequately. (If you are currently still struggling with binge eating, you can get more help in my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.)
Even though you don’t have to achieve optimal health to recover and stay binge-free, I know that so many binge eaters and former binge eaters are health conscious and want to improve their health. I hope this Part 1 post and then Part 2 (How I Stopped Binge Eating Cereal and Craving it Too) will help you see that healthy changes are possible—without it feeling like a struggle, and without food rules and diets.
Where “Eat Everything in Moderation” Meets Recovery…and Good Health
All of us living in this time of increasing nutrition knowledge need to come to terms with the reality that what we eat is important to our longevity and vitality. Even though you know this, you’ve likely experienced how difficult it is to try to make healthy changes while caught up in the binge eating habit. Binge eating typically sabotages efforts to make healthy changes; and in addition, trying to make a lot of healthy changes can take the focus off of the most important healthy change you need to make—stopping the binges.
I’ve worked with many people who are trying their best to eat as healthy as possible. For example, they aren’t eating much sugar or processed foods as part of their normal daily intake. But—privately, and with a lot of guilt—they are bingeing on large amounts of those very same foods. For some of these women and men, the only time they eat unhealthy food is when they are binge eating. They often believe they are powerless to eat unhealthy foods in moderation, or believe that eating those foods in moderation will make them gain weight. However, the cycle of trying to restrict the unhealthy foods and then bingeing on the “restricted” foods is actually leading them to eat much more of those unhealthy foods than a moderation approach would.
This is why learning to allow foods is important.
If you can learn that you aren’t powerless against any food, you will build confidence that you can eat anything and not binge. If you instead continue to think one bite of sugar or wheat or fast food will cause you to be out of control, then you will never be totally free of the binge eating habit. This is the reasoning and purpose behind the eat everything in moderation approach in recovery—to empower you to realize that no food can make you binge. The purpose is not to convince you to be unhealthy.
So, when you hear me or anyone else recommend eating everything in moderation or allowing all foods, it doesn’t mean I don’t understand nutrition; it doesn’t mean I haven’t read the latest research on the keto diet, or paleo eating, or whatever the popular “healthy” eating approach of the day happens to be. It doesn’t mean I don’t understand the possibility of food addiction and that eating certain foods is more difficult for some people than it is for others. It simply means that I want you to stop thinking you are powerless. I want you to have freedom from food rules, and I want you to be realistic about the world we live in and the foods you will encounter, and the fact that no one eats perfectly.
When I encourage you to learn to eat everything in moderation, it also means that—first and foremost—I want to you to be free of binge eating. Becoming binge-free is a massively healthy change and vastly reduces the amount of unhealthy foods you consume, and other healthy changes often naturally and effortlessly flow from there. Furthermore, allowing all foods, over time, usually leads to you eating less of those foods, because it breaks the diet mentality that gives those foods such a strong appeal.
What if You Want More Health Improvements than Stopping the Binges Provides?
You need to know that, although recovery is life-changing and amazing, becoming binge-free does not automatically equal becoming “healthy”. It does not automatically equal you eating in way that makes you feel nourished day after day. It does not automatically equal sharp mental clarity, high physical energy, and the elimination of all cravings. Recovery certainly helps in a big way, but you may indeed want to make more healthy changes after you stop binge eating.
The rest of this blog post and the next is primarily for those of you who are now binge-free, but feel a pull toward improving your health. It’s possible that you feel confused about how to improve your health if you are supposed to be allowing all foods, and eating everything in moderation, and of course—not dieting. I hope the ideas I’ll share will help give you some clarity about how to create a healthier lifestyle for yourself (if that’s what you want), without feeling restricted. *Please know that these are my opinions from my personal experience and from helping other binge eaters/former binge eating, and I’m not a doctor or nutritional expert.
You Never Have to Stop Eating Everything in Moderation, but Make Sure to “Allow” a Lot of Nourishing Foods
There is not a point after eating disorder recovery where you say, “ok, I’m done with binge eating and purging, so now it’s time to stop allowing all foods.” Eating everything in moderation isn’t only a strategy for recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder—it’s a lifelong strategy. Know that you always have the freedom to eat what you want to eat, without fear of being out of control. Like I said in the beginning of this post, if you have a medical condition, or food allergies/sensitivities, you may absolutely need to avoid certain foods; and even without a specific health issue, there may be times when you choose not to eat certain foods for different reasons—but again, that doesn’t mean you are powerless. (If you are someone who needs to avoid certain foods, you can see my blog series on eliminating foods in binge eating recovery for more help).
When people think of eating everything in moderation, they often think of this in terms of allowing junk foods. But, it’s helpful to think about it in terms of allowing an abundance of healthy food too. If you were to eat junk food at every meal, then you aren’t truly allowing all foods, because you aren’t allowing the foods that truly nourish you. When you allow too much junk food, you aren’t leaving space for the foods that are natural and simple and good for your body.
The more you can allow foods that nourish you, the more satisfied you’ll feel, the more nutritionally balanced you’ll be, and the less you’ll tend to want the foods that aren’t serving you. You never have to put unhealthy food “off limits,” but adding and allowing and welcoming nourishment—without a restrictive mindset—can naturally help you move away from the unhealthy foods; and that choice won’t feel like it’s coming from a place of deprivation. You won’t feel like you are frequently saying “no” to unhealthy foods, you’ll feel like you are frequently saying “yes” to foods that make you feel good. This is often talked about in intuition-based eating approaches, and I discuss it extensively in Episode 16: Eating Intuitively: Is it Right for You in Recovery from Binge Eating.
As You Work to Improve Health, You Get to Make Your Own Food Choices on Your Own Timeline
There are so many options when it comes to how to improve your eating and your health. You are the expert on your own body and it’s important to empower yourself to make choices that are in your best interest—taking into account any medical advice or nutritional advice that you personally need to follow. If your friend is vegan and swears that makes her feel amazing, but you try eating that way and it doesn’t feel good, then trust that it’s not for you. If your co-workers are all trying to eat low-carb, or paleo, or keto, or are fasting, but you feel unbalanced when you eat that way, then listen to your own body.
Last year, I completed the health coaching program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and a big concept was what they called bioindividuality. The term means that everyone’s biology and physiology are different, and what’s healthy for one person may not be healthy for another, based on countless factors. Some people do better with more carbs, or more protein, or less protein, or more fat, or less carbs…or with or without dairy, or soy, or wheat…or with more or less fruit or starch…and the list could go on and on. These are your decisions to make.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek advice from nutritionists or health experts, or do research on what may be healthy for you; but you have to sort through it and see what makes sense to you personally, and fits with the lifestyle you want to create for yourself. You also get to decide the timeline for implementing any healthy changes you want to make. There is no rush, there are no rules, and there is no pressure. You are crafting a way of eating and a lifestyle that works for you, and there is no end point to this process in your lifetime. You will be on this ever-changing journey for as long as you are here.
In the next post (Part 2), I’m going to share a personal story of making a healthy change after recovery. I’ll talk about my relationship to sugary cereal—the food I most craved when I was dieting, and the food that made up my first binge and countless more after that. I’ll explain how I no longer eat it much at all, and how that change came about.
Before I end today, I want to direct you to a podcast episode and other resources that relate to this topic:
Episode 31: Making Healthy Changes After Binge Eating Recovery
In this episode, I interviewed Daniel Thomas Hind (*listen to this important message prior to the episode), who helps people improve their health through a process of learning new skills and habits around food. Although Daniel does work on helping people with weight loss, he always comes from a place of making sure his clients are well nourished and not feeling deprived. One thing I want to mention about Daniel Thomas Hind’s work relates to what I said in this post about choosing how you want to eat, based on your own unique body and lifestyle. It’s important for you to know that, although Daniel personally subscribes to a paleo-type lifestyle and does teach about that, he wants clients to choose and craft their own way of eating.
The Brain over Binge Course:
My course has ample advice and information about learning to eat adequately and learning to make food choices that feel good to you. Four of the eight lessons in the course focus on adequate eating, so you’ll get plenty of guidance in this area. If you are still struggling with binge eating, you can get learn more about the course or enroll.
Binge Code Coaching:
Ali Kerr and her coaching team specialize in helping people (who are recovering from binge eating and bulimia) create a way of eating that works for them and that supports their physical needs. If you need one-on-one support as you learn to eat normally, I highly recommend Binge Code.
Go to Part 2 of this blog series.
*Originally posted on April 5, 2016. This is an updated and much improved version of that original post.
If you’ve read my books or followed my blog, podcast, or participated in my course, you know that I believe restrictive dieting is harmful and can lead to binge eating. A big part of my approach to recovery is encouraging people to eat adequately, and make sure the body is getting plenty of nourishment and not in a calorie-deprived state.
I find that binge eaters usually understand the reasons behind the advice to avoid dieting, but they are often hesitant to implement the advice. They are wary because they’ve been taught that dieting is the only way they will ever lose weight. Even when binge eaters do start letting go of food restriction, and start feeling the positive effects of that, and notice a decrease in cravings and an increased ability to avoid binges, they still worry whether or not they are on the right track, because they have an underlying belief that dieting is the only thing that will take extra weight off. Even if they let go of the binge eating habit completely, and feel the amazing freedom that comes along with recovery, they still may have this question: So, how do I lose weight?
There are some in the eating disorder recovery space who seem to ignore the question, and encourage binge eaters to simply accept their body as it is, and let go of any desire to lose weight. That advice certainly has value when it comes to accepting the normal, healthy weight that your body is naturally meant to be; however, the reality is that binge eaters are often well over the weight that’s best for their unique body.
Weight regulation has countless factors, and I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic. But, I have done a lot of research into weight issues, and I’ve heard the experiences of so many women and men dealing with weight concerns during and after their struggle with binge eating. I’ve written about this topic in my books and blog, and I’ve talked about it on my podcast as well. There is also ample information and advice about successfully managing weight issues in my Course.
What I want to do here in this post is share several resources with you, to help you navigate your own journey to a healthy and natural weight for your body. Below, I’ve linked to the blog posts and podcast episodes in which I’ve discussed weight. I’m hoping this post can serve as a helpful guide to any binge eater (or former binge eater) who is grappling with the question of how to lose weight.
Before I share my own resources, I want to share an article from Registered Dietitian and Nutritionist Paige Smathers, who I believe has a great perspective on weight. I was on her Nutrition Matters Podcast (now the Positive Nutrition Podcast) a while back, and then found a wonderful article she wrote that addresses making healthy changes without dieting. I think she does a great job of explaining what restrictive dieting is, and how that compares to making sustainable, and realistic changes to your eating and lifestyle. I think this simple article is a good place to start.
My own resources about weight are as follows:
Weight After Recovery
This 2012 post was the first time I thoroughly addressed weight on my blog after publishing Brain over Binge. It’s a detailed discussion, but the basic premise is that it’s best to wait until after recovery to address weight concerns; and if you do, you need to proceed in a healthy and non-restrictive way.
What if Stopping Binge Eating Means Possible Weight Gain?
This is another thorough post that discusses weight from a different angle. Even if you aren’t someone who gains weight during recovery, I think you will find some of the ideas helpful.
What are Your Motivations for Dieting?
If you are someone who has trouble letting go of dieting, this post can give you a new perspective and help you realize that you don’t benefit from dieting.
Podcast Episode 12: Dismissing Urges to Binge is Not a Dieting Strategy
The Brain over Binge approach is not a weight-loss method, and I think it’s important for anyone who uses my approach to understand that.
Podcast Episode 18: Don’t Let Food and Weight Talk Get You off Track
Part of dealing with weight issues is dealing with others who are talking about weight issues, and this podcast episode gives you some ideas on how to do that.
Podcast Episode 41: Why Can Other People Eat Healthy and Lose Weight?
Just like the episode above, this discussion helps you navigate the often dieting-obsessed culture. Staying binge-free requires not getting sucked back into the world of dieting, even if you see someone else “successfully” losing weight.
Podcast Episode 53: What Can Hold You Back in Binge Eating Recovery, Part 2: Weight Obsession
I loved this discussion with Katherine Thomson, Ph.D., about how weight obsession affects recovery, and how to have a healthier outlook on weight.
I hope you’ll find the answers you need in what I’ve shared. If you want to dive deeper, know that I discuss weight and dieting extensively in The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide and even more in the Brain over Binge Course.