In podcast episode 112: Marijuana Use and Binge Eating, we explored the connection between marijuana use, overeating, and binge eating, and we encouraged you to determine if marijuana is right for you in binge eating recovery. I encourage you to listen to the full episode, but I also wanted to turn it into a blog post as well, for those who learn better though reading. This is a transcription, but I streamlined certain parts to make it easier to follow.
Intro: Why are we talking about marijuana and binge eating recovery?
Marijuana often has the effect of stimulating appetite and the desire for food. My boyfriend Jeff pointed out to me that in some cases, this can look and feel a lot like binge eating episodes. Because marijuana use is on the rise and the laws are changing to make it much more mainstream and accessible, I think this is something really important to talk about as it relates to recovery. Jeff and I decided to share own experiences and thoughts on this topic to help you determine if and how marijuana fits into your own life and recovery.
Jeff and I say this a few times during the conversation that follows, but I also want to say here that we are not medical professionals; and because marijuana is often used for medical reasons, please consult your doctor about your specific situation, needs, and health concerns. Also know that Jeff and I do share some details about overeating episodes as far as food and calories…not overly so, but I just wanted to let you know that upfront.
With all of that being said, I’ll go ahead and share our conversation:
What sparked this conversation about marijuana and binge eating?
Jeff was here last time on the show to talk about the new edition of Brain over Binge, and we had such a great conversation, and then he had an idea for this episode, so now he’ll explain what we’re going to discuss and how it came about.
I had my medical marijuana card, and I would smoke and partake in medical marijuana, and one of the things I found is when I was high, I would overeat sometimes, and I would like really overeat…I mean 5,000 calories overeat. It was really interesting because I remember going through it, and then bringing it up to you, and asking, “Is this binge eating?”
I curious if this was what you experienced or others in your realm have experienced?
Yes, I remember you calling me one time after you had overeaten after smoking marijuana and wondering if this was what I experienced as a binge eater. And thought that was so interesting because in a lot of ways what you described to me seemed very similar.
To be honest, I haven’t really smoked much pot, so it’s not something I’ve personally experienced, but I’ve personally experienced the binge eating side of it. So just talking about our experiences and how they line up has been interesting.
The majority of the time I ever would take marijuana was just to help me sleep. But sometimes, every once in a blue moon, I would do it earlier in the night. And then, you know, you kind of come down off the high and that’s when you “have the munchies.”
We’re here today with this as a topic, but we’re not experts on this. I’ve done some research and I’m going to talk about some of that research, but we almost have more questions than answers at this point. But, we want to bring up this topic so you can figure out what’s best for you at this point because there’s really no doubt that marijuana increases your appetite.
I mean, there are people who have different experiences, but as a general rule, statistically most people do experience that increase of appetite, and most people will call it the munchies. We basically want to help you determine if marijuana fits for you right now in your recovery from bingeing. So to get this conversation rolling a little more, Jeff and I are going to compare our experience—him smoking pot and me as a binge eater. And we’re going to talk about some of the ways they’re similar and some of the ways they’re different.
Marijuana creates an experience that is similar to that of a binge eater
Yeah, I think it’s interesting too because as you looked it up, they said, “well, no, marijuana doesn’t make you binge eat, but it can make you overeat.” And it just seems like that’s semantics. Like how are you really defining that? Isn’t that different for every individual and can’t anything become a habit?
Oh for sure.
I just find that the book definition is not necessarily real life.
That’s a good point. I feel like a lot of articles that I’ve found said pretty emphatically that binge eating is not the same as marijuana-induced overeating. But then you go on to read the descriptions and they’re pretty much the same.
Clinically binge eating is defined as eating within a discreet period of time, a lot more food than a normal person would eat under similar circumstances. …And Jeff is pointing at himself right now—so is that what you feel like you do? You’re eating an abnormal amount of food within a discreet period of time?
Yes, and I remember describing it to you and I had the light bulb go off more when I said, “there was no bottom, there was no full.” I remember that night in particular, I ate, uh, pizza, which I love pizza, it’s like my favorite thing in the world. And usually I can eat two slices and be fine and move on, but I think I ate like a whole large pizza by myself. I’m not too proud.
We laugh, but if a binge eater said that we would not be laughing.
Well, and I’m laughing out of embarrassment. I remember feeling there was no bottom, I could just eat, eat, eat. And I remember I didn’t just eat the pizza, I ate more salty and sweet snacks. I don’t think I was exaggerating, I probably ate around 5,000 calories. I mean, I ate everything in my fridge, I went to the cupboard and ate more salty and sweet snacks, and I could find no bottom.
And sugar is my worst because I love sugar and nothing makes me feel worse than overindulging sugar. I get really sick. But I think I talked to you or I went to bed, but I remember lying in bed and just being so sick, and just pain in my stomach. And you go through it in your mind like, “what in the hell did I do? I didn’t need to eat all that.” I knew I had enough calories for the day but there was, there was no bottom, there was no full. I could just keep consuming and enjoying the consumption until you get to that point where you’re lying in the bed, and I remember just being so sick, I couldn’t go to sleep because I was in so much pain.
Anyone out there listening, from what Jeff is describing, I’m sure you can relate to that as a binge eater and that feeling of just never finding your bottom, never feeling full, and feeling like you could continue to eat and eat and never feel satisfied. And also just the feeling of being out of control and then the regret after, and feeling physically awful.
So the experiences really line up, you know, they seem very similar. And I was saying that we were laughing about it before, but I don’t think it’s just us. I think on a cultural level we hear “the munchies” and it’s just something kind of funny that people do, and it’s not taken seriously. Whereas, you know, binge eating is considered to be a “mental disorder.” So a lot of the resources I’ve found said, “oh, bingeing is not the same as the munchies because binging is a mental disorder.”
Marijuana and binge eating both create a brain “glitch” that enhances appetite and desire for food
But is it a mental disorder or is it just habit it brought on by urges?
Good point, because a lot of my work focuses on that and focuses on helping people see that it’s not because of these other psychological problems, it’s not because of emotions, it’s because you have this glitch in your brain and this habit that you’ve developed over time that is bringing on an experience just like the experience that you’re talking about Jeff.
Yeah, and I think you did in your research, because I’d be really curious…I, for the most part, when I did marijuana, I always liked to smoke it. I smoked it not with flower, but the vape pen. Flower can really affect your lungs. Vape pen supposedly doesn’t affect your lungs as much. You get higher quicker, so it hits a lot sooner. And, and I felt that if I smoked it then I could be high and I could control the level of highness that you’re getting because you take one puff or two puffs. But the thing with the edibles, you don’t know necessarily what you’re getting. I think it’s gotten a lot better now that it’s in medical, you know, like what’s five milligrams versus 10 milligrams.
You don’t necessarily know how long it’s going to take to hit, and like I said, the majority of the time when I would partake in marijuana, it’s to go to sleep. It kind of shuts the brain out to relax, and that’s when I would do it. So I didn’t want to take the gummy, wait an hour, “oh, did it work? or did it not? do I then have to wait an hour to take another gummy. So that’s why I always did the vape pen and they hit differently. So, my question to you is: is there any correlation between taking marijuana through either flower or vape pen versus an edible? Is there any correlation between overeating and how you take marijuana?
Jeff, that’s a really good question, and it’s not something that I know at this point. I mean, my research has not been extensive. This is a topic that, you know, we’ve gotten interested in and I would love to explore more and talk about more one day. But what I do know is that the active ingredient in marijuana, the THC, does stimulate appetite. Some mechanisms by which that happens—some research shows that it increases the smell and taste of food, so it actually makes food more pleasurable. Do you find that to be the case?
Oh, I think it enhances everything.
Yes, and it also stimulates specific neurons that drive overeating. It basically switches the brain wiring and sends strong messages of hunger, even though, like you talked about, you’re not necessarily actually hungry.
It was an interesting place to be, because I remember being very conscious of the fact that I should be full and I’m not full.
It’s lines up so much with the experience of a binge eater because, as I talk about in my books, bingeing is also a brain wiring issue. Your brain is malfunctioning, if that’s the right word, because of a habit, and also because of survival instincts. When you diet, you put your brain in this state where your body does shut down your fullness because that’s what you need to survive. You don’t need that “off” switch. You don’t need to feel full if you’re starving. So, it’s kind of a similar thing. If you’re dieting and really depriving the body, you’re not going to feel full in the same way that marijuana artificially shuts down that fullness signal. Does that make sense?
It does make sense. But it’s interesting too, I guess because you were saying that the THC specifically targets neurons in the brain—because with alcohol, which I honestly believe alcohol is worse than marijuana. It can damage your whole thought process, and doesn’t that lead to lessening inhibitions? The first thing alcohol goes after is judgment, and so if you have a predisposition to bingeing, wouldn’t alcohol consumption almost be worse? or about the same? I really don’t know, again, I have more questions than I do answers. I can only tell you my experience of marijuana…and yeah, most of it is great except for…
Except for the bingeing. I mean, I would call it bingeing.
Are there ways to use marijuana in binge eating recovery without triggering out-of-control eating?
That’s what it felt like. I remember waking up the next day, again feeling the guilt, and that’s when I would just go back to smoking marijuana before I went to bed, because I can do it right before I go to bed, and then I’m in bed, and I’m not going to get up and go to the kitchen. I’m asleep, and I’m going to sleep through that period where there’s the comedown and you have the munchies as it were.
That’s a good point for people to know—people who do smoke marijuana and are recovering from bingeing and really feel like they need the marijuana. I mean, some people are prescribed it for anxiety and for different conditions, and it has a use and it’s very helpful for some people. So, things like you’re saying as far as going to sleep and timing it right so that you avoid being awake for the time that your appetite is abnormal is a good tip.
Now, we’re of course not doctors, and speak to your doctor, but it is something to bring up—that you are also struggling with binge eating—and maybe you can come up with a plan to see how it can fit into your life without affecting your recovery.
Yes. And I’m not a doctor, but I still feel like marijuana is still being accepted in the medical professional arena. So as you talk to your general practitioner, I’m wondering what the reaction would be if you said, yeah, I’m recovering from bingeing and I also take marijuana. I’m curious, I don’t mean to go off on a rail here, but I still think it’s probably seen as a street drug. Though, again, in my arguments, I think alcohol would be a lot worse than marijuana.
I’m glad you brought up alcohol because I do have a podcast on that (Episode 19: Should I Drink Alcohol While Trying to Stop Bingeing). But I basically advise people to really see how alcohol affects you personally, and it’s not the same across the board. I think it’s similar with marijuana in that you have to decide what’s right for you, but with alcohol, yes, it lowers your inhibitions.
Now for some people, those lower inhibitions lead to you acting on the habit, and lead to you having those out of control behaviors. But for some it doesn’t—it puts you in a state where maybe you’re not going to have urges to binge because you’re having pleasure from the alcohol and maybe you don’t want the pleasure of the food.
It is so different for each individual. Marijuana is going to affect each individual differently. How you smoke it or how ingest it, it’s going to affect people differently. Alcohol is going to affect people differently. I mean, I do drink alcohol, but I think it’s terrible for people. It’s poison that you put on your internal organs and on your brain, and there’s so many studies about how it rewires your brain and not for the better, and it slows you down.
And, you know, marijuana can have a lot of the same effects too on your neurons and, if you’re smoking it, on your lungs and capillaries and things of that nature when it comes to circulation. So I think the ideal situation is don’t do any of it, but it can have both beneficial and non-beneficial results for people.
Again, it’s just so individualized. You can’t make a general rule for everybody because it just affects people so differently. As I just told you, I’ve had that happen when I’ve overeaten a number of times—not every time I’ve taken it, but a number of times when I’ve taken it, and I can understand the correlation. So then I kind of change the habit because I don’t want to eat 5,000 calories and feel terrible. I try to set myself up for success. But I think it’s that individual journey where you’ve got to figure out what works for you and what doesn’t.
The relationship between marijuana use and binge eating is nuanced
Yeah, for sure. From what I’ve found, people are not saying in the research that marijuana use leads to binge eating disorder.They’re saying as a general rule on the whole, that’s not the case. But they’re actually saying the reverse is true in some studies—in that binge eaters are more likely to turn to marijuana, because of depression for example. Because of the stress that the binges cause in their life, they’re more likely to be using marijuana because of that.
So it’s interesting because that could lead to a spiral where you’re feeling depressed, so you either get prescribed marijuana or you start using marijuana and then you end up with these appetite increases that make things worse. So I do think the relationship is very nuanced and I’m sure there will be more studies that come out, but for now, I really recommend looking at the research for yourself and also just your personal experience.
Yeah and I think those things can be leaned into too much, especially when it comes to marijuana. I don’t know if I mentioned this in the last podcast, but I’m a veteran. So I went to Afghanistan and Iraq, I’m a combat veteran. And they’ll say, oh, for PTSD, you should smoke marijuana. I think when you’re reliant on anything external, it can lead to these habits. And as you write in your book, it’s breaking the habit and the urge.
I’ve seen my fellow soldiers just become dependent. Now it’s not a physical addiction, but again, as you articulate in your book, it’s not about a physical addiction. It’s about, you know, the mental addiction and the habit that you’re forming. If you need to smoke marijuana to get over the hump, you know, I’m not a doctor, but I would say that does work. But if you’re not doing some sort of meditation or some sort of other practices outside of it that you’re not reliant on an external thing (whether it be food, alcohol) then I don’t think that’s the right path as a whole.
Yeah. Because it runs the same risk of you constantly using something external to deal with emotions and cope with emotions. And I think our society feeds into that, I mean, a lot of my book is focused on that. And when we have that in our minds—that substances are coping mechanisms, binge eating is a coping mechanism—and when we have that urge to do it, we think that we’re sort of justified in doing it, and that it’s going to help us, and that we have these deep reasons and these emotional needs that need to be fulfilled. Whether we’re turning to food, whether we’re turning to marijuana, it can just lead us down a terrible path.
And I think it’s interesting too, because one thing I really respect about you is your integrity. As you wrote your book, as you do these podcasts, you are your true self. I always respect how you present your arguments or present your point of view…one it’s just that, and as we’re talking here about marijuana, we’re obviously not saying this is the cure or the damage. It’s just, this is the experience and you do need to have that individual journey to figure this out.
Yes, that’s a good point. I think some people are out there even promoting marijuana as a weight loss remedy…
Which is insane.
But it seems to have a regulatory effect on our appetites overall, which again, I found very interesting because in the moment, it’s shutting down fullness, it’s making you have increased hunger. So I’m just throwing these ideas out there to say that the research is very, very nuanced.
But from Jeff’s experience, and you know, this is not just Jeff, this is so many people who consume this…you do get this out of control feeling and this out of control eating behavior. And I just don’t think that can be a good thing for people trying to recover from bingeing. I’m hesitant to say, “don’t do it” because there are people who find that the benefits outweigh the risks. But I just don’t see how it can be a good thing to put yourself in that state where you’re basically mimicking what the urge to binge does to people.
I’ve taken marijuana in a lot of different realms…we go to concerts, I’ll take marijuana, we’ll watch Seinfeld, I like to smoke marijuana sometimes. It’s an enjoyable activity when I do it, you know, safely and not driving and all those things. And at times it has caused me to binge, again, I’m saying bingeing, but I’m not trying to diminish anything, I’m not trying to minimize anything. Maybe what I have done is overeat and not binge. But it has at times led me to overeat and go through that process—not every time, but that’s something now I’m much more conscious of.
Advice for recovering binge eaters is different from advice for people who overeat after marijuana
And I want to talk about that because when I was looking into this—and again, I’m not an expert, I keep saying that—but the recommendations for helping people overcome the urge to overeat after marijuana were very, very different from what you find for binge eaters.
So the recommendations for marijuana users dealing with the munchies were things like distract yourself, keep better food in the house. One of the big ones that hit me was like—realize that it’s all in your head, realize that it’s not real hunger, realize it’s just a brain glitch. It’s something going on with your neurons and your appetite mechanisms, but it’s not real. And honestly, that’s kind of what I teach people as far as bingeing.
You realize that this is a glitch in your brain, this is what I call neurological junk. It’s a habit. Your brain has created a pattern that your neurons have gotten into that’s firing, but it doesn’t mean that you’re actually hungry. It doesn’t mean you actually need those calories, and you basically have to ride it out and that is what the recommendation was to the marijuana users.
But then you go to binge eating and it’s like, “cope with your emotions,” and “learn to deal with depression.” And no one is telling that to someone who’s high having a brain glitch because they’re high, but they’re telling that to a binge eater who’s having a brain glitch for a variety of reasons—or because of dieting.
Well, use this or don’t use this, but it sounds like one of those persons is a victim and the other person is just going through a momentary lapse. And I think you would argue that you’re not a victim, you’re just going through that momentary lapse where you can overcome it. I don’t know if it was this in your book or you and I talking, but it was that no one tries to get spiritually whole to quit smoking.
Oh yeah, same thing with marijuana, you don’t get spiritually whole to overcome the munchies.
Yeah. I think what was interesting though, because I’m recalling now, when I first started eating that pizza, it was, “oh, I’m starving.” I mean, it was real, and this is before we had the conversation for me to have that extra layer of consciousness over it. Because when I was eating, I felt like I needed to eat—like I was starving. To say, “oh, just sit down and you’ll be fine,” I would’ve said that is a lie.
I remember feeling, “oh my gosh, I have to eat.” And so I think after our conversation and kind of working through it, there is that next level of consciousness to where, when you do feel that way, I can say, “oh, okay, I’m going through this momentarily and it will subside,” and it kind of works, and it kind of goes away. But not that night! It was real, and there’s nothing that anybody could have told me to change my mind about that, until I was lying on my bed sick. Then I was like, what did I do?
Yeah, the first time I binged due to being calorie restricted and being in a starvation state, yes, that was the experience. Even though I didn’t need thousands and thousands of calories (I needed normal meals, I needed nourishment over time, I didn’t need it all in that one sitting), if someone would’ve said, “this is not real,” I wouldn’t have believed them at the time. It was real. But once you get an understanding of what’s happening in the brain, once you understand those mechanisms, then you’re able to step back from that.
You can overcome binge urges and marijuana-induced desires to overeat
For whatever reason, it reminds me of like when you’ve had too much alcohol, you know not to drive. You become self-aware that okay, I’ve had too many, I’m not going to drive anymore. To me, it’s the same consciousness of, “okay, I’ve gotten high, I’m going to go through this period, it’s not going to last, and then I’ll be fine. And once you just do that, you kind of do develop that habit, and it just kind of goes away.
That’s really interesting. So, do you feel like now—learning what you’ve learned about the brain and kind of how this happens and how it’s a brain glitch—do you feel like under the influence of marijuana, you’re still able to access that self-control?
Yes, and more so, I think it’s heightened my enjoyment of it because I’m focusing on the benefits and not the detriments of it. Because you can go through it, enjoy it, and realize, okay, this is a part, but that’s not the whole part. And you just kind of move past it.
From your experience, and there’s probably research out there, how long does it take for that heightened desire to eat to go away?
You know, the clock moves very slowly when you’re high. I really can’t say, I would estimate, probably an hour.
And I’m sure everyone is different as far as how long that would last. And, it’s not that you can’t eat anything—you know, if you’re hungry, eat something. But I think you have to go into it knowing that you’re not going to have a bottom.
I always advocate for people to make sure they eat enough, to make sure they don’t go hungry. So if you’re in this state and you feel hungry, absolutely eat something, but know that you’re not going to get the stop signal. So you have to choose basically with your higher brain, how much is enough. You have to choose with your eyes—like, looking at everything you ate, all the pizza, the different things, you know that’s too much food. So you basically have to visualize what’s enough, and use your rational capacity more than your internal mechanisms.
And you obviously know more about this than I do, but especially that night, the salts, the sweets—that just made it worse. It hits the right taste bud or the right neuron in your brain, and you go, oh yeah, that’s it.
What I’ve done, and I probably have done this subconsciously now that I think about it, is avoided those things. So I don’t go for the chips. I’ll go for the celery because I know I don’t want to eat that much of it—you know, celery and peanut butter, or I do a lot of apples and peanut butter.
Yeah. It’s like when you’re in a state where you know you’re vulnerable, you choose foods that are not going to really stimulate those pleasure centers, really stimulate the appetite. And then that’s not a cure for bingeing because people can really binge on anything, but it’s just developing that extra layer of consciousness and supporting yourself better—not getting yourself into a situation where you’re just surrounded by salty and sweet snacks where you feel like you can’t control yourself.
I feel like we’ve covered this pretty thoroughly. I mean, I know there’s more we could talk about.
I feel like I was vry unhelpful…
What do you mean?
I don’t feel like I provided any definitive answers…
You’re not supposed to. I mean, I feel like you just describing your experience, it normalizes it for people. You’re a healthy man without an eating disorder and you can have something flip in your brain. You know, Jeff is in good shape, he eats a lot but not terribly unhealthy…and just to hear him talk about this experience of marijuana flipping the switch in his brain to kind of make him become a binge eater in the moment—whether or not we want to call it that—I hope it just gives you some level of comfort that you are not alone in these experiences that you have. And Jeff, would you like to say something to that?
I think that’s the really interesting part and I think that’s really what sparked this conversation. I told you about this experience and how it really related to the experience that you had when you were binge eating. And so I think it’s interesting to understand that anybody can be in these situations with different things, and so you do have to be that next level of conscious of your actions if you’re going to partake in marijuana.
Again, I think there are a lot of benefits to marijuana when it’s done safely. I think it’s just that you should understand how you’re going to react. And that’s just something I had to go through in my journey and again, talking with you about it.
Yes, I think it points to, I guess a common humanity or a common way all of our brains work. Like in binge eating, people are often told, “oh, there’s something wrong with you, you know, this is your past, this is your childhood, this is because of deep reasons.” Whereas all you did was smoke pot to have this created in your brain—to have the appetite become dysregulated. So for whatever reason it’s happened to you the listener, just realize that it doesn’t mean you’re fundamentally broken.
Truth, that’s the absolute truth.
And there are ways you can overcome it. And like Jeff says, we don’t want to minimize binge eating disorder and say, “oh, it’s just like the munchies.” No, there are differences here, but there are also some common elements, and we can learn from each other, and I hope you’ve learned from Jeff’s experience, and I appreciate you being here today.
Thank you so much for letting me be back on the show. I can’t wait to do it another year, hopefully, I’ll keep nagging you.
I think it was May that we did the other show together, and I thought it was great. You asked me a bunch of questions about the new edition of Brain over Binge and yeah, it was by popular demand that you come back.
He kept asking, when are we going to do the marijuana show? And the thing is, I kept putting it off because I felt like I needed to become an expert on it before I came on and talked about it. But as I looked at the research, I feel like there’s more questions than answers. So we’re just coming on, you know, vulnerable, sharing our experiences, not knowing all the answers, but we hope that it’s been helpful.
I’ll never nag you again to be on your podcast.
I’m sure that he’ll be back.
Thank you everyone for listening to this episode. I hope that it helped you have some of your own insights about the effect that marijuana or other substances may have on you as you let go of binge eating.
If you need some extra guidance, you can learn about the options available through BrainoverBinge.com/Subscribe.
There you can find information about the extensive self-paced online course, as well as the highly supportive structure of group coaching or one-on-one coaching with our amazing Brain over Binge coach Julie.
I look forward to talking to you again soon, and as always, I want to encourage you and remind you that you have the power to change your brain and live a binge free life.
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.