As you work on ending binge eating, do you find yourself saying, I don’t know how to eat? Feeling confused about how to approach normal eating might create overwhelm and cause you to want to give up on recovery. Today, I’m going to talk about dropping the I don’t know thoughts around food. I want to help you stop telling yourself that you don’t know how to make eating choices, and help you start feeling more confident in your food decisions.
Why It Feels Like You Don’t Know How to Eat in Binge Eating Recovery
The I don’t know how to eat thoughts likely seem very believable and true right now, but you can learn to overcome them. It’s necessary to overcome them because you will need the essential ability to make food choices throughout your life. Deciding what, when, how, and where to eat is something you will always need to do many times every day. It’s completely understandable if that feels impossible right now, because eating likely has not come naturally to you for a long time. You’ve probably spent months, years, or even decades not only binge eating, but also trying to follow certain diets, or meal plans, or fasting regimens, or specific food rules or requirements.
Restrictive dieting and binge eating can definitely make you lose touch with your innate ability to simply make food decisions that feel right in the moment and then move on with your life. If you’ve followed my blog or podcast, or read my books, you know that in order to recover from binge eating, it’s vital to give up restrictive dieting. However, when you do this and no longer have a “diet” to follow, it can lead to you feeling lost. You may sit down at meals and wonder how much is “normal” or how much is too much, or you may overthink your body’s signals of hunger and fullness. You may worry about certain foods making you gain weight or worry that certain foods might lead to urges to binge. You may even be concerned if you choose healthy foods or turn down unhealthy foods because you want to make sure you’re not depriving yourself. You may feel uneasy about what you see other people eating or not eating, and you may think you simply don’t know when to say yes to food and when to say no.
Added to that, you’ve likely heard a lot of advice about how you should be eating in order to recover from binge eating. There are many different philosophies out there from recovery advocates, and those philosophies don’t always agree. For example, some say that you need to eliminate sugar or other “addicting” foods to recover, and some say you must learn to eat those very same foods in moderation in order to truly recover. The reality is that there is no one right way to eat, but if you’ve spent any amount of time believing in one philosophy, it can be difficult to let it go. You may find yourself questioning if you should be eating completely intuitively, or if you should be measuring your food (or counting your servings or calories) to make sure that you’re getting enough, or if you should be avoiding any sort of measurement or calorie counting. You may question whether you should have a more structured meal plan or eat in a more flexible way, or if you should allow all types of foods, or avoid some specific foods while you get the binge eating habit under control.
Not only do you have this confusion about normal eating, but you also have the reality of dealing with the urges to binge and breaking the binge eating habit itself. (If you are new here, you can get started with breaking the habit by downloading my free PDF, “The Brain over Binge Basics”).
In times of confusion, a very common pattern is for the I don’t know how to eat thoughts to lead to thoughts that say I can’t possibly figure out how to eat, to lead to thoughts that say well, I might as well binge. It’s as if that primitive, habitual part of your brain automatically offers binge eating as a “solution” to not knowing what or how to eat. The binge-encouraging thoughts basically tell you to give up on even trying to determine how to eat and to instead just eat anything and everything. This is a common lower-brain tactic—using a circumstance surrounding food, or a circumstance in your life to rationalize bingeing. My goal is to help you stop believing that there is ever a reason to binge. I know that when you are not experiencing a desire to binge, you can look at this rationalization and see that it simply makes no sense to binge in response to feeling like you don’t know how to eat.
If there is one thing you do know about eating—without any doubt—it’s that binge eating is not how to eat.
Even if you genuinely feel confused about your food choices, it’s very powerful to realize that there is zero confusion surrounding binge eating—it is extremely harmful to you, and any thought that says it “makes sense” to binge because you don’t know exactly how to eat is absolutely false. You know that a binge is not a good food decision, so start there, and then any food decision you make will be a step in the right direction.
How to Eliminate the I Don’t Know How to Eat Thoughts
Now let’s move on to helping you learn to make food decisions and eliminate the I don’t know thoughts around food. I want you to take a step back and look at food decisions from a bigger picture perspective and realize that it’s a modern thing to have confusion about what or how to eat. In the ancient past, it was simply about what was available, and a lot of times it was simply about survival. Still today, if your situation was completely different—for example if you lived somewhere else or if a natural disaster happened—and food was not plentiful, it would also be about availability and survival.
I mentioned this in Brain over Binge, but as an example from my own life, I think back to going home to the New Orleans area after hurricane Katrina in 2005 to help my family, and food was not readily available, as there were no functioning grocery stores or restaurants for many miles. There were some wonderful volunteers and organizations that provided free meals, and in this situation, there were no food decisions to be made. We ate what we were so graciously provided. You may be able to find related examples in your own life, when there were simply no choices, and when there wasn’t any self-doubt about food. I think it’s helpful to remember that you have that ability inside of yourself to eat without confusion. It may only come out in certain situations, but it is there. The problem is that all of the food options available in your life today and all of the advice that you’ve heard over time is getting in the way of this ability to simply eat.
I’m not saying that plentiful choices are to blame, or that the solution is to avoid giving yourself options. I believe the solution is in your own thinking. You can have many choices, and still have a mindset that does not promote self-doubt and confusion. You can learn to make decisions and move on, for example, like when you were a child—think back to when you were outside playing and you got hungry and therefore came inside to eat. You likely just picked out something quickly, ate to satisfy your hunger (and enjoyed the food), and then got back to playing without any overthinking whatsoever.
I realize that, as a child, you may not have always made great choices about what to eat. Kids tend to be very pleasure-seeking, and it may have been the cookies that were most appealing to you. Your choices as an adult will be different of course, but you can still approach those choices with the same certainty and confidence, and then you can get back to living afterward. The difference between you now and the child in my example is that you started having I don’t know thoughts. Even if you can’t relate to this example and you think there was never a time in your life when you had the inherent ability to make food decisions, I want you to think about the multitude of other decisions that you’re able to make in your life that don’t have anything to do with food. You make decisions at work, in your education, about your kids, your relationships, your home, and even about mundane everyday choices that come with functioning in the world. Even if you need some practice in the area of food decisions, you can learn from your ability to choose in other parts of your life.
When you start to hear those I don’t know thoughts, I want you to just acknowledge them; but tell yourself that you’re going to make a decision anyway. Also remind yourself that any decision you make is much better than deciding to binge, and any decision is also better than staying stuck in indecision. You basically want to start exercising your decision-making muscle, even if it feels weak right now. Gently challenge yourself to choose what you are going to eat, fully acknowledging that there is no “right” choice, and that you’re simply doing the best you can in the moment. Tell yourself that at your next meal or snack, you may choose differently, and that’s okay. Tell yourself that this is just one food decision of countless food decisions that you’ll make throughout your life and that it does not have to be perfect. Aim for decisions that feel good enough. Tell yourself that you’re simply going to choose, you’re going to eat, and then you’re going to move on.
This does not mean you’ll just be choosing on a whim all of the time, although you certainly can. I know you’re an intelligent person who knows a lot about yourself and who also knows a lot about nutrition. You can take that into account, and also consider the situation when making a choice. For example, you may make some food decisions simply for convenience because that’s what you need in your life at that time, and that’s okay. That may mean you’ll be eating less-healthy foods in those moments, but you have other priorities in your life, and there is no need to feel guilty about that. At other times, you may decide to spend the extra time or money to give yourself more nourishing foods, because that’s what you feel is best at that point, and that’s okay too.
As you make decisions that feel good enough, you can get feedback from your body, and you can make adjustments over time—without all of the self-doubt. If you like your reasons for your food decisions, that’s all that matters. When you know there is not some “ideal” way to eat that’s out there somewhere, it’s easier to deal with the daily reality of making everyday choices. Your choices teach you things that you can use to improve your decision-making abilities in the future. In other words, you learn from every decision that you make.
After you make any decision about food, and eat the food, it’s helpful to redirect your focus onto something else in your life. Think again about the child who gets back to playing after stopping to refuel. Redirecting helps train your brain to see that eating is just eating, and it does not have to consume so much of your brain space. The more you practice deciding imperfectly, and the more you stop giving attention to the thoughts that say you don’t know, the more confident you will become at choosing the foods, and the amounts, and the eating times that feel right for you. Then, those I don’t know thoughts can simply fade away.
You can find a deeper discussion of this topic in the Brain over Binge course, in the Q&A track titled “I feel like I don’t know how to eat.” The course is only $18.99 per month (cancel anytime) and includes over 90 Q&A tracks, 8 extensive lessons, worksheets, and other resources.
If you have anxiety or negative associations surrounding your hunger, or you feel like hunger is your enemy in binge eating recovery, this post will help you start developing a healthier mindset when it comes to this natural body signal.
It’s possible that you fear your hunger because you think it has sabotaged your past efforts to diet or because you feel like strong hunger always leads you to binge. This anxiety response to hunger is something to address in recovery, as well as in your efforts to make peace with food in general.
Hunger is a normal sensation, and reminding yourself that it’s part of the human experience will help you avoid believing there is something wrong with you when you are hungry. That does not mean you’re going to like feeling hungry. You’re not supposed to like it. Hunger is meant to be an uncomfortable sensation that motivates you to fix it by eating. Humans would not have survived for long without this uncomfortable drive.
When hunger first starts, it can be just a gentle feeling nudging you toward food, but as more time goes by, you may become irritable, you may not be able to think about anything else besides food, you may get frustrated if you can’t get food right away, and you may have a lot of unpleasant sensations in your body.
It’s not realistic to expect yourself to have all of those feelings and sensations—which are meant to strongly motivate you toward food—and feel completely calm about it. Making peace with your hunger simply means that you’ll learn to experience the discomfort without causing it to be worse with a lot of fear, anxiety, and self-judgement.
Recall your pre-eating-disorder experience of hunger
You can likely remember times when you’ve experienced hunger without the anxiety and self-criticism, especially if you think back to before you began restricting or binge eating. Maybe think about when you were a child in school, and you were hungry while sitting in class waiting for lunchtime. I’m sure you did not like that feeling of hunger, and I’m sure you did not feel perfectly peaceful in those moments. Your empty and growling stomach probably distracted you from the work you needed to be doing, and you probably looked at the clock wishing time would pass. I’m sure you that you were excited about eating when the time finally came and that it felt so good to satisfy your hunger.
Through all of this, you didn’t judge yourself for what you were experiencing. You didn’t fear your hunger, and you didn’t criticize yourself for wanting food or enjoying it when it was time to eat. You weren’t sitting in class as a child thinking, I shouldn’t be hungry … I have no willpower … I’ll never be able to control myself when I start eating … I’m scared that I’m going to overdo it and gain weight … why can’t I just stop thinking about food so much.
Before your eating disorder, hunger was a lot more of a pure experience—meaning you just experienced it without judging yourself for it. You just knew that you were hungry and that you wanted food—without thinking you were broken in some way for having these natural body signals and desires for food.
Anxiety about hunger often stems from restriction
Anxiety and negative associations with hunger often develop as a result of dieting. When you are trying to eat less than you need, your hunger can start to feel like your enemy. When you know you’re only “allowed” a certain amount of food (according to your diet), but your hunger tells you that you should eat more than that, you feel like you need to suppress your hunger and ignore it. You may get angry with your hunger and wish it away and think it’s the reason you can’t stick to a diet.
Because our bodies are wired to protect us from starvation, your hunger likely got stronger during your diet. Understandably, you eventually followed your hunger and broke your diet, and because you thought it meant you were “weak,” you then engaged in a lot of self-critical thoughts. This may have repeated countless times for you.
If you started bingeing in response to your strong hunger, then that adds another layer of negative feelings, self-judgement, and anxiety. You start to fear your hunger because you fear that it will lead you to binge. It makes sense that you are afraid to binge, because binge eating is a harmful and painful behavior that you truly don’t want to engage in. In turn, it also makes sense that you would come to fear anything you think causes that behavior.
Hunger is not the problem
I hope that now you better understand how hunger goes from being a pure experience (not a comfortable one) to something that brings up a lot of anxiety. When it comes to making peace with your hunger, an important starting point is realizing that the sensations of hunger are not the problem. The problem is the negative thoughts and feelings you’ve inadvertently connected to hunger over time.
You can start to separate the sensations of hunger from those negative thoughts and feelings, and you can start to dismiss those negative thoughts and feelings—including anxiety and self-judgement. You can start gravitating back toward experiencing hunger as you did before developing this struggle with food.
Decondition the [hunger = binge] pattern
As it relates to getting rid of the fear that you’ll binge in response to hunger, this just takes time and consistency. As you learn to experience urges to binge without acting on them, you’ll get more confident that nothing will lead you to binge, not even strong hunger. Then, the anxiety around hunger can naturally subside.
For this to happen, it’s going to take many times of being hungry and then satisfying that hunger without going on to binge. Once you’re confident that you can eat adequately in response to hunger, and that it won’t spiral out of control, then hunger is no longer going to feel like a threat.
Making sure that you’re eating enough overall and giving up restriction is definitely going to make hunger feel less fear-inducing, because you’re no longer going to be trying to suppress the hunger, or deny it, or view it as the enemy. As you let go of dieting, and as you learn to nourish your body, you will start viewing hunger simply as a signal that it’s time to eat. You can even learn to welcome this signal as your body’s amazing way of communicating your needs.
Heightened hunger signals will fade
One thing to know (if you’ve engaged in restrictive dieting) is that your hunger may be stronger right now than it would otherwise be if you had never restricted. When we diet, our body turns up the hormones and neurochemicals that drive hunger and turns down the ones that lead to fullness. This only makes sense from a survival standpoint.
Once you start eating enough, this heightened hunger can take some time to regulate. So, if your hunger feels more uncomfortable than you think it should, know that this is something that corrects itself over time—as you get further and further away from restriction.
Binge eating also has the effect of increasing your hunger because your body and brain simply come to expect and demand large amounts of food. But as you recover, you allow your digestive system to heal and your appetite to go back to normal. If you have any concerns about abnormal hunger during recovery, you should absolutely get the medical and nutritional help you need, but the solution is never to binge.
Over time, you’ll learn that hunger—although not a pleasant sensation—doesn’t have to create anxiety. You can learn to make peace with many different levels of hunger, and never fear that it’s going to lead you to binge.
If you want extra guidance as you learn to give up dieting and binge eating, and make peace with your hunger, 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.
I’ve heard from many people who aren’t sure if they binge or not. They know they are doing something with food that doesn’t feel good, and they know they are eating too much at times, but…
Is it binge eating?
Is it compulsive overeating?
Is it emotional eating?
There is some subjectivity in labeling problematic eating behaviors, and there is often overlap between behaviors. However, it’s valuable to determine what you are specifically struggling with, because when you know what your problem is, you can better apply targeted solutions.
I’ve recently talked to my friend and colleague Cookie Rosenblum about this, and we have decided to host a free online class to help you determine if you are binge eating, compulsively overeating, or engaging in habitual pattern of emotional eating. We want to help you understand how to overcome each of these issues!
The class will be on Wednesday, November 18th at 12pmET, and you can register now.
Cookie is an expert at helping people overcome problematic overeating and emotional eating, and of course, I help people stop binge eating.
Because the term binge has become mainstream (think of “binge-watching” shows), it is sometimes applied to any behavior that seems excessive, including eating behaviors. However, binge eating is not the same as overeating, and overeating isn’t always a problem. Everyone overeats from time to time, but when it feels compulsive and too frequent, it’s definitely something to work on.
If you aren’t sure what type of eating issue you are dealing with, but you want to be free of your struggle with food, I hope you will find the upcoming online class with Cookie very helpful.
This is a one-time class and space is limited, so I encourage you to register today.