I received a good question today from someone struggling with binge eating regarding which part of the brain—the higher brain (rational) or the lower brain (primal, habitual, and instinctual) is involved in normal eating. This is topic I address thoroughly in my new book, the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, but I want to answer it briefly here—and direct you to a few other posts and podcasts episodes where you can learn more—because this issue can be confusing for some people.
The more animalistic and primal part of the brain (that I call the lower brain) has a fundamental role in eating, and when it’s functioning properly, we should be able to trust it to regulate our appetite and steer us toward good food choices—based on our taste preferences and physiological needs. However, when restrictive dieting and binge eating become involved, the primal brain becomes dysfunctional—driving the person toward massive amounts of food, as if that’s imperative for survival. To overcome this, it’s necessary to use the rational higher brain to override the primal brain’s (temporarily) faulty programming.
When you recover and end the binge eating habit, you are not banishing the primal brain. You are instead returning it to its normal role in regulating hunger and fullness and the desire for pleasurable food. Where my opinion differs from a purely intuitive eating approach is that I don’t think we can rely completely on the the primal lower brain to guide our eating in today’s modern food environment. There are so many unnatural and over-stimulating foods that our appetite regulation system and our brain’s reward system (located in the lower brain) weren’t meant to deal with. We need our higher brain power to override any abnormal or problematic cravings.
Eating is never a purely rational experience, nor should it be. But in today’s world, I don’t think eating can necessarily be a purely primal-brain-driven experience either.
To explore more about this topic, you can check out the following resources:
If you are ready to end your struggle with binge eating, you can download the Brain over Binge Basics to get started:
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:
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.