I want to give you 5 tips for incorporating exercise in a healthy way during binge eating recovery and beyond. If you have a history of using exercise to purge or to try to control your weight in a way that is harmful to your body, you may feel confused about how to exercise now that you are focused on being free of the struggle with food. My goal is to help you learn to exercise in a way that benefits you, and doesn’t cause any physical, mental, or emotional harm.
[Before reading this, know that you should get your doctor’s approval for any exercise routines that you’re incorporating into your life.]
Tip 1: Ask yourself: Is my exercise an unhealthy compulsion or a healthy habit?
It’s important to make this distinction because even healthy habits have some similarities to unhealthy compulsions. When you develop a healthy habitual behavior, you will have urges to perform that behavior (for example, you feel compelled to brush your teeth). It’s okay to feel driven toward something that’s healthy for you, and this includes feeling driven toward exercise. I want you to look at your desire to exercise and ask yourself: Is my brain encouraging me toward something beneficial (as a healthy habit) or something harmful (as an unhealthy compulsion)?
You may find it difficult not to exercise, but that doesn’t always mean it’s an unhealthy compulsion. However, if you feel you absolutely have to exercise even when you are extremely tired, sick, or injured for example, then this is clearly in the territory of an unhealthy compulsion. Just do some self-observation and self-reflection and see if you can sense the difference when it comes to your own exercise. Here are some additional questions you can ask yourself to gain clarity:
Are my exercise patterns taking over my life?
Do my exercise patterns prevent me from doing other things that I want to do?
Does my exercise take up too much time that I’d rather be spending elsewhere?
Does my exercise take me away from my relationships or my family and friends too much?
Does thinking about exercise take up too much of my mental space?
If you feel like your exercise is an unhealthy compulsion, it doesn’t mean you have to completely give it up. It means you need to alter your routines and mindset to bring it back into the healthy-habit category.
Tip 2: Use exercise as just one tool in managing your health.
Exercise is just one single aspect of your overall health, and there are so many other things to consider. This is not to overwhelm you, but to help you reduce any overemphasis you may be putting on exercise. When you think about the other factors that can affect health and weight (for example: stress, sleep, relationships, career, eating, mood, environment), it makes you realize that you don’t need to obsess about any one factor, but instead work toward a balance.
There has been a pervasive cultural idea that weight results from an overly simplistic equation of calories in – calories out. When you operate on this assumption, it can make exercise seem vitally important as half of that equation. But it’s been proven by now that our bodies, weight, and metabolism are much more complex than that. Nevertheless, when you try to use exercise as a way to “burn calories” to try to control weight, you can get in a mental rut of calculating calories in/calories out, and this obsessive mindset takes any joy and stress-relief out of exercise.
However, when you stop using exercise to “offset” your eating, you can return it to its proper place in your life—as just one factor in maintaining overall health. And a healthy body can much more easily arrive at and maintain a weight that is natural and normal, and that weight is unique to each person.
Tip 3: Don’t use exercise to “compensate”
You may be in the habit of overexercising after binge eating or after eating what you think is too much. I don’t want you to criticize yourself for that, but it’s important to move away from using exercise as a compensatory behavior. Sometimes our bodies may naturally compensate, meaning that when we eat more, we may end up with some extra energy and a desire to move more, and that’s okay. But, when we’re not listening to our bodies, but instead to a harsh mindset that says we must “undo the damage of eating,” then we are going down a dangerous path.
You’ve likely trained yourself to have an urge to overexercise after overeating or binge eating, but you no longer have to follow that unhealthy urge. You can take a step back and realize you don’t have to be driven by those old habitual patterns.
Tip 4: Eat enough to support your exercise
You don’t need to do any obsessive tracking of your food intake, but if you are exercising, you can’t eat as if you’re not exercising. Exercise naturally increases hunger and our fuel requirements, and you never want to ignore that.
Don’t try to get by with as little food as possible; instead, give yourself plentiful proteins, healthy fats, and goods quality carbohydrates, as well as any other foods you enjoy. Do your best to nourish yourself to support whatever exercise routine you’re doing. Eating adequately is a big part of the Brain over Binge approach, and when you consider what eating adequately means to you, it’s important to take your exercise routine into account.
Tip 5: Don’t compare yourself to others
Try to find your own balance and what works for you. There is not only one right way when it comes to exercise, and the amount that works for you will depend on factors like age and lifestyle. Think about how different exercises, in different amounts and intensities, make you feel—without worrying about what other people are doing or promoting. It’s about tuning in to your own body and also knowing your own unique circumstances.
That being said, I think there are also some objective and common-sense standards of what is “too much” exercise. For example, in Brain over Binge, when I talk about how I exercised for three to seven hours on the days after binges, anyone would look at that and agree that is unhealthy and out of the range of normal. If your exercise amount is more of a gray area, try thinking about it as if someone you love was doing that amount of exercise. Would you think it is too much? Would you tell them that you believe it is unhealthy? While avoiding comparison, try to start treating yourself with the same compassion and kindness you would give to someone else. Engage in some honest self-observation and self-reflection when deciding what works for you, knowing that you can always adjust if necessary.
I hope these 5 tips will give the simple guidance you need to start using exercise as self-care, and not self-punishment.
If you want extra guidance as you learn to develop a healthy relationship with exercise, food, and weight, here are some resources for additional support:
Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $18.99/month. Includes over 125 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating.
Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, weekly group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.
One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private session with coach Julie. She will help you change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.
As you work on ending binge eating, do you find yourself saying, I don’t know how to eat? Feeling confused about how to approach normal eating might create overwhelm and cause you to want to give up on recovery. Today, I’m going to talk about dropping the I don’t know thoughts around food. I want to help you stop telling yourself that you don’t know how to make eating choices, and help you start feeling more confident in your food decisions.
Why It Feels Like You Don’t Know How to Eat in Binge Eating Recovery
The I don’t know how to eat thoughts likely seem very believable and true right now, but you can learn to overcome them. It’s necessary to overcome them because you will need the essential ability to make food choices throughout your life. Deciding what, when, how, and where to eat is something you will always need to do many times every day. It’s completely understandable if that feels impossible right now, because eating likely has not come naturally to you for a long time. You’ve probably spent months, years, or even decades not only binge eating, but also trying to follow certain diets, or meal plans, or fasting regimens, or specific food rules or requirements.
Restrictive dieting and binge eating can definitely make you lose touch with your innate ability to simply make food decisions that feel right in the moment and then move on with your life. If you’ve followed my blog or podcast, or read my books, you know that in order to recover from binge eating, it’s vital to give up restrictive dieting. However, when you do this and no longer have a “diet” to follow, it can lead to you feeling lost. You may sit down at meals and wonder how much is “normal” or how much is too much, or you may overthink your body’s signals of hunger and fullness. You may worry about certain foods making you gain weight or worry that certain foods might lead to urges to binge. You may even be concerned if you choose healthy foods or turn down unhealthy foods because you want to make sure you’re not depriving yourself. You may feel uneasy about what you see other people eating or not eating, and you may think you simply don’t know when to say yes to food and when to say no.
Added to that, you’ve likely heard a lot of advice about how you should be eating in order to recover from binge eating. There are many different philosophies out there from recovery advocates, and those philosophies don’t always agree. For example, some say that you need to eliminate sugar or other “addicting” foods to recover, and some say you must learn to eat those very same foods in moderation in order to truly recover. The reality is that there is no one right way to eat, but if you’ve spent any amount of time believing in one philosophy, it can be difficult to let it go. You may find yourself questioning if you should be eating completely intuitively, or if you should be measuring your food (or counting your servings or calories) to make sure that you’re getting enough, or if you should be avoiding any sort of measurement or calorie counting. You may question whether you should have a more structured meal plan or eat in a more flexible way, or if you should allow all types of foods, or avoid some specific foods while you get the binge eating habit under control.
Not only do you have this confusion about normal eating, but you also have the reality of dealing with the urges to binge and breaking the binge eating habit itself. (If you are new here, you can get started with breaking the habit by downloading my free PDF, “The Brain over Binge Basics”).
In times of confusion, a very common pattern is for the I don’t know how to eat thoughts to lead to thoughts that say I can’t possibly figure out how to eat, to lead to thoughts that say well, I might as well binge. It’s as if that primitive, habitual part of your brain automatically offers binge eating as a “solution” to not knowing what or how to eat. The binge-encouraging thoughts basically tell you to give up on even trying to determine how to eat and to instead just eat anything and everything. This is a common lower-brain tactic—using a circumstance surrounding food, or a circumstance in your life to rationalize bingeing. My goal is to help you stop believing that there is ever a reason to binge. I know that when you are not experiencing a desire to binge, you can look at this rationalization and see that it simply makes no sense to binge in response to feeling like you don’t know how to eat.
If there is one thing you do know about eating—without any doubt—it’s that binge eating is not how to eat.
Even if you genuinely feel confused about your food choices, it’s very powerful to realize that there is zero confusion surrounding binge eating—it is extremely harmful to you, and any thought that says it “makes sense” to binge because you don’t know exactly how to eat is absolutely false. You know that a binge is not a good food decision, so start there, and then any food decision you make will be a step in the right direction.
How to Eliminate the I Don’t Know How to Eat Thoughts
Now let’s move on to helping you learn to make food decisions and eliminate the I don’t know thoughts around food. I want you to take a step back and look at food decisions from a bigger picture perspective and realize that it’s a modern thing to have confusion about what or how to eat. In the ancient past, it was simply about what was available, and a lot of times it was simply about survival. Still today, if your situation was completely different—for example if you lived somewhere else or if a natural disaster happened—and food was not plentiful, it would also be about availability and survival.
I mentioned this in Brain over Binge, but as an example from my own life, I think back to going home to the New Orleans area after hurricane Katrina in 2005 to help my family, and food was not readily available, as there were no functioning grocery stores or restaurants for many miles. There were some wonderful volunteers and organizations that provided free meals, and in this situation, there were no food decisions to be made. We ate what we were so graciously provided. You may be able to find related examples in your own life, when there were simply no choices, and when there wasn’t any self-doubt about food. I think it’s helpful to remember that you have that ability inside of yourself to eat without confusion. It may only come out in certain situations, but it is there. The problem is that all of the food options available in your life today and all of the advice that you’ve heard over time is getting in the way of this ability to simply eat.
I’m not saying that plentiful choices are to blame, or that the solution is to avoid giving yourself options. I believe the solution is in your own thinking. You can have many choices, and still have a mindset that does not promote self-doubt and confusion. You can learn to make decisions and move on, for example, like when you were a child—think back to when you were outside playing and you got hungry and therefore came inside to eat. You likely just picked out something quickly, ate to satisfy your hunger (and enjoyed the food), and then got back to playing without any overthinking whatsoever.
I realize that, as a child, you may not have always made great choices about what to eat. Kids tend to be very pleasure-seeking, and it may have been the cookies that were most appealing to you. Your choices as an adult will be different of course, but you can still approach those choices with the same certainty and confidence, and then you can get back to living afterward. The difference between you now and the child in my example is that you started having I don’t know thoughts. Even if you can’t relate to this example and you think there was never a time in your life when you had the inherent ability to make food decisions, I want you to think about the multitude of other decisions that you’re able to make in your life that don’t have anything to do with food. You make decisions at work, in your education, about your kids, your relationships, your home, and even about mundane everyday choices that come with functioning in the world. Even if you need some practice in the area of food decisions, you can learn from your ability to choose in other parts of your life.
When you start to hear those I don’t know thoughts, I want you to just acknowledge them; but tell yourself that you’re going to make a decision anyway. Also remind yourself that any decision you make is much better than deciding to binge, and any decision is also better than staying stuck in indecision. You basically want to start exercising your decision-making muscle, even if it feels weak right now. Gently challenge yourself to choose what you are going to eat, fully acknowledging that there is no “right” choice, and that you’re simply doing the best you can in the moment. Tell yourself that at your next meal or snack, you may choose differently, and that’s okay. Tell yourself that this is just one food decision of countless food decisions that you’ll make throughout your life and that it does not have to be perfect. Aim for decisions that feel good enough. Tell yourself that you’re simply going to choose, you’re going to eat, and then you’re going to move on.
This does not mean you’ll just be choosing on a whim all of the time, although you certainly can. I know you’re an intelligent person who knows a lot about yourself and who also knows a lot about nutrition. You can take that into account, and also consider the situation when making a choice. For example, you may make some food decisions simply for convenience because that’s what you need in your life at that time, and that’s okay. That may mean you’ll be eating less-healthy foods in those moments, but you have other priorities in your life, and there is no need to feel guilty about that. At other times, you may decide to spend the extra time or money to give yourself more nourishing foods, because that’s what you feel is best at that point, and that’s okay too.
As you make decisions that feel good enough, you can get feedback from your body, and you can make adjustments over time—without all of the self-doubt. If you like your reasons for your food decisions, that’s all that matters. When you know there is not some “ideal” way to eat that’s out there somewhere, it’s easier to deal with the daily reality of making everyday choices. Your choices teach you things that you can use to improve your decision-making abilities in the future. In other words, you learn from every decision that you make.
After you make any decision about food, and eat the food, it’s helpful to redirect your focus onto something else in your life. Think again about the child who gets back to playing after stopping to refuel. Redirecting helps train your brain to see that eating is just eating, and it does not have to consume so much of your brain space. The more you practice deciding imperfectly, and the more you stop giving attention to the thoughts that say you don’t know, the more confident you will become at choosing the foods, and the amounts, and the eating times that feel right for you. Then, those I don’t know thoughts can simply fade away.
You can find a deeper discussion of this topic in the Brain over Binge course, in the Q&A track titled “I feel like I don’t know how to eat.” The course is only $18.99 per month (cancel anytime) and includes over 90 Q&A tracks, 8 extensive lessons, worksheets, and other resources.