I want you to escape the daily pain that bingeing brings. I want you to stop eating in an out-of-control way that makes you feel sick and ashamed. I want you to get your life back, so that you can pursue what is important to you. I also want you to eat in a way that works for you and makes you feel nourished and satisfied.
I do not want you to make it your goal to eat perfectly. I do not want you to think that stopping binge eating also means learning how to stick to a strict eating plan. I do not want you to feel like you have to avoid all unhealthy foods, or say no to yourself every time you want to eat something just for pleasure, or stop acting on all desires for food that is not in line with a certain diet.
My goal is to teach you how to dismiss urges to binge and eat adequately; my goal is not to teach you to how to stick to a diet. This post is inspired by Episode 49 and Episode 12 of my podcast, and I hope it helps clear up the intent of the Brain over Binge approach.
Binge eating recovery includes giving up restrictive dieting
If you are familiar with my blog, podcast, or books, you know about the strategy of dismissing binge urges, which is the practice of separating yourself from the lower brain’s desire to binge (listen to Episode 5), and not acting on the thoughts and feelings that encourage binge eating (listen to Episode 7).
You can also learn more about dismissing urges to binge in my free 30-page guide, the Brain over Binge Basics.
What I teach is for ending binge eating, and although I do believe that similar methods can be used to help with other problematic eating habits, I want to make it clear that the Brain over Binge approach is never about learning how to stick to a restrictive diet. It is never about helping you follow rigid weight-loss plans, or helping you eat less than you physically need—because that would be extremely harmful to your recovery.
A big part of my approach is about helping you give up restrictive dieting and implement nourishing eating habits that work for you. I also believe in learning to allow yourself all types of food in moderation, and avoiding the harmful mindset that can develop when you have “forbidden” foods. (You can learn more about giving up the dieting mentality in Episode 48). I realize that not everyone can eat all types of food due to certain health conditions, so another way of saying this is that I believe in eating in the least restrictive way that’s possible for you.
Dismissing too many eating urges is harmful
Over the years of working with binge eaters, I’ve found that some people want to ignore my advice about eating enough, and only want to focus on dismissing urges—and this does not work and prevents recovery. Some people even want to take it a step further and start dismissing not only binge urges, but urges to eat anything that is not in line with a strict diet plan. When used in this way, dismissing urges becomes a dieting strategy in and of itself, which is the opposite of my intention.
The only way that dismissing binge urges works to get rid of binge eating for good is if you’re also eating adequately. If you are dismissing too many desires to eat, then you’ll remain in a food-deprived, survival-instinct-driven state that fuels binge eating.
Now, I know that creators of some diets or weight loss plans might step in here and argue that their eating plans are adequate and not overly restrictive. It’s possible for that to be true in some cases—meaning that the way of eating required for a certain “diet” actually does meet your physical needs and nourishes you well. But that’s not the type of diet I’m talking about, and it’s also not the issue I’m raising today. This post is about clarifying the intention of the Brain over Binge approach; it’s not about evaluating the merits of each and every diet plan that is out there.
Not sticking to a diet is not binge eating
Even if you could argue that a certain “diet” is technically an adequate and nourishing way to eat, my approach is still not meant to be a way for you to dismiss every urge to veer from that plan. I don’t think it’s necessary to have perfect eating habits, and in many ways, trying to get your eating habits exactly right is counterproductive in recovery. This is why Brain over Binge is not and should not be used as a “how to stick to a diet” strategy—that is contrary to the message I want to send.
Dismissing urges is not a way to avoiding eating any food that’s not “keto,” or “paleo,” or “vegan.” It is not a way to stop eating anything at all when you are fasting, and it is not a way to say no to all processed foods or any foods you think are unhealthy.
Eating sugar is not bingeing, eating carbs is not bingeing, eating meat is not bingeing, eating junk food is not bingeing—unless of course, you are bingeing on these things. Likewise, eating when you think you shouldn’t be eating, or when a diet plan says you shouldn’t be eating is not bingeing—unless of course you are bingeing at those times.
There is certainly value in not acting on all of the food cravings that you have. There are benefits of being able to observe your thoughts about eating and then to choose which thoughts to act on and which to ignore. There are benefits of being able to decide to eat foods that make you feel good. My approach is never about giving up on health. It’s never about eating anything you want, anytime you want, without regard for the effect food has on you. It is absolutely appropriate to not follow your every desire for food.
Furthermore, if there’s a certain way of eating that works well for you and is adequate and satisfying, then it may make sense to dismiss thoughts that cause you to veer too much from that way of eating—and this is especially true if you need to eat a certain way for medical reasons. I realize this may seem like a subtle distinction, but deciding to eat in a specific way to take care of yourself is very different from following a restrictive diet and then trying to dismiss urges to eat anything off of that diet. For example, someone with a dairy sensitivity who chooses to dismiss thoughts of eating dairy is not the same as someone who implements a strict calorie deficit and then tries to dismiss urges to eat any additional calories.
Get rid of the binge problem, don’t aim for perfect eating
To further explain why stopping the binge eating habit does not include learning how to stick to a diet, I’m going to end with an excerpt from the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide (from the Healthy Eating chapter). I hope that reading the following few paragraphs helps you better understand the purpose of the Brain over Binge approach, and the purpose of separating your higher brain from your lower brain—in a way that promotes recovery, not dieting.
“It’s common for binge eaters to mistakenly merge the part of themselves that wants to binge with the part of themselves that wants any unhealthy food. They begin to apply the lower brain/higher brain idea to the consumption of all junk food by viewing their lower brain as their “unhealthy eating” brain and their higher brain as their “healthy eating” brain. I don’t think this is useful, especially when first trying to quit binge eating, because it can lead to an “all or nothing” trap. When you start trying to view all of your cravings for anything unhealthy as neurological junk, it can be overwhelming.
It can lead you to believe that if you follow a desire for a dessert or some processed or convenience food, then your lower brain has already won, so you’ll be primed to believe any thoughts that say you “might as well binge.” You don’t actually have a good brain and a bad brain, because both the lower and the higher brain are necessary for a rich human existence. Your lower brain, with its pleasure centers, is indeed behind most of your junk-food cravings, but everyone has those. The lower brain also causes you to crave and take pleasure in delicious, healthy food as well, as desire for food is rarely a purely rational experience. Recovery is about trying to get rid of the “glitch” in your reward system, not banish the system altogether.
Craving french fries doesn’t make you abnormal or weak, and it certainly doesn’t mean your animal brain controls you. If you choose to follow those brain signals and have the fries, great—enjoy them! If you choose not to, then that’s fine too—have some organic carrot sticks with almond butter instead, and enjoy those! Don’t think that if you choose the french fries, you are giving in to a binge urge. Likewise, don’t think that if you decide on the carrot sticks, depriving yourself of the fries will lead you to binge. It won’t. There will be other opportunities for fries. The methods and advice in this book are for quitting binge eating, not for sticking to very strict, healthy-food-only eating plans and banishing all cravings for anything unhealthy.” (pgs. 262-263)
I encourage you to find a balance in your eating that works for you, but remember, you never have to eat perfectly!
If you want extra guidance in learning how to eat normally, you can get the Brain over Binge Course for $10.99 per month.
I want to address the question of whether or not to keep trigger foods at home while you are trying to stop binge eating. Trigger food is a popular term in eating disorder recovery conversations that usually refers to the foods that tend to make binge eaters feel out of control and binge. If you’ve read Brain over Binge or listened to my podcast, you know that I don’t believe any food can cause binge eating—because the urges to binge are the only direct cause. So, when I refer to trigger foods in this blog post, I mean foods that commonly to lead to your urges to binge, or foods that you typically eat large amounts of when you follow the urges, or foods that are simply linked to binge eating in your mind.
Distancing yourself from trigger foods doesn’t cure binge eating
If keeping trigger foods out of the house was the cure for bingeing, then that would make recovery pretty easy—but if you’re anything like I was as a binge eater, you just find a way to get the food anyway, or find something else to eat too much of. Home isn’t the only place to binge, and trigger foods aren’t the only foods that you binge on. Also, it’s not realistic to expect to be able to control all of the food that comes through your door—because roommates, children, parents, partners, relatives, or friends who share or visit your home also need to eat, and they may have different ideas about what food to have on hand.
Even though keeping trigger foods out of the home is not a cure for binge eating, it’s still one factor to consider when approaching recovery. I believe that it is an individual decision, and there isn’t one right or wrong way. If you think about it, the decision of what foods to have at home is one that all people need to make, even if they don’t have a history of an eating disorder. When you look at this choice as just a basic part of living—something you’ll need to do for the rest of your life—it can take off some of the pressure you may be feeling right now.
Will the trigger foods make me binge more?
I realize that the additional consideration during recovery is that you may be worried that certain foods will lead to increased binges, but if you remember that all the trigger foods can do is lead to increased urges, you take your power back. You give yourself the freedom to choose what foods to have or not have at home, and you can learn to dismiss the urges that are linked to those foods. (If you are new to the concept of dismissing urges, you can get my free eBook, the Brain over Binge Basics to help you get started).
It’s okay if you don’t feel ready to have any and all types of food at home right now, but with time and practice, you can gain confidence that you can be around any food and eat any food—without binge eating. On Episode 76 of the podcast, my guest shared her own experience of reintroducing trigger foods into her life, and I think you will find it helpful.
Food temptation is a universal experience
It also helps to realize that feeling tempted by certain foods at home is common, and although the urges to binge will fade, feeling drawn toward food pleasure will never go away completely. Normal eaters often say that they don’t like to have, for example, a dessert item in the house because they believe they’ll eat too much of it, or they ate too much of it last time it was in the house. The reality is that sometimes it’s just easier for anyone—with or without a binge eating issue—to simply not have something tempting in close proximity, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I explained that these choices extend beyond food, and I drew a comparison to my choice at the time to not buy paper towels, because when I did, I used too many of them. My kids were very young at the time, and made so many messes, and paper towels were way too convenient. If I didn’t have paper towels in the house, I put myself in a situation where I had to take the time to wash rags and keep them ready for use. Now that my kids are older and there aren’t as many spills, I do buy paper towels again, but I don’t overuse them.
Giving up binge eating and dieting makes foods less “triggering”
The paper towel example could also help you see that your decisions about what to keep in the house can change over time, and if you decide to avoid buying a certain trigger food right now, you don’t have to avoid buying it forever. One day, you may decide you want that food in your house again, and you’ll learn to overcome the temptation, or it simply won’t be as appealing to you once your binge eating habit has stopped. Foods that seem so tempting today could become foods you don’t even think about in the future—this is a wonderful benefit of giving up the dieting mindset and learning to eat everything in moderation.
I wrote a detailed post to share how this happened for me regarding my biggest trigger food—sugary cereal—and how I can now have boxes of it in my house and not even want any (read the post: How I Stopped Binge Eating Cereal and Craving it Too). It’s an amazing experience when you first realize your trigger foods are no longer triggering, and that they hold no power over you. It gives you so much freedom to be able to be around any type of food and know it won’t lead to a binge. But, everyone gets there in their own way and on their own timeline, and it’s okay if you’re not there yet.
Just make the best decisions that you can right now as far as what to keep in the house to support yourself in recovery, knowing that you can make adjustments, and add new foods over time. Eventually your urges to binge will fade and go away completely, and all of the things that once triggered them—including certain foods—will no longer lead to urges. You’ll be left with some standard temptation and cravings like all normal eaters, but it will be so much more manageable. You’ll find yourself doing things that you never thought were possible—like forgetting you have leftover cake from a birthday party in your house, or throwing out half of a batch of cookies you baked last week with your kids because you never ate them.
Dismissing urges to buy the binge foods
I want to take a step back and also talk about buying the foods at the store, because that’s ultimately how they get to your home. Even if you make a firm decision about what foods you want to have in your house, and that doesn’t include many of your trigger foods, your lower brain might try to change your mind at the grocery. You might feel urges to buy a lot of binge foods—just in case. This is all part of the habit—you’re simply used to buying them, so habitually, you feel like you need to keep buying them. An example I thought of, which I’ve experienced myself, is a parent whose child gets older and out-grows the baby items that they used to need frequently; but the parent still finds herself automatically going down the baby food or diaper aisle.
You can think of urges you have in the store as just your lower brain telling you what it thinks you need—based on your past shopping and eating behaviors—but now that you have changed, you don’t need to follow those messages anymore. Dismissing urges to buy the binge food is good practice for dismissing urges to actually binge. You don’t have to get upset with your brain for encouraging you to buy certain things, just try to observe your thoughts and gently remind yourself that you no longer binge. You don’t have to tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have certain foods—because you can learn to buy and eat anything you want in moderation, provided there are no allergies or other health issues. However, if you only want to get the food to binge on it, then you can react to the urge to buy it like the parent of an older child would react to an urge to buy baby food—you can just shrug it off, maybe smile a little, and say, “Oh, I don’t actually need that anymore.”
In your case, it might not be that you don’t need any amount of a certain food, but you may simply need much less now that you are eating in a normal way. You don’t want to create a situation where you’re saying no to yourself too often for food you actually like and want in your house. You ultimately want to find a balance of foods that are going to nourish you, and foods that you buy purely for pleasure. Again, this is something you’ll need to do for the rest of your life as part of taking care of yourself and the people who share your home and food.
If you can keep a grateful mindset for all of the food you have the ability to buy and keep in your house, it can help the food feel like a gift instead of something to fear—and this can help your decisions surrounding food feel easier.
If you want more help learning to eat in a normal way and dismissing the binge urges around any food, you can check out the Brain over Binge Course that is now available for a low monthly price.
If you are like most people struggling with binge eating, you probably have questions. The women and men I’ve spoken with over the years—who have read my books or been in my course, or who are new to the brain over binge approach—find it comforting to know that they aren’t the only ones with a certain issue or concern. I’ve noticed common themes in what people have asked me, and I decided that it would be practical and useful to compile and record detailed answers to all of these questions.
This task took me over a year, but when it was complete, I had created 85 Q&A tracks that are now a central part of the newest version of my course, which you can start anytime. I’m adding a new track monthly to continue answering questions, but the course currently has 117 total tracks – plus other resources – to help you stop bingeing. (In total, there is over 1,000 minutes of guidance, tips, information, suggestions, and ideas).
I wanted course users to be able to simply click on a question they have, at any time of day or night, and listen to a thorough response from me. I’ve received extremely positive feedback about these Q&A recordings, but people who are struggling with binge eating disorder or bulimia—and aren’t sure whether or not to sign up for the course—have frequently asked me questions about the questions, wanting to know which topics are discussed.
So, in this blog post, I want to share the entire list of questions that are in the Brain over Binge course (see below). But first, I want to tell you a little more about why I took the time to create the Q&A’ tracks…
I was previously answering these questions frequently in group coaching for binge eating or one-on-one coaching, but I saw room for improvement. I found that I would sometimes inadvertently leave out something I wanted to say, or I found it difficult to give a detailed answer in a short message on a forum or on a time-limited group call when there were many more questions to address. I also realized that a coach’s, counselor’s, or mentor’s time is extremely valuable, and because of that, it’s not financially feasible for everyone to have a personal coach.
I decided that answering these questions in a recorded format could be the next best thing to having a personal coach, and could be much more affordable for people who need guidance.
You definitely can’t put a price on freedom from bulimia and binge eating disorder because it’s worth any amount of money; but the reality is that binge eaters are often also students, parents, or caregivers, and recovery shouldn’t have to be expensive. I wanted to make coaching more accessible in the new version of my course. (The course also includes 15 coaching tracks for encouragement, reinforcement, and motivation. You can listen to a free coaching track at the bottom of the course information page.)
With that being said, here is a list of the questions you’ll receive detailed answers to in the course. Each Q&A track is about 7 or 8 minutes long on average (some are longer, some are shorter).
You can also listen to a free Q&A track (that answers the following question) at the bottom of the course information page:
*Food is constantly in my thoughts. Even if I’m not having urges to binge, I’m incessantly thinking about eating*
How much focus should I put on recovery?
Can you explain more about the word “dismiss”? Is it the same as willpower?
What does “don’t diet” mean?
Should I exercise during recovery?
What if I’m taking medication to try to help me stop binge eating?
I’m having a hard time defining my binges. How can I decide what is a binge and what is not?
I don’t feel like I get urges. My binges feel automatic. How can I dismiss urges if I don’t experience them?
I feel like there are deeper emotional reasons for my urges. What does that mean for recovery?
What do I do about all or nothing thoughts that seem to lead to binge eating?
What if I’m unhappy with my weight during recovery?
What is the purpose of journaling in the Brain over Binge approach?
What is the role of alcohol in binge eating? Should I drink alcohol while trying to recover?
Should I continue therapy?
How do I deal with others who are dieting?
Can you talk more about the lower brain and why it’s not really me, and how to separate from it?
I don’t seem to be able to eat sugar in moderation. Should I give up sugar?
I’m overeating in a way that feels very similar to binge eating. I feel like my overeating is almost as problematic as my binge eating, and it makes me feel out of control.
How can others that I’ve confided in about my binge eating best help me?
How long will it take for my binge urges to go away once I stop acting on them?
Is it okay to do something else during urges or should I avoid distracting myself?
Is it okay to eat or drink while I’m having an urge to binge?
My urge thoughts are compelling and I often end up believing them and acting on them.
What do I do if my urges keep coming back after I dismiss them?
I feel like I can’t allow myself to get excited about dismissing an urge or having another success in recovery.
I’m planning binges in my mind long before I’ll have an opportunity to binge. What do I do about thoughts that come well in advance of a binge?
I’m still reacting strongly to binge urges. The urges make me feel panicked and stressed, and it seems like a binge is the only thing that will calm me down.
Should incorporate mindfulness or meditation into recovery?
I’m having trouble getting past the idea that my binges are enjoyable. Even if I did not have urges, I think I would still choose to binge, if there were no consequences.
My urges get worse when I’m stressed. I know the urges cause the binge eating, but the stress seems to make it so much harder.
I binge more at night more than I do during the day. How do I deal with nighttime urges to binge?
How are binge urges different from the binge triggers that I learned about in traditional therapy?
I only feel good when I’m a certain weight or when I look a certain way.
I’m grazing throughout the day and that’s leading to guilt, and binges.
How can I avoid a fear of relapse?
I do well on days that my life is relatively calm, but when I have a demanding work and family schedule, I find it so hard to dismiss urges.
How do I know if I’m having an urge to binge or if I’m just hungry?
I am working on ending the binge eating habit, but I need to lose weight. How can I lose weight without triggering my survival instincts?
My desire to restrict food feels very strong. How can I overcome this so that I can eat adequately?
I’ll eat dinner or another meal and then I just keep getting more and more food and I often end up bingeing. How do I find a stopping point when I eat?
Is it okay to eat healthy and avoid junk foods during recovery?
I’m having trouble stopping my purging behaviors. How do I deal with urges to purge?
Thoughts of compensating for the binge (by restricting or purging) are encouraging me to binge. How can I deal with these thoughts?
I’ll have a few good days, but then I seem to automatically slip back into restriction and binge eating. How can I have continued success?
How can I handle events where there is a lot of food?
I’m having a lot of trouble recognizing and deciphering my body’s signals of hunger and fullness. What should I do about this?
Fullness makes me feel anxiety and it also seems to triggers urges to binge, or binge and purge. How can I learn to deal with feelings of fullness?
I want to eat based on my hunger, but it often does not fit with my schedule or when my family is eating.
I don’t go into binges with the intention of bingeing. I tell myself I’m just going to have one bite, but then I find myself bingeing.
I fear my hunger. I worry that when I’m hungry, I’ll binge.
Should I incorporate former binge foods into my diet, and how do I go about doing this?
Late in the day, I want the immediate gratification of a binge, and I don’t even care about the consequences. How do I stay motivated at the end of the day?
Can I use a diet like keto, weight watchers, paleo, or intermittent fasting to guide my eating?
I’m bingeing or just eating in the middle of the night. How do I dismiss urges at this time?
I have a lot of anxiety about my weight.
I have a lot of black and white thinking, so I feel like when I don’t restrict, I binge.
I’m mindlessly overeating. How do I stop myself? Should I consider this behavior a type of binge?
I resist the work of recovery. Is it possible that I don’t actually want to quit binge eating?
Should I dismiss my desires to eat emotionally? How does emotional eating affect recovery from binge eating?
I feel like as I try to quit bingeing, my urges get stronger. What can I do about this?
I’ve heard that food addictions can stem from problems with my neurotransmitters. How can I overcome this?
How do I quickly overcome a setback?
How do highly processed foods affect binge eating and recovery?
What if I’m gaining weight during recovery?
How can I learn to accept my body?
I feel like my rational self wants to binge. What do I do when I feel like I’m choosing to binge?
Should I make a big resolution to never binge again? Or, should I just aim to reduce or delay binges and accept that slips are part of recovery?
I get more urges during PMS or when I’m feeling off hormonally or physically. What can I do about this?
My most convincing thought says it won’t hurt to binge “one last time.” How can I get past this thought?
Can I dismiss any thought that’s harmful to my recovery?
After stopping the binge eating habit, I’m having other obsessive thoughts and also regrets about the time I lost to binge eating problems.
I clear my plate every time, even if I feel full. How do I learn to put the fork down when I’m full?
I’m eating less than the calorie recommendation of the Brain over Binge approach. Is this okay provided I’m not feeling restricted? Also, if I’m counting my calories to make sure I’m eating adequately, how long do I need to do this?
I stopped bingeing and purging (in the form of vomiting). I thought I would feel great and healthy, but I feel less energetic, fuzzy, and bloated. Will I feel better over time, or is this the new normal I should expect?
I feel in control and successful when I restrict, and I feel guilty and fat when I try to eat adequately, which usually leads me to just giving up and bingeing.
Will there be a point when I can consider myself healed, or do I need to constantly work on recovery? What are my chances of relapsing?
When I binge, I feel like I might be subconsciously self-sabotaging my recovery. Is it possible that I’m continuing to binge because I think I don’t deserve recovery?
Can I do a gentle diet for health reasons? For example, a weight loss eating plan crafted by a nutritionist to make sure I’m not hungry.
When I want a dessert or sweets or to snack when I’m not hungry, I don’t know if it’s me or my lower brain that wants it. How can I tell which cravings to follow and which ones not to follow?
How do I deal with others who are giving me bad advice, eating in front of me in ways that are not helpful, or constantly offering me food?
During the urge to binge, I’m telling myself “No, I don’t want to binge, “ or I’m telling myself “This is just an urge from my lower brain,” or “A binge is not an option,” or “The urge has no power to make me act.” Is it wrong to do this? When I tell myself things like this, does it mean I’m fighting the urge?
I’m having trouble finding things to do instead of binge. What are some ideas of alternative activities?
I know that dieting can lead to the initial development of binge eating, but can problematic cravings also lead to the development of bingeing?
What if I need to gain weight after stopping the habit?
If you are ready to stop binge eating, you can check out the new course subscription, which gives you access to the entire course for only $10.99 per month.
It seems that fasting has become the new standard of dieting, and also a central focus of the health community as well. Like most diets, it’s presented as the answer (or at least a partial solution) to many health and weight issues, and even as a potential solution for binge eating. I’m sure you know more than one person in your life who is on a fasting-type diet. I also know that fasting can be portrayed as “not a diet at all,” but as a lifestyle and way of eating that’s “more in line with how our bodies are designed.” These are complex issues, and although I would not make an overarching statement that binge eaters or recovered binge eaters can never fast under any circumstances, I think there are many compelling reasons not to.
I get a lot of questions about fasting and binge eating recovery, so I want to share a guest post from Gillian Riley, who has great advice on this topic. Gillian is the author of Ditching Diets, which I recommend on the FAQ page of this website, and I also cited Gillian’s work in my second book, the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. You can read more about Gillian Riley in her bio at the end of this post. As you read, know that Gillian doesn’t write specifically for binge eaters, but for anyone who struggles with poor eating habits, yo-yo dieting, and overeating. However, what she says is also applicable to those of you who binge, and I hope you find her well-informed guest post helpful.
NOT SO FAST (by Gillian Riley)
When it was published in 2013, I bought a copy of the bestseller The Fast Diet to see what it was all about. In case you don’t know, it was published as a result of the interest in the BBC Horizon documentary about Intermittent Fasting (IF), written by the program presenter Dr Michael Mosley and journalist Mimi Spencer.
I believe that fasting is beneficial, but not necessarily advisable for everyone, so I wanted to read the book to discover new information and research, but also, I was curious to see if it contained any words of caution. There are words of caution about fasting; a paragraph on page 124 warns those with Type 1 diabetes not too fast, those with an eating disorder, children, and those who are already very slim. And anyone with any medical condition should consult a doctor first.
If you bought a copy of my book, Eating Less, between 1998 and the first half of 2005, you’ve got an edition that contains a chapter on fasting once a week. As well as instructions on how to fast in a non-addictive way, I describe some good reasons not too fast. In later editions, I took out all mention of fasting, partly because people weren’t paying any attention to those reasons. Perhaps it’s time now to put them back in (if I could) but here’s how they appeared in those first editions of Eating Less:
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you are desperate to lose weight, or if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you have a tendency to overeat either before or after a fast.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you go on a fast as a way to take control of your overeating.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you are not in the best of health, if you’re coming down with an illness or recovering from one, or if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you don’t normally eat a high-quality diet at other times.
This has some similarity with Mosley and Spencer’s cautions, but also some differences. In particular, my caution not to fast if you don’t normally eat high-quality food would seem to contradict their advice to “eat what you like most of the time”. However, Mosley and Spencer say,
“You could pig out on your non-fast days…but you won’t do that. In all likelihood, you’ll remain gently, intuitively attentive to your calorie intake, almost without noticing. Similarly, you may find yourself naturally favouring healthier foods once your palate is modified by your occasional fasts. So yes, eat freely, forbid nothing, but trust your body to say ‘when’.”
So they seem to be saying that it’s fine to eat anything at all on non-fast days, but once you’ve started fasting you’ll end up eating healthy food anyway.
Now, I’m a great advocate of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach to everything, so if IF works for you, that’s wonderful. But all too often people struggle with such advice – and they blame themselves. They conclude, “for everybody else, fasting two days a week is not only fairly straightforward, but also sorts out all the rest of their crazy eating on the other five days. What’s wrong with me that I can’t even begin to do this?”
Maybe it’s not that fasting isn’t a good idea, but that there are other important steps for you to take first. To return to my cautions:
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you are desperate to lose weight, or if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia. Note that both authors of The Fast Diet took on fasting entirely for health reasons. The health benefits of fasting – such as dipping into ketosis from time to time and the fascinating process of autophagy – are well established (1, 2). There’s also impressive research showing a beneficial impact on brain health (3). But Mosley and Spencer seem oblivious to the fact that many people will be motivated to fast primarily to improve their appearance, and this makes a massive difference.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you have a tendency to overeat either before or after a fast – and – It’s not a good idea to fast if you go on a fast as a way to take control of your overeating. It’s clear that neither of the authors have ever had an addictive relationship with food – what many people call ‘food issues’. The research they cite on the success of IF from the University of Chicago studied just 16 obese people over 10 weeks. (4) I’m sure you know of people who complied with various protocols for at least 10 weeks and then regained their weight in the longer term. They were able to ‘be good’ and ‘follow the rules’ for a while, but this simply doesn’t last for the majority. I’m not saying that fasting is a bad idea; I’m saying it might not provide a complete and permanent solution for everyone who generally overeats.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you are not in the best of health, if you’re coming down with an illness or recovering from one, or if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia. I’m no expert on these health issues, but I’m not at all sure that fasting is good for those with Type 2 diabetes and especially hypoglycemia. This is why those with diabetes are exempt from fasting on religious occasions such as Ramadan.
- It’s not a good idea to fast if you don’t normally eat a high-quality diet at other times. This of course depends on what you call a high-quality diet, but my view would be low on the starchy carbohydrates such as grain-based foods and sugars. It’s important for your body to be very well nourished through eating the most nutrient-dense foods, so that it doesn’t go into ‘scarcity mode’ during a fast. In addition, fasting works much better in every way if your body has developed the ability to burn fat for energy, rather than only carbohydrate. If you normally burn only carbohydrate, you may struggle much more with hunger and low energy during a fast. (5)
I’ll add that if you exercise a great deal, if you regularly sleep badly, and/or if you are under quite a bit of stress, these also mean that fasting may not be right for you at the present time.
I suspect all this is sounding a bit negative, and the last thing I want to do is to dissuade you from fasting if it’s going to work for you. By all means give it a try. Notice and manage your addictive desire to eat and you can certainly find that it fits in very well with everything you’ve learned in my books and webinars.
The Fast Diet does advise against fasting for those with an eating disorder, and I agree with this. I’d take it further, though, because there are a great many people who have a tendency towards disordered eating who would do well to sort that out first, before considering a fast of any kind.
Gillian Riley is an author and webinar host who has been teaching her course on “Taking Control of Overeating” since 1997, at first in groups in London, England, and for the past three years online.
Her clients describe themselves as yo-yo dieters or ex-dieters. Instead of recommending what, how much and when to eat, Gillian teaches how to develop an entirely new attitude towards food, eating and weight loss. This way of thinking turns the diet mentality on its head, leading to a sustainable control of overeating.
Details on her free introductory webinars and one-week free trial of the membership site – starting January 26, 2020 – can be found at: https://eatinglessonline.com
1. “Targeting insulin inhibition as a metabolic therapy in advanced cancer.” Fine EJ, Segal-Isaacson CJ et al (2012) Nutrition 28(10):1028-35
2. “The effects of calorie restriction on autophagy.” Chung KW, Chung HY (2019) Nutrients Dec 2;11(12)
3. “Meal size and frequency affect neuronal plasticity and vulnerability to disease: cellular and molecular mechanisms.” Mattson MP, Duan W, Guo Z (2003) Journal of Neurochemistry 84(3):417-31
4. “Dietary and physical activity adaptations to alternate day modified fasting: implications for optimal weight loss.” Klempel MC, Bhutani S et al (2010) Nutrition Journal 9:35
5. “Effects of a high-protein ketogenic diet on hunger, appetite, and weight loss in obese men feeding ad libitum.” Johnstone AM, Horgan GW et al (2008) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87:44-55
I also did a video podcast episode with Gillian Riley (Episode 64: Stop Yo-Yo Dieting and Take Control of Overeating) where we discussed many topics related to developing a healthy relationship with food:
Watch the video interview with Gillian Riley on Youtube
Listen to the audio-only version on the Brain over Binge Podcast