Binge eating at night and late night cravings

Binge Eating at Night and Late-Night Cravings

It’s common for binge eaters to primarily binge at night; and even after binge eating stops, you may still find yourself having late-night food cravings. Some people are bothered by these cravings, and wonder if giving in to them means that they are overindulging; or conversely, if ignoring those cravings means that they are being too restrictive. Everyone has to navigate the balance between restriction and overindulging, and at night is when we usually have the most opportunities to do that. Most people don’t get up in the morning craving a piece of cake, but after the work of the day is done, that piece of cake may seem much more appealing.

An important thing to know as a recovering binge eater—or anyone who feels like they eat too much at night—is that night food cravings are very common. One study found that appetite and interest in food peaks at around 8 pm, as part of our natural circadian rhythm. So, when you find yourself craving a sugary snack after dinner or after dark, know that you are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you. There are many theories as to why this is so, and you can read about some of them in this article: The Science of the Midnight Snack. From an evolutionary perspective, night eating had a survival advantage in that it helped our ancestors store calories more efficiently when food was less abundant. Even today, we live in a sort of “hunting” mode during the day—working, moving, and doing—and once we slow down at night, our survival mechanisms recognize this and give us a “time to eat!” signal. It’s as if we are wired to want to eat more at night to replenish the energy stores we lost during the day, and store up more for tomorrow.

We tend to crave sweets at night not only to replenish and store up energy, but for quick energy in the moment. At night we are tired and our brains are energy depleted. If we choose to stay awake or have to stay awake, our brains will naturally view sugary food as attractive and rewarding because it is a source of quick energy. Sure, a banana would do the trick, but for most people, that’s not what is the most appealing after dark. Our self-control functions are at their weakest when we are exhausted, so it’s no wonder that many people don’t make their healthiest food choices at night.

For people struggling with binge eating, these natural mechanisms can make them more likely to experience (and give in to) urges to binge at night; or their decision to follow a night craving leads to thoughts that say: “I’ve already blown it, so I might as well binge.” Instead of learning of the normalcy of late-night cravings, binge eaters often learn that wanting to eat at night is a signal that they aren’t emotionally fulfilled, or that their day was too stressful, or that they didn’t eat the right foods for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. While stress, sleep, and diet patterns certainly can play a role in the frequency and intensity of night cravings, realizing that this type of heightened interest in food—especially junk food—is normal may help you spend less time asking why, and instead focus on some useful strategies to manage the night cravings when they occur.

Common advice for dealing with night eating is to keep healthier food options in the house, make sure you are eating enough throughout the day, eat dinner a bit later, do some light exercise at night, stay hydrated, make plans for when cravings hit, or just go to bed earlier. These common suggestions are certainly useful, but I want to go beyond that and give you 4 more things to think about when night cravings hit. These 4 tips can be helpful whether you are still binge eating at night or if you simply feel like you are eating too much after dark.

1: Stop Telling Yourself You Shouldn’t Eat at Night

We’ve all heard the popular advice that eating late leads to more weight gain, but this idea is actually rather controversial. While some experts say that the body doesn’t process and use food and calories well at night, so night eating can lead to weight gain, others claim that eating late at night is actually better for fat loss. Here is an article that says overall food intake matters more than timing, and it’s possible that the any observed link between late night eating and weight gain is not a causal relationship.

It’s important not to take all weight loss advice at face value and use it to make rigid rules for yourself. Telling yourself, “It’s late, I shouldn’t eat anything” can lead you to want to eat more—because anything that is forbidden in your mind becomes more appealing. You have freedom to eat at night if you want to, and only you can make that choice. I frequently have a snack before bed, and I’ve also eaten in the middle of the night from time to time since I recovered from binge eating. I’ve struggled with insomnia at various points, and during those sleepless nights, I’d eat about every 2 to 3 hours. I didn’t plan the intervals—that’s just when my body would naturally signal hunger. I’ve also been awake all night countless times with my babies, and I’ve spent long nights writing; and again, I eat when I’m hungry. The reason most people don’t eat in the middle of the night is because they are sleeping, not because they are telling themselves that they “shouldn’t”. If you are awake for one reason or another, don’t beat yourself up for being hungry and having some food.

2: Enjoy Your Late Night Snack

If you decide to eat something at night—either before bed or if you wake up in the middle of the night—don’t do it in a guilt-ridden way. Own your choice and enjoy the food. It sometimes helps people to put the food on a plate and sit down to eat, instead of standing at the refrigerator.  This makes your choice to eat feel more like a well-thought out decision instead of an impulsive one.

When I was in therapy for bulimia and binge eating disorder, I worked with a nutritionist who created a meal plan for me. She spread out my calories evenly during the day, which is fine; but it didn’t quite feel right to me and now I understand why. I didn’t find myself wanting a big breakfast or lunch, and found myself basically forcing in the food. Then, I’d come to the end of the day not feeling like my dinner or bedtime snack was big enough. I’d become frustrated and resentful; and if I decided to eat something extra late at night, I’d feel so guilty that I wouldn’t truly enjoy it. This mindset often led directly to urges to binge at night, and I’d proceed to eat thousands more calories after my snack. My therapist explained that this night binge eating pattern stemmed from emotional issues.

Now, looking back, I can see that I simply needed more calories at night. I was an athlete at the time, and big meals during the day weren’t practical because they made me feel sluggish and full for track practice—which was usually twice per day. I needed more at night because that’s when my body signaled me to replenish my energy reserves. Altering my eating plan wouldn’t have stopped my binge eating (because I didn’t know how to dismiss the binge urges at the time), but there was simply no need for me to beat myself up over wanting to eat more at night. I should have eaten a little less during the day to fit my lifestyle, and then enjoyed a larger dinner and bedtime snack, without all the shame. Everyone has different patterns, so trust yourself to settle on eating times and amounts that work for you.

[If you feel like you need one-on-one support in creating a meal plan for yourself and nourishing your body during and after bulimia/binge eating recovery, Binge Code Coaching specializes in this.] 

3: Deal with Blood Sugar Fluctuations

If you are waking out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night feeling hungry, it could be a blood sugar imbalance. Of course, if you have any blood sugar problems, you should always seek a doctor’s advice. Here I’m talking about a simple dip in blood sugar that is making you feel like you need to eat something. You can try sipping some diluted juice before eating to take the edge off of the craving, and that has the added benefit of hydrating you—to ensure your craving isn’t partially due to thirst.

Then, if you are still feeling hungry, you will be in a less ravenous state and you can make a more rational decision about what to eat. I realize you don’t want to do this every night because it interrupts sleep, so as a long term strategy, you’ll want to balance blood sugar overall, and you can get nutritional support to do that. Some people find it helpful to eat something right before bed that will help regulate blood sugar—including protein, healthy fat, and possibly some high quality carbohydrates.

4: Use Detachment from Cravings in Conjunction with Other Strategies

Even if you stop binge eating at night, you might find that your night cravings still feel problematic. You can be confident that you never have a follow a night craving (or any craving) with a binge, but it makes sense to start addressing the night cravings. These type of cravings are more common if you are overtired, overworked, or overstressed, so working on those areas can often tweak your physiology enough to reduce nighttime cravings. Meditation, exercise, and supplements may also have a place in balancing your body. However, there will inevitably be times when life is rough, and stress is inevitable, or there is no time to meditate or exercise, or you have no extra money for supplements.  That’s why it’s important to know that you aren’t powerless when it comes to any type of craving.

Yes, it’s normal to have night cravings; yes, it’s okay to follow them; and yes, it’s great to enjoy whatever food you choose to eat at night—but you are still capable of a drawing a line when enough is enough, or deciding to simply say no. You can detach from night cravings just like you detach from binge urges. You can choose not to act on a night craving just like you choose not to act on an urge to binge. You don’t ever need to make night eating off-limits, but know that you get to decide the place that night eating has in your life.

For more help with ending binge eating at night (or at any time of day), you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF, or learn more about my Course.

Intuitive eating for binge eating

Is Intuitive Eating a Remedy for Binge Eating?

If you’re a binge eater trying to recover, you’ve likely come across the term “intuitive eating.” It has become a common term that refers to tuning in to your own body and hunger signals to guide your food choices. The philosophy of intuitive eating was originally developed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, and detailed in their book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works (1995).  I began struggling with binge eating in 1999, and definitely remember hearing about intuitive eating as a potential cure or remedy for binge eating. I didn’t specifically read the Intuitive Eating book at the time, but I found information saying that if I learned to tune into my own body, then I would no longer need to question what I needed or eat or how much I needed to eat, and my desire to binge would also go away.

It’s important for you to know that Tribole and Resch do not present Intuitive Eating as the cure for binge eating. However, intuitive eating is talked about so much in the eating disorder community, and it’s easy to get that message from other sources.  I remember thinking that if I could just get better at listening to my body, then surely it would not tell me to binge. Unfortunately, it seemed like no matter how hard I tried to become an intuitive eater, it wasn’t useful for stopping my binge eating.

Can Intuitive Eating Help in Binge Eating Recovery?

This is not to say that intuitive eating isn’t useful, but I think it’s extremely difficult to tune into your body and decipher it’s signals when it’s signals are so mixed up by binge eating—and possibly restrictive dieting and purging as well. It was so frustrating to try to listen to my body when my body and brain seemed determined to drive me toward massive amounts of junk food. I often wondered if binge eating was what my body intuitively wanted. (I wrote an entire post about feeling like you want to binge)

In the basic theory of eating intuitively, your body knows what foods are best for you, and how much you need to eat; and if you can just learn to follow that inner guidance, you’ll be able to eat in a natural way and effortlessly maintain a healthy weight for your unique body. Intuitive eating is basically about trusting your body’s innate wisdom. It involves following your tastes and cravings, but it’s not just about eating what you desire in the moment. It’s also about being connected to how certain foods make you feel, and making food choices based on how you want to feel. The result of intuitive eating should be a healthy diet that fits your lifestyle and fuels your body in the best way possible.

Intuitive eating does work for some people, even binge eaters—especially in the area of giving up the dieting mentality and food rules. There is certainly value in the philosophy of using your body’s innate wisdom rather than following a strict food plan.

Intuitive eating can be helpful—not as the cure for binge eating—but as a way to guide you in learning to eat enough and nourish yourself, provided the philosophy is understood properly. It’s mistaken to simply think of intuitive eating as an “eat whatever you want, whenever you want, for the rest of your life,” which it is often (wrongly) interpreted to be.

Intuitive Eating Presents Unique Challenges for Binge Eaters

It’s also important to be aware of some challenges that you may face as a binge eater trying to learn to eat intuitively. As I’ve alluded to based on my own experience—hunger and fullness, as well as food preferences and cravings, aren’t usually very reliable after prolonged periods of binge eating, overeating, dieting, and/or purging. Stomach stretching from large food quantities, “addiction” to certain foods, digestive problems, and other physiological imbalances caused from harmful eating behaviors can seem to dim your intuition, or make you feel out of touch with any sort of innate wisdom surrounding food.

For example, you may feel like you never truly feel full after eating—unless you binge. Or you may try to follow your taste preferences, but you only seem to crave the sugary and processed food that you binge on. Or you may fear your body’s signals of hunger because you’ve lost trust in your ability to control yourself around food (for more on this, you can listen to Episode 62: Fear of Hunger in Binge Eating Recovery).

In today’s food environment, intuitive eating can be a challenge even for non-binge eaters. Many of our modern processed and convenience foods can make the body’s natural hunger and satiety mechanisms less effective. I don’t think the appetite is 100 percent reliable for most people, which is why we also need to use our higher brain when making food choices, and you can read this post for more: Listen to Your Body?.

If you want to continue exploring this topic, and understand the challenges of using intuitive eating as you recover from bulimia and binge eating disorder, here are a few resources for you:

Brain over Binge Podcast Episode 16: Eating Intuitively: Is it Right for You in Recovery from Binge Eating?

Gillian Riley, who wrote a guest post on my blog and did an interview on my podcast, has a free e-book: What is Wrong with Intuitive Eating? on her website. The e-book is a great summary of some of the challenges of using your intuition to guide food choices.

Ditch Diets (Eliminating foods in binge eating recovery)

Ditch Diets & Focus on Nourishing and Enjoyable Foods

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.

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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.

eliminating foods binge eating

Eliminating Foods in Binge Eating Recovery, Part II

Continuing on the topic of eliminating foods (see Eliminating Foods, Part I), I want to discuss a possible obstacle you might encounter if you are trying to eliminate unhealthy foods while also attempting to quit binge eating. The reason I want to address this topic is because I’ve heard from many people who truly desire to have a very healthy diet, and don’t want any processed/”junk” foods in their life; and while this can be a worthwhile goal to have, it ends up complicating recovery for some people.

Here’s why I think that happens:

The binge eater merges the part of themselves that wants to binge with the part of themselves that wants the foods they are trying to eliminate. They begin to apply the lower brain/higher brain idea to the consumption of any junk food, by viewing their lower brain as their “unhealthy eating” brain, and their higher brain as their “healthy/clean 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.

Everyone has food cravings, but 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/fast food that your lower brain has already won.  “See, you can’t control yourself,” your addicted brain will say, “you might as well binge.”  And, you might be primed to believe it because in your mind you have hard proof that you are weak – after all, you ate unhealthy food when you were committed to a good diet.

Try not to think that you have a “good brain” and a “bad brain.”  This is not the case at all.  Your primal brain with it’s pleasure centers might indeed be behind your cravings for some junk food, but everyone has this, and has to decide to what extent to follow those cravings. Craving some french fries doesn’t make you abnormal or weak, and it certainly doesn’t mean your animal brain controls you.  If you choose to have the fries, great…enjoy them!  If you choose not to, then that’s great too…have some carrot sticks with almond butter instead:-)  Don’t think that if you choose the french fries you are giving into a binge urge.  Likewise, don’t think that if you decide on the carrot sticks, that depriving yourself of the fries will lead you to binge.  It won’t.  There will be other opportunities for fries.  Try to keep this simple – make your food choices and move on, knowing that it’s only the binge urges that you are trying to correct right now.

If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I personally don’t think that eliminating all unhealthy foods while trying to quit binge eating is the best course of action; but I understand the reasons for it, and I appreciate that people want to be healthy.  If you truly want to eliminate a certain food group or all processed foods for health reasons, try to keep that endeavor separate from quitting binge eating. Then, even if you aren’t able to eliminate the foods you don’t want in your diet, you can still completely recover from bulimia or BED.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the importance of replacing foods you are trying to eliminate and not letting your attempts to eat healthy turn into restrictive dieting.

Go to Part III.

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To jump start your recovery, you can download my free eBook, “The Brain over Binge Basics”

If you want more help in ending binge eating, and direct coaching from me on issues like the one discussed here, you can learn about the Brain over Binge Course.

giving up foods binge eating

Eliminating Foods in Binge Eating Recovery, Part I

This is the first of a 3-part series on eliminating foods from our diets (for health reasons). In this post, I will simply share a Q&A from an interview I did with Rande McDaniel at the Vegetable Centric Kitchen. This gives my basic opinions on the topic, and in the next 2 posts, I’ll elaborate more.

6. Before your book I read in many eating-disorder style books that we should never restrict anything, or omit any food from our diets or we’re guaranteed to binge on it. On some level I believed this so yes, it lead to bingeing. What are your thoughts on someone who wants to take on a healthy diet/lifestyle that may omit certain foods (processed foods, etc)?

I certainly don’t believe that omitting something from your diet guarantees that you will binge on it. There seems to be a divide in the eating disorder community with the majority of eating disorder experts saying that we should not omit any foods, but other treatment groups – like Food Addicts Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous – saying that eliminating problematic foods is necessary for recovery. Quite simply, I don’t believe that the types of food you eat or don’t eat cause binge eating – the urges to binge cause binge eating.

Might eliminating a certain food – or on the flip side, eating a certain food – lead to an urge to binge? Absolutely. But, we always remain in control of what we do when we experience an urge to binge. So, whether you chose to eliminate certain foods for health reasons or not, it doesn’t have to affect recovery. I personally believe that, when recovering from binge eating, it’s most helpful to allow all types of foods in moderation so that you can de-condition associations between eating certain foods and binge eating. The good news is: when you feel you can control yourself around any food, you are free to make any dietary changes you see fit.

I am trying to keep a narrow focus on using my own experience to help people stop binge eating, not necessarily to have a perfect diet or maintain a perfect weight, because I am not an expert in those areas. However, I will mention a few things I personally believe are important to remember if someone wants to implement healthy dietary changes. First, I think it’s very important to make sure to eat enough. It’s easy to become overzealous about a healthy diet, and in so doing, deprive the body of necessary calories, which can lead to strong survival-driven cravings and even urges to binge. Second, I think it’s helpful to remember that the body and brain will likely protest even a healthy change in diet. We become accustomed to eating certain types of food, and even though avoiding them might be beneficial, the body/brain may still react with strong cravings for the foods we are used to. However, if we can stick with it, healthier eating habits will become the norm, and cravings for the unhealthy habits will subside.

The third thing I think is important to remember is that maintaining an extremely healthy diet is difficult, so I think it’s important to cut yourself some slack if you can’t always eat perfectly. I think having the mindset that you can never “break” your healthy diet can cause some people unwanted stress, and it can also lead to a tendency to overindulge when they do eat something that’s not healthy. Sure, you might chose to have some processed food now and then even while trying to lead a healthy lifestyle; but it doesn’t have to lead to overeating or binge eating.
See Part II and Part III of this series for more.

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To jump start your recovery, you can download my free eBook, “The Brain over Binge Basics”

If you want more help in ending binge eating, and direct coaching from me on issues like the one discussed here, you can learn about the Brain over Binge Course.

Enjoy food binge eating

Enjoy Your Food: Giving up binge eating does not mean giving up food pleasure

I want to share a blog post from my good friend Emily, who is a health writer, called The Food Enjoyment Equation (copied below as it is no longer available online). It describes such a simple, but powerful idea about enjoying our food.

To a binge eater, the idea of enjoying food in normal amounts can seem foreign. When I was bulimic, I often feared eating meals and snacks because there were so many foods I thought might trigger binge eating, and many more foods that I labeled “too fattening” to eat as a part of my regular diet. At the time, I probably would have taken the advice to “enjoy your food” as a justification to binge, because I felt that the only time that I enjoyed eating was when I let go of all inhibition, and secretly ate whatever I wanted in huge quantities. Although binges felt unsettling and out of control, there was always an experience of temporary pleasure.

But as the article below explains, enjoying your food is the opposite of the fruitless and fleeting pleasure of binge eating. Thinking back, my binges brought no true enjoyment, but only a temporary high that faded fast and led to shame and pain. Even before the binge was over, any sense of pleasure was long gone, and even in those initial moments of eating pleasure, there was always a part of me that realized it wasn’t what I actually wanted.

You already know that binge eating leaves you feeling awful – physically and emotionally.  Even so, the thought of giving it up can bring a sense of fear of losing that “enjoyment” that you think you feel during binges.

It’s important to realize that binge eating is not real enjoyment or true pleasure, but only short-lived gratification that brings very harmful consequences. Once you realize this, you are on the road to letting go of the destructive behavior. However, you may not know how to enjoy food otherwise, and you may think that once you quit binge eating, you’ll have to view food as fuel only and no longer take pleasure in eating. This is simply not true!

It’s important to start looking at “enjoying food” with a new perspective. I want you to know that, when you give up binge eating, you will open yourself up to learning how to truly enjoy your food. You’ll stop getting that fleeting pleasure of a binge that’s only leading to pain, and you’ll begin learning to take real, satisfying pleasure in food in normal portions. You’ll stop letting go of all inhibition because you tell yourself that “tomorrow starts a new diet;” you’ll end the shame of hiding your eating habits; you’ll stop obsessing about weight and calories; you’ll end the guilt that comes after binges; and instead, you’ll start learning to enjoy the way you feel during and after a good meal, snack, or dessert.

As you read the article below, think about how you can start applying it in your own life, and how you can balance the two aspects of enjoyment that are discussed:

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“The Food Enjoyment Equation”

You may wonder how I can espouse a view of no-rules, enjoy-your-food freedom, and subsequently launch into the world of nutrition science to examine optimal diets.

The two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Enjoying your food is of the utmost importance. Nutrition is hugely important as well. But the big-picture view of health includes so many factors, in varying degrees of importance, that it’s not an easily defined black-and-white issue. Add to that that health is a highly individual matter, and it gets more complicated.

My simplified take is this:  Enjoy your food.  And that means looking at what that actually means.  I define the notion of enjoying food as follows:

food enjoyment = how does it taste? + how does it make me feel?

This is my way of accounting for food quality when discussing the principle idea of food enjoyment. Many people would say they “enjoy” regularly eating fast food and candy bars, but if they assessed how they felt afterward, would they say eating low-quality foods on a regular basis actually made them feel good?
Conversely, someone adhering to a strict diet of high-nutrients foods might feel good physically, but are they stressed and anxious all the time?  If so, it’s not an enjoyable way of eating.

Balancing these two aspects of enjoyment is key. If you’re in a social situation and being served a type of food you’d prefer to avoid, sometimes it’s more enjoyable to focus on having a nice dinner with friends than to worry about the food that’s being served (barring any serious food allergies, of course).

By the same token, if eating a certain item will make you feel ill, it’s probably worth it to speak up. I tend to think that the healthiest option is the one that maximizes enjoyment by making me feel good mentally (low stress) & physically, and that tastes good.

Food should be one of the greatest joys, not a technical breakdown of “Should I or shouldn’t I eat this.”

It highlights one of the most fundamental aspects of eating: That food is meant to be enjoyed, not fretted over.

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To jump start your recovery, you can download my free eBook, The Brain over Binge Basics by signing up for my monthly newsletter and updates.

You can also learn about the Brain over Binge Course and how to get additional support.

Lose weight after binge eating recovery?

Are You Hoping to Lose Weight After Binge Eating Recovery?

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.

*Leibel RL et al.  Changes in energy expenditure resulting from altered body weight. N Eng J Med. 1995 Mar 9;332(10):621-8

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More help:

If you want extra guidance as you recover, 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, 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.

Paleo binge eating

My Recovery Diet & Thoughts on Paleo as a Binge Eating Cure

I understand what it’s like to be confused about what to eat, and to feel like maybe if you just have the right meal plan, or if you eat all of the right foods, you can finally stop binge eating. Many people have asked what I ate at the time that I recovered, and today I’m going to share those details.

Since this post will address my diet and paleo eating, I want to say right away that I did not eat paleo when I stopped binge eating, and in fact, my diet was quite the opposite of paleo. Paleo is becoming a popular way to eat to pursue better health, weight loss, and even binge eating recovery. But, for reasons I’ll explain in this post, I do not believe paleo eating is a cure for binge eating disorder, bulimia, or any form of binge eating.

What I Ate During Binge Eating Recovery

I didn’t share exact details in my book, because I didn’t want people to feel like they should follow my way of eating. Everyone has different needs, and I certainly didn’t recover because of my specific diet. I am using the word diet in this sense to mean way of eating, and not a form of restriction.

My diet at the time I recovered in 2005 was not very healthy compared to today’s standards, especially if you believe that paleo eating is the healthiest. For example, when I recovered, whole wheat and whole grain food items were mostly considered healthy, and now some experts think they are at the root of many health problems and diseases. Also, low-fat dairy seemed to be considered healthier than full-fat dairy, and now many experts claim the opposite, or that dairy isn’t healthy in any form.

What I considered a pretty good diet then isn’t what I consider healthy today; and sometimes I am not even sure what I consider healthy (you can see my What is Healthy? post for a discussion about this). Nevertheless, I want to share what I ate in hopes that it will help you realize that you don’t have to eat perfectly, and that it’s important to eat enough.

Most of the time, I ate 3 meals plus 3 or 4 snacks per day, likely averaging about 2300 calories per day. I usually stayed in the range of 2000-2500 calories, sometimes slightly more, sometimes less. I didn’t count calories at the time, nor do I today; but I was pretty knowledgeable about calories, as most people with a history of eating disorders are, so I knew generally how much I was getting. I was very active at the time, because I was on my feet all day working in a special education classroom with kids who had severe and profound disabilities, and I exercised about 5-6 times a week for 20-30 min.

Even though I ate pretty regular meals and snacks, the meal/snack times and what I ate were very flexible. Sometimes I’d inadvertently miss a meal, sometimes I’d eat more that usual at a meal, and sometimes not as much. Below, I’ve included a small sample of some of the meals/snacks that I ate, and if you want to learn more about my overall thoughts on food intake, you can read my post, How Much Should I Eat?. Note that any measurement I give in this sample is just an average because I didn’t measure my food.

Breakfast:

  • Bowl of cereal (about 1 ½ cups dry cereal and 1 cup of 1% or 2% milk) and fruit. The cereal was usually something low-sugar/whole grain like Bran Flakes, but sometimes I’d chose a more sugary option.  or…
  • 2 whole grain waffles with about 2 tbsp peanut butter, and fruit. or….
  • Whole grain bagel with about 2 tbsp Cream cheese, and fruit. or….
  • 2 eggs (scrambled, fried, or hard-boiled) with 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast and butter, plus some fruit. or….
  • Bowl of oatmeal (2 servings based on the label) with a little low-fat milk and some fruit.

*The fruit that I ate with my breakfast was something like an apple, banana, grapes (maybe 15 or so), or an orange.

Snack #1:

  • 8 oz container of flavored yogurt or….
  • Granola bar or….
  • Protein bar or….
  • Low-fat cookies (about 4) or….
  • Cheese or peanut butter-filled cracker sandwiches (I believe 6 came in a pack)

Lunch:

  • Turkey and cheese sandwich (2 pieces whole grain bread, about 1 tbsp mayonnaise, 1 piece of cheese, a few slices of deli turkey), with chips (about 15) and a vegetable (usually a small can of green beans; or fresh celery or carrot sticks) or…
  • 1 can of soup (lentil, chicken noodle, black bean, tomato) with wheat crackers (about 8) or 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast, fruit- Lean pocket (usually 1, sometimes 2), vegetable, wheat crackers (5-10) or chips.

Snack #2: Generally the same choices as snack #1 above.

Dinner:

  • Whole wheat pasta and meatballs (about 1 1/2 cup cooked pasta, 2 medium meatballs, marinara sauce), with a serving of vegetables like corn or green peas, and a roll with butter.
  • Pork chops with gravy, brown Rice (1 1/2 cup cooked), a serving of vegetables, and a piece of garlic bread.
  • Tuna salad sandwich (2 slices of wheat bread, 3/4 can of tuna, mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, with chips (about 10-15).

Snack #3:

  • My late night snack was usually a bowl of cereal (about the same serving size as when I had it for breakfast). It was usually a cereal I thought was pretty healthy at the time; but I’d have a sugary option probably once every couple of weeks.

Desserts:

  • I had dessert an average of 2 times a week (usually after dinner). Desserts were something like 1 cup of ice cream, 1-5 cookies, an average size piece of cake, ½ of a chocolate bar, or just a couple of hard candies after a meal.

Eating out:

  • My husband and I were not the greatest cooks, and we did eat out a lot. We ordered pizza about once every two weeks for dinner, and I would usually eat 2 to 3 slices, depending on the size of the slices. We got fast food at least once per week for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I ordered either a breakfast sandwich, or hamburger or fish sandwich with fries (usually small, but sometimes a bigger size if I was more hungry).

Drinks:

  • I drank mostly water at the time, but I’d often have a cup of orange, grape, or apple juice sometime during the day, and I drank a diet soda a couple times a week. I also drank coffee each day with 1% or 2% milk in it. I had one or two alcoholic drinks (beer or wine) a couple times per month.

The Opposite of Paleo

Considering that I thought whole grains/whole wheat were healthy, this seemed like a decent diet to me. It allowed me flexibility, foods that I liked, and variety. But, as it turned out, my diet was nearly the antithesis of the way of eating that many experts now claim is healthy, and that’s paleo eating.

The paleo diet has been popularized especially in the past couple years by books like The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf (2010), and The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain (2010). The paleo theory basically argues against consumption of all wheat, grains, legumes, dairy products, sugar, and processed oils. In the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about this way of eating, and the implications for binge eaters.

When I first heard the theory that whole grains and whole wheat are not healthy, it honestly caught me off guard, because I’d spent so much time believing they were good for me. I could completely understand why someone would say that sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods were unhealthy, but whole grains? It also shocked me that legumes and dairy (foods I assumed were healthy for many years) are excluded from the paleo diet. I did some research, and realized there is compelling evidence behind the idea that these foods are not the best choices for our health.

Is Paleo a Healthy Way to Eat?

The basic theory is that humans are not genetically adapted to digest grains, dairy, legumes, and the other foods that the paleo diet eliminates, and these foods act like toxins to our systems. There is still a lot of controversy about this theory, and I’m not saying I’m 100 percent sold on the idea. There are studies and experts who refute it, and some say it’s just another fad diet.

Personally, I still eat grains and beans, albeit less and especially less wheat; and I’ve been eating more meat, eggs, fresh veggies, and a lot more fat (in the form of coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.) I still eat dairy as well; but now I always buy full-fat dairy.

If grains are a culprit in a lot of health problems in our society; I find this news pretty hard to take. One walk through the grocery store shows that most food manufactures promote “whole grain” food as a healthy option, or as a positive addition to any food. It’s one thing when you eat sugar or processed food and you know it’s not the best for you, but also okay in moderation; but it’s quite another when you eat something for years and years thinking it’s healthy, and you find out it probably wasn’t healthy after all.

A more bothersome part about this is that I’ve fed a lot of whole grains and beans to my children, basically since they started eating solid food, thinking I was doing something good for them. I bought a book about preparing healthy and natural baby food when my first born began eating solids. The book was more vegetarian in nature, and it recommended starting a baby’s day with a breakfast of homemade porridge, consisting of whole grains and beans blended together. When I think of all the whole grains and beans I bought in bulk from the health food store, and all of the nights I stayed up late cooking beans and grains for my babies, and how I went through a lot of extra trouble to lovingly feed them something I thought was healthy; I feel terrible to think all of it may have been in vain, or even toxic to their systems.

Again, it’s one thing to give your kid a cookie or candy knowing it’s primarily for pleasure and that they aren’t getting nutrition from it; but it’s quite another when you find out the majority of the “healthy” food you’ve fed your kids might not have been healthy at all. But enough of me venting about my personal feelings on this matter; now I want to turn to talking about how paleo eating relates to recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Paleo as a Fix for Binge Eating?

Special diets as cures for binge eating and bulimia are nothing new. In Brain over Binge, I talked about the addiction model of treating binge eating. Addiction treatment is based on the idea that the foods a binge eater typically binges on, which are usually foods high in sugar and carbohydrates, are physically addictive; and to recover, the binge eater must abstain from those addictive foods, often indefinitely.

One of the pioneers in the addiction model of treating binge eating, compulsive eating, and food addiction was Anne Katherine, author of Anatomy of a Food Addiction. In her book, Katherine recommends avoiding what she believes are the culprits of a food addiction – sugar and refined carbohydrates. She recommends “converting to whole wheat eating,” and says that “nearly every beloved flour product can be replaced with a sugar-free, 100 percent whole-wheat product.” This book also recommends converting to other whole grains, like eating brown rice instead of white rice.[i]

Now, some are taking it one huge step further, by making a paleo diet a requirement, or at least an important step in recovery. While paleo eating might be helpful to some people in some ways, I would hate to see a situation where binge eaters are told they must give up many food groups in order to live free of binge eating. To make these types of sweeping changes in the way you eat is very difficult. I know several extremely health conscious people, and none of them follow a perfect paleo diet. Quite simply, asking binge eaters to only eat paleo foods in order to fix binge eating is asking too much, when even normal eaters can struggle greatly with eliminating foods from their diets.

The Problem with Paleo as a Potential Solution to Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder

The reality is, grains are everywhere and we have learn to live with them. If we choose not to eat them, I believe it has to be just that – a choice – not a requirement for recovery. Avoiding certain foods for health reasons might be a beneficial choice for certain people, as long as the person is making sure they are eating enough calories and getting enough nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. However, as far as being helpful in recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder, I think there are several reasons why a paleo diet is not the answer, and I’ve explained those reasons below:

  1. Avoiding certain foods with the belief that one bite of those foods will spiral into a binge can be self-fulfilling. What happens if the former binge eater decides to eat grains again one day? Does this mean she or he is destined to relapse? Feeling like you can control yourself around any food seems to be the safer option.
  2. Binge eaters can binge on anything. Even though carbohydrates are the most common binge foods, the reality is that binge eaters can and do binge on all types of foods. If you don’t break the binge eating habit, the primal brain will continue looking for opportunities to binge, and will find them on any eating regimen, including the paleo diet.
  3. A paleo diet does not take away the desire for the temporary pleasure of a binge. Binge eating alters the reward system in the brain and it becomes a habit of pleasure (which ultimately leads to pain). Just because the paleo diet says to eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates does not shut off the urges to binge on those foods. If a paleo diet is going to alter body and brain chemistry to eventually reduce cravings for certain “addicting” foods, it still doesn’t guarantee that the desire to binge will go away.
  4. Telling a binge eater to eat a paleo diet fails to address behavioral conditioning. The habit becomes wired into the brain so that the brain can produce cravings for binges automatically, regardless of what the person is eating.
  5. A paleo diet does not address the lack of self-control binge eaters feel.  A sense of lack of control over eating is fundamental to all cases of bulimia and binge eating disorder; so telling a binge eater that the solution to their problem is to use a ton of self control to avoid many foods simply doesn’t make sense.

Can Paleo at Least Help Eliminate Some Cravings and Urges?

Getting past these problems, if binge eaters could manage to eat a paleo-type diet for a long time, would it eliminate urges to binge?

If the person did not binge during this time, then I believe the urges would lessen or go away, but not due to the paleo diet itself. Not acting on the binge urges weakens the habit in the brain, and the urges fade, whether or not you are eating paleo. So, it’s not the paleo diet that eliminates the binge eating habit; it’s not binge eating that eliminates the binge eating habit.

If a person eats paleo, and binges on paleo foods, then they still have a binge eating habit. If a person eats a diet including all foods, and binges on none of those foods, then they do not have a binge eating habit. I realize this is obvious, but I think it’s important to point out that a certain way of eating is not the cure; the cure is to stop acting on the binge urges. (If you are new here and want to learn how to avoid following your urges to binge, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.)

Then the question becomes: Is it easier to stop acting on urges to binge if you are eating paleo? I think the answer is possibly, for some people. If eating grains, sugar, and carbs typically leads to binge urges for you, then eating a paleo diet could potentially create a situation where you have less urges to deal with. That’s assuming you can stick to a paleo diet, but based on the problems I discussed above, it’s very difficult.

On the other hand, feelings of deprivation and restriction are some of the main drivers of urges to binge, so the elimination of certain foods may have the opposite effect of giving you more urges to deal with. Additionally, given that many binge eaters claim that stress brings on their urges to binge, it’s possible that the time, effort, and money it requires to eat a paleo diet might end up leading to more frequent urges. This is not to say that you need to eliminate stress or that you can’t try to eat healthy.  I’m just pointing out that binge urges arise in many different situations and in response to eating many different foods, and it’s not always predictable.  That’s why I believe it’s important to view the urges as the problem, not the situations or foods.

I didn’t eat a paleo diet, and neither have many others who have recovered; yet we managed to end the binge eating habit for food. Maybe if I would have eaten no sugar, dairy, wheat, grains, or legumes, I would have had less urges to deal with…or maybe more? Either way, looking back, I’m glad I recovered the way that I did; because now no food is dangerous to me. I can eat whatever I want without having to worry about it leading to urges to binge or to relapse. Furthermore, I don’t have to worry if and when science makes new discoveries that change what we currently know about nutrition, and gives us a whole new set of guidelines to be healthy or remain food-addiction free.

Brain over Binge is Not a Way to Stick to Diets

I want to end this post by telling you that the Brain over Binge approach is for ending binge eating, not for resisting every urge to eat something unhealthy or something that’s not paleo.  When you recover, you are saying no to urges to binge; you are not saying no to hunger signals, or all cravings, or all desires to eat in a way that may not be ideal. (I’ve talked about this thoroughly in Episode 12: Dismissing Urges to Binge is Not a Dieting Strategy, and Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?).

 

[i] Katherine, Anne. Anatomy of a Food Addiction: The Brain Chemistry of Overeating. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 1991. P. 189-190

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For more help with ending binge eating, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF, or learn more about my Course.