*Originally published in May 2018
I don’t have a rule against eating sugary cereal, and 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 (and the kind I’d binge on too). Greatly reducing my cereal intake – and almost completely eliminating sugary varieties – is one example of a healthy change I’ve made since I stopped binge eating. If you’ve read Brain over Binge, you know how much trouble I had with cereal during my dieting and binge eating days; so I want to share more about this change with you, in hopes that it gives you some insight and ideas for how similar healthy changes may come about in your own life.
This post is the second part of a 2-part series about Healthy Changes after Recovery. You can read Part I here, which talks about the role of eating everything in moderation, making choices about what’s best for your unique body and lifestyle, and being patient with yourself as you create your own way of eating. This blog series is primarily for those 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 Personal Example of a Healthy Change: Sugary Cereal
I used to eat sugary cereal often for breakfast as a kid and teen. My mom, like any good 80’s/90’s mom, used to buy the “fun” 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 the sugar-coated raisins!). I ate various types of cereal in normal amounts; I always stopped when I was full; and I never thought much about it. It wasn’t until I started restricting my food intake in order to try to control my weight that I learned to label sugary cereal as “bad,” and tried to avoid it…and 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, when I started restricting my food, I suddenly craved it and I had trouble controlling myself around it. I seemed to want so much of it, which I’d never experienced before and which scared me. I worried that eating too much of it would give me too many calories, and hence, make me gain weight; so, I tried not to eat it, which made me crave it even more.
As I shared in Brain over Binge, 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 eat 8 bowls. 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/or fat).* This makes sense from a survival perspective – my brain was just trying to make me eat 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 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 thinking about the cereal in the pantry. Then, once I binged on cereal once, it quickly became a habit. Eating bowl after bowl 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. To me, it seems like such a baffling approach to tell someone who feels out of control around a food to simply never eat that food. Maybe that approach would make sense if the problematic food suddenly no longer existed on earth, but in my world of living in a college town, with roommates, there was no getting away from 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. Looking back, it makes sense that I could only eat sugary cereal in moderation when I didn’t have binge urges before, during, or after eating it.
Once I stopped acting on my binge urges, 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! It was great.
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, most processed cereals you buy from a grocery store are not generally considered healthy). I still ate high-sugar varieties now and then as well, but 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 a change that came naturally, and not something that I forced myself into.
As the months and years went by, there was a gradual increase in nutrition research and news pointing 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 this point, my binge eating days were long gone, but I was also firmly set in the 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.
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 more natural types of cereal 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?
Here’s a short rundown on why I think it was possible for me, and hopefully that will help you see how it can be possible for you too:
1. Because I know I can have sugary cereal if I want it. I can absolutely go buy a box of Lucky Charms right now 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. Because 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!
3. Because the decision to reduce my cereal intake came gradually and naturally. My choice came from information I read, but also from my own insight about how the cereal was making me feel, and also 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 decision came when I was ready to make that decision, not because someone else told me that’s what I should do.
4. Because 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.
5. Because “not having sugary cereal” is not a restrictive rule. 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. Because 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. You will want to be cautious not to develop a dieting mentality.
If you are someone who has ended your binge eating habit and wants help in making healthy changes, you can get more information in Episode 31 of my podcast, in which I interviewed Daniel Thomas Hind about this topic. If you resonate with what he talks about, you can also get more information about his coaching by filling out this questionnaire to get a free call that he offers. I am not an expert in helping people make healthy changes to the way they eat, but I know that many of you are interested in that area. So, if you want greater health, but healthy changes don’t seem to be coming naturally and gradually for you after you stop binge eating, it makes sense that you may want some outside help. I hope Daniel’s coaching gives you an option for getting that type of support.
*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
*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.
This is the third and final post in my blog series on indulging in food. If you have not read Part 1 and Part 2, I recommend you do that before continuing with this post. In those previous two posts, I talked about what indulging may mean to you, how you can think about indulging, and I reminded you that’s it’s normal and okay to indulge in food.
But, what if you think your particular form of indulging is problematic? What if you feel your indulging is more frequent than it should be? What if you worry that you’re eating too much when you indulge? What if you think you are overindulging?
If you are certain that you’re not defining indulging with a restrictive mindset (see Part 1), then this may be something to look at and address.
In this post, I’m going to break down how and why indulging could be problematic, and I’ll give you some guidance in normalizing it. First, I’ll take you through a series of questions that will help you determine if this is an issue for you, and then I’ll explain how you can start to overcome it.
Is your indulging a problem?
Have you very recently stopped binge eating (or are you still binge eating)?
In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I described a process that former binge eaters may go through when binge eating stops – I called it a bridge to normal eating. This is to meant to convey that you probably won’t go from binge eating to 100 percent normal eating habits overnight, and it could take time for you to feel like you are on steady ground with food. When you are a binge eater, you become accustomed to eating large amounts of food; and even when you stop the harmful binge eating behavior, you may find yourself overeating a little more than you’d like, and that includes over-indulging in pleasurable food a little more than you’d like.
I don’t think you should waste energy worrying about this, and instead you should stay focused on becoming confidently binge-free. Your physiology will gradually stabilize, blood sugar regulation can correct itself*, and the size of your stomach can return to normal, so that normal amounts of food and normal-sized indulgences will feel more satisfying. (*ln talking about physiological issues, I want to remind you to seek professional medical and nutritional support as needed).
So, if you are only recently removed from binge eating, and you think you may be overindulging, try to give it some time and allow your body to heal. If the issue does not resolve itself over time, then you can begin to address it. The same advice applies if you are still binge eating – try not to worry about any overindulging right now and focus instead on ending the binge eating habit and allowing your body to regulate. Then, you’ll be in a better place to work on any eating issues that remain.
Do strong cravings primarily drive your indulgences?
There’s a difference between deciding to go out for ice cream with your family, and impulsively driving to the nearest fast food restaurant for a milkshake in response to strong sugar cravings. Neither situation is a binge, but if you feel like you are being overrun by your cravings, then it’s going to feel more problematic than if your decision to indulge feels rather calm and relaxed. Even if the desserts in both scenarios contain a similar amount of sugar and calories, you’ll feel more conscious and in control in the first example of getting ice cream than in the second example, when you feel more like you are being controlled by your desires.
Even though there is certainly food pleasure in both situations, they feel very different. If strong and uncomfortable cravings are the driving force behind most of your indulgent eating, then I believe this is something to work on, and you can start by using the suggestions I’ll give at the end of this post.
Are you obsessing over your indulgences?
If thinking about your food indulgences and looking forward to them takes up too much mental space, that’s another reason indulging could feel like a problem to you. Normal indulgence isn’t something that consumes your thoughts in a bothersome way. It’s something you decide to do, either in the moment or by planning it beforehand, but it doesn’t feel like an absolute priority in your life. If getting your treats feels so important that you can’t focus on anything else, and it causes you to lose sight of what is truly important to you, then you’ll definitely want to bring food indulgence back into it’s proper place in your life.
Are the consequences of indulging too great?
Even if you don’t feel driven by strong cravings, and even if you aren’t obsessing about indulgences beforehand, you may be experiencing problems after indulging. You may be someone whose decision to have ice cream in the first example leads to uncomfortable digestive issues or an exacerbation of certain inflammatory symptoms. You may have a health condition that makes the indulgences you are choosing too physically damaging for you personally.
You can start to find replacements that are equally or nearly as enjoyable, or you may need to let certain indulgences go in the name of better health. Do not take this too far by completely banning anything that is not healthy, but if you have specific symptoms and issues with certain pleasurable foods, then it’s time to take a look at that and to change how you approach indulging in food.
Are you too often saying,”it’s okay to indulge”?
Yes, it’s true that indulging in food is okay, but if you hear this thought over and over in your head and it justifies overeating every day, or even at every meal, then it’s going to feel problematic. It’s definitely a good thing to remind yourself that indulging in food is okay, and that you don’t need to be restrictive (especially when you are learning to let go of dieting); but know that you don’t have to eat anything and everything that comes into your mind. Take an honest look at your behavior, and know that you get to decide when it is okay to indulge, and when it may not be the best idea. You get to strike a balance that works for you.
How to get over overindulging:
The simple advice I’m going to give you about dealing with overindulging can be organized into five D’s:
Define (what indulgences are okay to you) – Take some time to think about what indulging means to you and how you want it in your life (see Part 1 and Part 2 for help). This will provide guidance when you have opportunities and/or desires to indulge, and you hear that voice in your head saying “it’s okay to indulge.” If you’ve already defined what’s okay and not okay for your personally, then it becomes clear whether or not you will follow that voice. You do not need to set exact, strict rules, and in fact, I would not recommend that at all. It’s best just to have a general idea of what food indulgences you want in your life.
Desire (accept it and possibly address it) – Desire may or may not be present prior to indulging. If it is, it’s okay – a normal, healthy desire for pleasurable eating is not a problem. Desire is part of our human nature. I realize that here I could insert an entire book about the effects of modern foods on cravings, and I understand that many theories abound. However, I believe it’s best to keep it simple and realize that desire has always been a part of the human condition, but we have choice available to us.
Based on that, my first piece of advice about desire is to accept that desire is okay, but also to know that it doesn’t mean you are destined to have what you are craving.
When you have desires, try to pause and determine the course of action you want to take. That may be to have the indulgence you are craving (and not binge afterward); that may be to have a healthier food option; that may be to do another activity. That may also include developing an overall strategy for addressing the cravings you feel are out of the range of normal. Cravings can be dismissed like binge urges, but additionally, you may want to get help regulating blood sugar and hormones through nutritional support or a medical workup. You can also look into improving sleep, reducing stress, and improving hydration, which can all help reduce some cravings.
Decide – This is where your power of choice comes in. It’s important to realize that you are the one eating the food. Your cravings do not control your voluntary muscle movements, even if you have physiological imbalances that are causing those cravings. This is not about blame, it’s about empowering you to feel like you can choose what you indulge in.
I believe that bringing the power of choice into your eating decisions is how indulging stays in the proper place in your life. Because, even if strong cravings are present, and even if you do decide to have the indulgence you are craving, you can still feel conscious and in control. You have the freedom to decide to indulge anytime, and you also have the freedom to decide against it when it doesn’t feel like the right decision for you.
Deliberately enjoy the indulgence: You don’t have to eat super-slowly, or chew a certain number of times, or avoid doing anything else while you are eating; but try to slow down enough to enjoy what you are indulging in. If you are eating rapidly, or eating mindlessly in front of the TV or in the car, it will feel more impulsive and potentially problematic. Eating a little more deliberately goes hand in hand with deciding to indulge. It’s another way of keeping your higher brain engaged, realizing what you are doing, and proving to yourself that you are in control.
Delicious! – This is a bonus “D” to remind you that you can and should enjoy eating and indulging. When you indulge, it’s perfectly okay to soak in the pleasure (without the guilt!). Then, when you are done, put the food aside and move on with you life.
I hope this series on indulging has been helpful to you! I realize it’s been a lot of information, so thanks for staying with me!
If you want to end the binge eating habit, you can download my 30-page free eBook, which will teach you all of the basics of the Brain over Binge approach.