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.
The first urges to binge commonly appear after a period of restrictive dieting. The binge urges are a primal survival response—when you restrict food, the primitive part of your brain starts to encourage you to eat as much as possible. (You can learn more about this in Episode 2: The Cause of Binge Eating: Urges to Binge). To get rid of the binge urges, it’s necessary not only to stop acting on them, but also to get your body out of that “survival” state by eating enough food. You cannot continue to restrict food and expect to fully recover. That doesn’t mean you have to eat the exact, perfect amount at each and every meal; it just means that overall, you need to give your body what it needs.
You may have some hesitations about letting go of dieting, or you may think that you actually want to continue dieting, even though you certainly want to stop binge eating. It’s easier to see that binge eating is something you don’t (rationally) want in your life, but dieting can sometimes feel like a deliberate choice that is in line with your true desires. To stop dieting, it’s important to start to change your mindset and see that dieting is not actually what you want, and that it’s harming you and making recovery impossible. It’s important to explore your motivation for dieting and challenge the reasoning behind it, so that you can move toward freedom from binge eating.
Below, I’ve listed 4 common factors that may serve as your motivation for dieting. Know that more than one might apply to you, and that it’s possible to let go of all of these reasons.
Motivation for Dieting #1: None—It’s an Habit
It’s highly possible that your reason for dieting is devoid of any real, thoughtful motivation. It’s possibly you are just following the force of a habit you’ve created. You may have had some original motivation to diet at the outset, but then it simply stuck. Dieting became your norm, so you just keep doing it, without stopping to think if it is the right course of action.
Your thoughts about weight loss or perfect eating plans, or your desire to restrict calories may appear at predictable times and in predictable situations. For example, you may finish eating a nice meal at a restaurant and you may automatically have thoughts saying, “I need to work out extra and eat very little tomorrow to make up for this,” or “I need to start over with my diet tomorrow.”
Instead of considering if these thoughts are serving you, you automatically take them as truth, and don’t see that you actually do have other, healthier options. In this example, you don’t stop to rationalize that resuming normal eating at the next meal or the next time you are hungry will help you in your efforts to stop binge eating, and be much better for healthy weight maintenance in the long run. (For questions and issues surrounding weight, you can see my post: Addressing Weight Issues in Binge Eating Recovery.)
Treating the habitual dieting thoughts and urges to restrict food as neurological junk is a helpful way to overcome them and start eating adequately. At any point, you are capable of turning attention away from the faulty thoughts that say you should be dieting.
Motivation for Dieting #2: Positive Feelings
If you achieved a weight-loss goal in the past, it may have given you a temporary good feeling—a feeling of achievement, or pride, or confidence. This feeling is fleeting, but it can temporarily lift your mood and make you feel good about yourself. The problem is: if the weight-loss goal you achieved in the past or the weight-loss goal you are chasing now is outside of your natural weight range, it’s impossible to maintain that weight—or the good feelings that came along with it (or the good feelings you imagine will come along with a certain number on the scale). So, what this can lead to is a yo-yo effect where you are perpetually seeking that weight in an attempt to experience the fleeting moments of positive feelings.
But chasing those good feelings while you are making yourself miserable with strict diet rules, self-criticism, and binge eating, just isn’t worth it.
If you can see that the positive feeling (of happiness, pride, achievement, confidence) is what you actually want, you can see that you don’t need a certain number on a scale to get that feeling. You don’t need the self-sabotage of a diet to achieve a positive feeling, and you certainly don’t need to be a specific weight to experience happiness, pride, achievement, and confidence.
All of those same feelings can be achieved in a non-diet way—in a way that’s sustainable, doesn’t harm you, and doesn’t lead to binge eating. If you want a feeling of achievement, you can work toward that in other parts of your life. If you want happiness, you can find that feeling being with people you love—without your mind caught up in thinking about food. If you want confidence, you can learn a new skill that has nothing to do with weight loss. Good feelings don’t always have to be connected to accomplishments either, good feelings are available to you in simple ways.
An important thing to remember is that you won’t always feel great about yourself or reside in positive feelings all of the time; it’s normal to have ups and downs in your state of mind. The point is not to chase unrealistic goals or perform harmful behaviors in order to try to experience the ups, because the overall impact will be to bring you down.
Motivation for Dieting #3: Affection and Attention
The previous motivation was all about how dieting and weight loss makes you feel internally, but related to that is the external attention you may get for achieving a weight loss goal (which can also lead to the internal feelings). It’s possible that dieting and temporary weight loss has attracted positive attention toward you in the past, whether that was through admiration or romantic attraction, and you want that attention again. Maybe you’ve never had that type of attention, but you believe that if you can only look a certain way, you will receive it.
With this motivation for dieting, it’s important not only to see that you can get attention and affection in other ways, but that the attention and affection you receive as a result of dieting is mostly superficial. If you are only using your body to attract attention, is that truly the kind of attention you want? If you let your authentic self shine through, and let your personality and heart attract the attention, you’ll naturally get better quality attention.
Giving up dieting does not mean giving up on being a healthy, strong, well-presented person; it does not mean you’ll stop taking pride in yourself. It just means you will take pride in yourself at your natural size and not try to control your body in an effort to gain more attention. Think about how you could gain good-quality attention in your life—the kind that feels fulfilling—such as the attention you receive from helping others or giving of yourself, or from being a loyal friend/mother/father/sister/son…etc., or from being hard-working, intelligent, funny, and being appreciated for who you are.
Motivation for Dieting #4: Control
Your motivation for dieting could be that you like to feel in control. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to have a predictable schedule, or manage your life, or even have a plan for your eating, feeling like you need to perfectly control everything you put in your mouth can backfire (for more on this, you can read my post about not overdoing self-control). Eating is a natural, fundamental biological drive and it doesn’t lend itself well to being perfectly controlled, especially when that “control” means deprivation.
When you over-control your eating by not giving yourself enough food, your lower brain gets the message that you are starving and heightens your desire and drive to eat. So, the “control” actually leads to the opposite effect of you feeling more out of control.
If you feel like your life is unstable (everyone does to some extent just by the fragile nature of our existence), and over-controlling your eating seems appealing, try to focus on taking some control elsewhere. Try to see if there is an area of your life that you can put energy into managing better, which won’t backfire and lead you to feeling more out of control. Maybe that means seeking more career stability, or improving a relationship, or organizing your home, or developing a more consistent schedule. Doing those things doesn’t cure an eating disorder, but anything that will take your focus away from restrictive dieting helps break the habit.
Also, changing how you think about the concept of control can be helpful as well. We truly aren’t in control of everything, even most things, in our lives, and trying to pretend that we are often leads to frustration and exhaustion. There is freedom in getting comfortable with knowing you are not in control, and that may even lead you toward spirituality, or a deeper perspective of the universe.
Don’t Get Caught Up In Analysis
Keep in mind that your motivation for dieting may not be very “deep” at all. You may have simply wanted to lose some weight, and it seemed innocent enough at the time. This was similar to my experience, which I detailed in Brain over Binge. Maybe your friends or family members were dieting, and that gave you motivation to restrict your food too, and you didn’t think too much about it. You just tried it without knowledge of what would happen, and it turned out to be a bad experience that led to binge eating. You can now learn from that experience and not repeat it in the future—no further analysis necessary.
Even if you feel there are deeper and stronger motivations for why you started dieting and why you continued, that doesn’t mean you should spend too much time dwelling on those motivations, or trying to solve everything before moving forward with giving up the harmful dieting behavior. Just take an honest look at what your biggest motivation for dieting might be and then try to find a new, healthier perspective. (You can also listen to podcast Episode 48: How Do I Get Rid of the Dieting Mentality in Binge Eating Recovery?)
Dieting is ultimately a choice—one that brings consequences, and one that is detrimental for your recovery from binge eating. For whatever reason, it made sense for you at one point in time to begin dieting, and until now, it may have seemed to make sense to continue dieting. But, at any point, you can make a new choice that is more beneficial to your recovery and to your life as a whole.
I hope that this blog post helps support you in choosing to eat adequately and nourishing your body. When you eat enough food, it makes dismissing the binge urges possible and takes you a long way toward complete freedom from disordered eating.
If you need more guidance in eating adequately, the Brain over Binge Course is a powerful resource. 4 out of the 8 lessons of the course focus on adequate eating, and many of the course’s 84 Q&A audios address giving up dieting and learning to eat in a way that works for you.
You can sample course audios in the free preview:
If you have bulimia or binge eating disorder, you’ve most likely experienced weight gain from binge eating. You may wonder what will happen as you recover…will you lose the weight you’ve gained? Will you gain more weight as you begin eating normally? What will your weight be as a binge-free and diet-free person?
It’s important for you to understand that recovery from binge eating is not about weight loss or avoiding any further weight gain. Overcoming binge eating is about letting go of a harmful, health-sabotaging behavior, rising above the shame and pain it brought, and moving on with your life. However, the reality is that weight concerns are very common in recovering binge eaters, so I want to give you some help in this area.
I’ve addressed weight thoroughly for the first time in my 2012 post, “Weight After Recovery” and other posts after that (see a list of my weight-related blog posts), as well as in The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. Today, I’m also going to talk about possibility of gaining weight during and after binge eating recovery, and how you can deal with this in a healthy way.
When I Stop Binge Eating, Does that Mean I’ll Stop Gaining Weight?
Usually, yes. It only makes sense that binge eating recovery commonly involves a cessation of weight gain and eventual weight loss as the out-of-control eating episodes decrease and go away. When you stop eating abnormally large amounts of food, your calorie intake goes down to a normal level, and it follows that body weight naturally goes down to the level that is normal for your unique body.
Eventual and gradual weight loss is even common in people who self-induce vomiting or use other forms of purging after binges, because a significant portion of the binge calories are still absorbed, and stopping the binge/purge cycle still leads to an overall decrease in calories. Even if there is some bloating when you first stop purging, the body can regulate, and any weight gained from bulimia can be slowly released. (For help stopping purging and dealing with bloating, read these Tips to Help You Stop Purging, and listen to Episode 54: Stop Purging in Binge Eating Recovery: Interview with Ali Kerr.
The fact that stopping binge eating reduces calories also holds true if you are dieting restrictively between binges. If you consider your overall calorie intake from restrictive dieting plus binge eating, you’ll realize that the total is likely more, and often much more, than the calorie total of a normal diet. For example, I recommend a daily minimum of 2,200 calories to help you recover from restriction and binge eating. Someone who is restricting and eating only 1,200 calories per day, but then having 6,000 calorie binges a few times a week, is actually averaging over 3,500 calories per day.
Like I said at the start, recovery is not about weight loss, but the simple fact that quitting will reduce calorie intake goes a long way to alleviate some weight-related fears of recovery You may have previously worried that giving up restriction and purging would make you gain weight; but when you also factor in that you’ll be stopping binge eating as well, you may feel reassured to know that your overall calorie intake will go down to a normal level. You may feel more willing to eat enough food on a daily basis, which is absolutely necessary, because recovery won’t happen if you keep yourself in a state of starvation.
If I Keep Restricting, Can I Speed Up Weight Loss in Binge Eating Recovery, or Avoid Weight Gain?
No. If you keep restricting, you will keep binge eating, and keep your calorie intake higher than if you just ate normally. Some people think that they can stop binge eating without stopping dieting and other dangerous weight-control behaviors like purging; but you simply cannot recover while your body is in underfed. This is why I teach that recovery comes down to two basic goals:
- Recovery Goal 1: Dismiss urges to binge (stop giving urges attention and stop acting on them)
- Recovery Goal 2: Eat Adequately (eat enough decent quality food)
It is impossible to accomplish Recovery Goal 1 on a consistent basis without implementing Recovery Goal 2.
If you’ve read this far and still find yourself having significant resistance to Recovery Goal 2 (Eating Adequately), this could be because you believe you believe you are an exception to what I’ve explained above about binge eating recovery usually leading to a cessation of weight gain and eventual weight loss.
What if I Think I Will Gain Weight from Binge Eating Recovery?
To understand how weight gain is possible from binge eating recovery, let’s shift gears for a moment and think about anorexia recovery. It is a given that weight gain is a part of the process of restoring the recovering anorexic back to health. Weight gain is necessary and beneficial, and I believe this is also the case when weight gain is a part of binge eating recovery.
Stopping the binge and purge cycle and learning to nourish your body may lead to an overall calorie increase for you. This can be the case if you binge infrequently, if binge on smaller quantities of food, and if you restrict severely between binges. Even if you know you want freedom from the binge and purge cycle, the thought of weight gain may make you worry and make you want to avoid making healthy changes.
So, how then do you alleviate fears of weight gain from binge eating recovery? How do you convince yourself to eat enough food every day? How do you avoid giving in to the temptation to restrict?
In the rest of this blog post, I’m going to give you 5 tips to help with these concerns:
Tip 1: Realize the Futility and Danger of Your Current Path
In my own personal recovery, I was in the majority. Stopping binge eating led to an overall decrease in calories and my body gradually went back down to its natural weight. So, when giving these tips, I want you to know that I’m speaking of a challenge that I did not personally go through. Nevertheless, I believe my personal experience shines an important light on this issue that I hope you will find helpful.
The reason I did not go through the challenge of weight gain in binge eating recovery was due to the time in my disorder that I recovered. I recovered after the binge eating had already brought me well over my natural weight. If I would have recovered in an earlier stage of my bulimia—when I was still underweight from restricting and anorexia, and before my binges had gotten very frequent and very large—then I would have indeed gained weight in recovery.
I look back and wish that I would have recovered at this earlier stage when I was still below my normal weight, both because it would have saved me valuable time that I wasted to bulimia, and it would have been safer and healthier than spiraling further into binge eating.
My binges got worse and worse over time, and the quantity of food I ate during binges increased; and I put on weight in an unhealthy and shame-producing way. Gaining weight by eating normally would have been so much less stressful and less painful, and I would have gained much less weight than I eventually gained by staying bulimic.
If you fear recovery because you are still under your natural weight due to harmful restrictive behaviors, you need to realize that this won’t last. You are on a dangerous path and it will only hurt you. It’s simply not sustainable to starve yourself or purge frequently to try to fend off weight gain from binge eating. It will only make the binge eating get worse and worse, and you will eventually gain weight—and likely more weight than if you learn to let go of those unhealthy behaviors now and accept natural, normal, and healthy weight gain.
*If you are severely restricting and/or underweight, it’s important to seek medical and nutritional help to gradually reintroduce a normal diet and restore weight.
Also know that the effect that restriction has on your metabolism adds to the futility of your current path. Starving yourself and purging slows your metabolism so that it will be increasingly more difficult and even impossible to maintain your current too-low weight. Thinking about what you are doing from a long-term perspective can help you realize that you can’t keep up these harmful behaviors forever. Restriction and purging cause too much stress, exhaustion, shame, and health problems.
Additionally, for all of the trouble and pain you are going through, your calorie intake (after factoring in the binges) is likely not much lower than what a normal diet would be. You may only be managing to eat a couple hundred calories less than you’d be eating if you stopped all of the dangerous behaviors. Wouldn’t it be easier to just eat and digest the small amount of extra food? Wouldn’t any weight gain that results be worth it, in order to be free of the painful daily struggle?
Tip 2: Weight is Not All about Calories. Be Patient.
If you are underweight or under your natural weight, then of course, you will need to gain weight, just as someone in anorexia recovery would. But, you are close to what you believe is your natural weight range, know that an increase in calories does not necessarily equal long-term weight gain. Recovery might involve some initial bloating and simply more food being in your system, which the number on the scale can temporarily reflect; but that doesn’t mean that extra weight is permanent.
As your body gets used to processing a normal amount of food, and you get any necessary help with digestive issues, you allow your metabolism to start working normally again. Calorie restriction makes the body more efficient at using calories, so that it gets the most out of every calorie you give it. This metabolism-suppressing effect can make you feel trapped into always eating less and less, which is impossible, and will lead to increased binge eating. (For more on this, listen to Episode 9: Avoid Restrictive Dieting to Stop Binge Eating).
Once you eat normally for a while and your body realizes that you are no longer starving, it can start to use calories for energy instead of storing them in preparation for the next “famine” (restrictive diet). This means that, even though you may be eating more overall, you won’t be gaining weight. This regulation of metabolism can take time, so patience is required. By feeding yourself adequately, you are giving yourself a gift that will last—a normal and healthy metabolism.
Tip 3: View Feeding Yourself in a Positive Light, Focus on Adding Foods that Benefit You
When you give yourself enough food, you are doing something good for yourself, and it’s helpful to keep this in mind. Think of all the nutrients you are putting into your body, and focus on adding foods that make you feel good. Of course, it’s fine to have all types of foods, even unhealthy ones; but if you are feeling hesitant about eating more, incorporating foods you feel really good about can help you feel less self-critical. It can take you from a mindset of thinking that you are overindulging (which you aren’t!) to a more positive mindset of knowing you are doing something very good for your body. This positive mindset will encourage you to keep going down the healthy path, and not slip back into restriction.
Another aspect of viewing normal eating in a positive light is to avoid thinking that you are overeating. If you are used to trying to maintain a daily restrictive diet of 1,200 calories, then initially, eating 2,200 or more on a daily basis may feel like it’s too much. Even though you likely binge on much more than that, your digestive system simply isn’t used to consistently getting that nourishing amount of food each day.
Know that this isn’t specific nutritional or medical advice, but if eating more food leaves you feeling overly full, you can try adding the extra calories as healthy fats and other healthy calorie-dense foods. Think of butter or coconut oil for example—there are a lot of calories packed into a small volume of food so that it doesn’t leave your stomach feeling too stretched during the time when you are increasing calories and regulating digestion. Adding healthy fat also has a positive effect on your metabolism’s ability to use calories for energy.
Tip 4: Think of How You’d Want to Feed Someone You Love.
If you are tempted to restrict, think of what you’d want someone you love to do in your situation. For example, if you imagine having a daughter who had this problem, would you want her to try to get by on the absolute minimum number of calories? Would you want her trying to starve herself while trying to stop binge eating, or at any time in her life?
Or… would you want to make absolutely sure she was getting enough nourishment? Would you want to make sure her body and brain got the message that binge eating was no longer needed? You can see that if you are thinking about someone you love, you want to make sure that person is well-fed; and you deserve the same kind and compassionate treatment.
Tip 5: Be Open to the Recovery Process and to Your Natural Weight
It is possible that—at this point—you aren’t even sure what your natural, healthy weight is. You may have dieted and binged for as long as you can remember and never allowed your body to find it’s normal set weight range. If this is the case for you, eating normally and stopping binge eating will be a leap of faith as far as weight is concerned. What can help in this situation is to know deeply that wherever you eventually end up weight-wise, it will be better than where you are now—trying desperately to control your weight and then feeling so out of control with the binges.
If you can allow your body to just be and gravitate toward it’s natural weight—whatever that may be—you will be free to live your life. Will you end up being the weight you want? There is no way to know. If maintaining the weight you desire is or has been a stressful struggle and required starvation, you need to listen to your body. An “ideal” weight that is impossible for you to maintain is not your natural, healthy weight and it just isn’t worth it. Trying to fight your natural weight is a losing battle, and if you are open to accepting your body’s unique size, the binge eating recovery process will be much easier on you.
For help learning to stop the binge eating habit, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF. The Brain over Binge Course also contains thorough answers to many questions about weight and eating.
I’ve been talking about eliminating foods for those who need to, and for those want to lead a healthier lifestyle (see Eliminating Foods Part I and Part II). In this post, I’ll discuss the importance of ditching diets, and replacing foods you are trying to eliminate with nourishing and enjoyable options. I’ll also share information and insights with from a helpful book called Ditching Diets by Gillian Riley, which will help you understand how you can avoid letting healthy changes turn into restriction or deprivation. But first, I’m going to talk briefly about my own experience with needing to eliminate foods—which is something I addressed in Brain over Binge—and I hope it helps you see how it’s possible to give up certain foods without dieting.
An Example of Giving Up Foods and Giving Up Dieting
Since I recovered in 2005, I’ve gone through 4 extended periods of time that I’ve had to completely eliminate certain foods. My first child developed allergic colitis only several weeks after birth (which is a condition where the baby’s immune system overreacts to food proteins in the mother’s milk, which leads to irritation/inflammation, ulcerations, and even some bleeding in the colon). To treat this, I had to give up all dairy, beef, wheat, soy, eggs, and nuts for several months. When I had my second child, I hoped it wouldn’t happen again; but sure enough, when my daughter was a few weeks old she began developing the same symptoms. This time, I knew exactly what to do to help her, so I eliminated the foods again; and within a couple weeks, her symptoms disappeared. For my 3rd and 4th babies, I tried to prevent the issue by giving up all dairy—which was seemingly the biggest culprit—one month prior giving birth. My 3rd child did fine, but with my 4th (who is 8 months old at the time I’m writing this), there was about a 6-week period when I had to eat nothing but potatoes, turkey, chicken, olive oil, almonds, and some mild vegetables and fruits (and vitamins) in order to clear up his digestive tract. All my children are okay now. This was a temporary protein sensitivity in infancy, not a true food allergy or ongoing digestive condition.
Changing my eating in this way and giving up foods to help my babies didn’t cause any problem for me. It never felt like a “diet,” or like I was depriving myself. There were certainly times that I wished I could eat the foods I was eliminating, and I did feel a little sorry for myself sometimes as I watched the rest of my family munch down a pizza, for example, and I was eating my 3rd meal of sweet potatoes and chicken for the day. Although it was inconvenient to have a lack of freedom around food, and it’s not something I’d want to continue for a long period of time; it wasn’t a bad experience at all. There was always a choice to put my babies on hypoallergenic formula, but that would have been costly and not as healthy for them. I chose to change my diet, and I felt like I was doing the right thing for them.
In the same way, people who lead healthy lifestyles and nourish their bodies well with real food don’t feel “deprived” when they eliminate certain foods. They know they are doing right for their bodies, and they feel good doing it; and in all likelihood, they would actually feel deprived if they were forced to eat a diet consisting of a lot of processed, low-quality, low-nutrient food. Wanting to nourish yourself well, and therefore avoiding foods that have no benefit to you, is much different than trying to force yourself to follow a bunch of food rules and starving yourself just so that you can lose weight.
Ditching Diets, and Letting Go of Restriction While Eliminating Foods
It is possible to make healthy changes, or even eliminate a certain food completely because it creates an adverse reaction, without it turning into a rigid diet—and sometimes the difference is simply in your mindset. I recently came across a book that does a wonderful job of explaining why there is no need to think in terms of rules, restrictions, and prohibitions when it comes to taking on a healthier lifestyle. It’s called Ditching Diets, by Gillian Riley. I’ve had a few of my own readers tell me that this book is helpful to read along with Brain over Binge, especially if a healthy lifestyle is desired. Ditching Diets discusses some of the same concepts that my book does, but with a greater focus on helping you let go of the dieting mindset, and addressing addictive overeating—that gray area that doesn’t feel like a binge, but also does not feel like the way you want to be eating.
[Update: I’ve interviewed the author of Ditching Diets on my podcast: Episode 64: Stop Yo-Yo Dieting and Take Control of Overeating (Video Interview with Gillian Riley), and she has also written a guest blog post: Fasting & Binge Eating: Not So Fast (Post from Gillian Riley)
What I liked best about Ditching Diets was how Gillian drove home the idea that we all have free choice about what and how we eat, and everyone is capable of achieving freedom and peace with food—without solving emotional problems first. But, she also makes it clear that having freedom with food doesn’t mean we’ll just be eating a bunch of junk all the time because we are “free” to do so. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—once we feel our free choice and give up dieting, we will be more likely to make better and healthier choices.
I could relate to so much of what this book talked about, because I’ve experienced it. When I was dieting, I indeed felt deprived when I created a lot of food rules and avoided certain “fattening” foods. My restriction led me to eat much more of the foods I was trying to avoid and led me down the path of binge eating. However, now, I don’t have the same reaction when I choose to avoid an unhealthy food, or when I gave up so many foods while breastfeeding. Without the dieting mindset, passing up a certain type of food doesn’t make me feel like I’m missing out on something great, and doesn’t create powerful cravings. (For more about letting go of the dieting mindset, listen to Episode 48: How Do I Let Go of the Dieting Mentality in Binge Eating Recovery?)
Nourishing and Enjoyable Replacement Foods—Not Perfect Foods
As you may know from my books and other blog posts, I’m far from being a “perfect” eater. Perfect eating doesn’t even exist because nutrition science is constantly expanding and changing. I eat unhealthy foods sometimes, but as Ditching Diets does such a good job of explaining—when there is a strong sense of free choice about how you eat, and you don’t feel out of control—choosing to eat less-than-ideal foods isn’t a problem. It’s simply a choice with certain outcomes you have to be prepared to accept. Yes, I choose convenience over nutrition when my life is busy, and I accept that when I do that, my body isn’t being optimally nourished. I do strive to nourish my body well as much as I can, but it is a balancing act. Everyone must create their own balance, and it never has to be all or nothing. It never has to be perfection or binge. (If you struggle with perfectionism, read my blog post on accepting imperfection in your eating.)
If you are taking on a healthy lifestyle, I think it’s very important to make sure you have enjoyable and nourishing replacements for the foods you are not eating. When you give up a food, you also want to feel like you are giving yourself a food in it’s place—a food (or foods) that you actually like and look forward to eating. Sometimes people forget the “enjoyable” part, and then get trapped in the dieting and deprivation mindset. The goal should be to find foods you take pleasure in eating, and that make you feel good as well. This can take some experimenting. To illustrate this, I’m going to give one example from my own life of a food my family has been trying to eliminate, and how we’ve replaced it:
My kids love waffles (they like peanut butter and maple syrup on them, which I think is a bit odd:-)), and I slowly got into the habit of giving them processed, pre-packaged waffles too often. At the end of my 4th pregnancy and after my son was born, the older 3 kids ate the pre-packaged waffles every single day. I was so exhausted and sleep-deprived that I couldn’t find time or energy for anything better first thing in the morning, and it was the only easy breakfast that all of them liked. Around the end of 2012, my husband and I decided that we’d find a way to make healthy, homemade waffles so our kids could get a better start to their day. We experimented with some recipes and finally found something that worked—using eggs, coconut milk, coconut flour, baking soda, vanilla, cinnamon, and honey. The waffles are delicious! I’ve been making a big batch each week and I freeze them, so that the mornings are just as easy as when we bought the frozen waffles from the store. If you asked my kids, I’m sure they would still say they like the “waffles from the store” better, but they eat up the ones I make too. I know this is a simple example, but I want you to see that there are enjoyable, nourishing, healthier replacements for foods that you want to avoid or need to avoid.
Finally, as a reminder from my last post, try to keep making healthy changes to your eating separate from quitting binge eating. That way, if you choose to eat something like processed waffles one morning, you won’t pay any attention to any thoughts that say, “you’ve already failed, you might as well binge.” When you realize that you can avoid binges no matter what foods you decide to eat, you set yourself up for a lifetime of complete freedom from binge eating.
To jump start your recovery from bulimia or binge eating disorder, you can download my free PDF, The Brain over Binge Basics.
If you want more help in ending the binge eating habit, and more information on issues like the one discussed here, you can learn about the Brain over Binge Course.
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 115 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