indulging in food binge eating recovery

Indulging in Food, Part 2: It’s Okay, You are Okay

This is the second part of a 3-part series on “indulging” in food. In my part 1, I talked about the fact that there is no consensus on what it means to indulge. I gave you two tips for how to think about indulging: First, remember that indulging is not the same as binge eating, and second, avoid overly restrictive definitions of indulging (because a lot of perfectionism and guilt can arise when you define indulging too narrowly).

In this post, I’m going talk about what indulging may mean to you personally; and more importantly, I’m going to try to help you see that it is okay to indulge and it does not mean something is wrong with you.

I don’t think it’s necessary to come up with an exact definition of what indulging means to you. Eating behaviors can’t always be neatly categorized. Eating is a balance; it can change from day to day, and certainly from person to person; and you get to make it work for you. You may already have your own thoughts about what indulging looks like in your life. Maybe you think about a holiday dinner, or having a meal at your favorite restaurant, or being on vacation and eating a variety of delicious foods you don’t normally eat, or maybe you think of having an extra serving of a food you love when you are already rather full. You may automatically think of eating sugary foods, like having a doughnut or two at the office, or a larger than usual piece of cake at a birthday party. It’s possible you think of healthy foods as well, like eating a big serving of your favorite organic vegetables, or a large, juicy grass-fed steak cooked just the way you like it, or succulent seasonal fruits that you love.

As long as you know indulging is not the same as a binge, and is not defined as “any time you eat imperfectly,” that gives you a wide range from which you can view indulgent eating. If you were to check the dictionary, the definitions of “indulge” are varied. Here are just a few: to allow oneself to enjoy the pleasure of….to yield to an inclination or desireto satisfy or gratify. Using only the textbook definitions, you could theoretically indulge in any eating opportunity, because you could think of it being more about the experience of pleasure and satisfaction than the amount or type of food. During any normal meal or even a small snack, you can certainly allow yourself to take pleasure in it, and you can feel satisfied and gratified. Eating is pleasurable and food should be enjoyed.

However, when leaders in the field of eating disorders say, “it’s okay to indulge sometimes,” they typically mean it’s okay to get more-than-normal satisfaction and gratification from eating. So, in the context of promoting recovery from binge eating, bulimia, anorexia, and EDNOS, indulgence usually refers to eating experiences that are at least a little outside of what you’d consider normal food pleasure. And, that’s the general standard I’m using when talking about “indulging” in this blog series.

Using that perspective, if we were to come up with a broad, overarching view of indulgent eating, it would be something like this: Taking more pleasure in food than you normally do, or more pleasure than you’d consider normal (and this description is given with the assumption that it’s okay to take pleasure in your food whenever and whatever you eat.)

If you want to explore what indulging means to you personally, take a look at what you believe normal eating is for you (and if you aren’t eating normally yet, look for examples in other people who you consider to be normal eaters); and then, if you decide to take more pleasure in food than that baseline of “normal,” that’s what you can see as indulging. If “normal” is enjoying most meals and snacks, experiencing pleasure in eating reasonable amounts (of both healthy foods and some unhealthy foods as well); then indulging could be thought of as enjoying too much of  certain foods that are either healthy or unhealthy…but you’ll probably be more likely to think it’s indulgence when the foods are unhealthy.

For example, you might eat one average-sized scoop of ice cream for dessert sometimes and you consider that normal eating pleasure, so indulging might be having a two-scoop serving with toppings, which leaves you a little too full. Normal food pleasure might be going to a restaurant and enjoying every bite of your favorite meal, and indulging might be having an appetizer and wine before the meal, still enjoying your meal, and possibly even having dessert afterward.

I realize words like “too much” or “normal,” and even “healthy” and “unhealthy” are open to interpretation, but that’s okay, because how we eat and how we indulge in food is highly individual, and having the freedom to decide what it means to you is empowering.

But, why does any of this matter to binge eating recovery?

Because I want you to take the advice that “it’s okay to indulge” to heart. I want you to believe it, and to believe it requires understanding it. I want you to know that quitting the binge eating habit never means quitting the pleasure of eating, and it also doesn’t mean giving up indulging in food. If you think it does, it makes recovery seem much more difficult, because it requires you to live up to unrealistic standards and it fosters a rigid mindset around food.

From a purely nutritional perspective, is indulging an ideal form of eating? Probably not. Is indulging optimally healthy when we look at it only from a physiological standpoint?  Again, probably not, because even if you are indulging in healthy foods, too much of anything usually isn’t nutritionally ideal. But might indulging sometimes be good for your mental health and stress level, and benefit you more overall than always having tight control over your portions and the types of foods you allow yourself? Absolutely, especially if you are learning to overcome a “dieting” mindset.

Not only is it okay to indulge, YOU are okay if you indulge. Indulging in food is not a sign that you are off-track in recovery from binge eating. 

Because binge eating activates a more-than-normal pleasure process in your primitive brain, and gives you a temporary reward, in some ways it may seem similar to indulging. So when you are trying to quit binge eating and you find yourself indulging, your inclination may be to think that you are not okay, and that indulging is just another sign that something is wrong with you, and you will never be normal around food. That is not the case.

When you indulge, simply recognize it, be aware of it, label it as “indulging” if that helps you, and then just continue your recovery – always keeping your intention and commitment not to binge. You can even get excited when you avoid following an indulgence with a binge. Turn your mindset from “I didn’t eat perfectly, I indulged…something is wrong with me” to a more empowering thought like, “Yes, I may have indulged…but I’m breaking the connection between normal indulgence and binge eating.”

Another benefit of believing it’s okay to indulge and you are okay when you indulge is that it helps cement the fact that you are not restrictively dieting. It helps your body realize you are going to feed it and food pleasure is allowed. This can reduce the binge urges that are rooted in the survival drives, which are activated by deprivation.

Like I mentioned at the end of the last post, I’m not saying indulging too much is a good thing; I’m not saying you should never try to curb indulgence if it’s causing a problem for you (which I’ll talk about in the next post).  But, I am saying that when you do indulge, it’s very helpful to avoid self-criticism and avoid thinking you are flawed and broken, and instead remember that it’s okay and you are okay.

Go to Indulging in Food, Part III

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More help:

If you want extra guidance as you work on the recovery goals of the Brain over Binge approach, here are some resources for additional support:

Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $10.99/month. Includes over 120 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating. (Monthly price going up on 1/1/2022 for new members.  All existing members will keep paying the $10.99/month rate)

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.

binge eating recovery PMS (podcast)

Episode 21: Dealing with PMS, or with Feeling “Off,” as a Recovering Binge Eater

primal brain binge eating

The Primal Brain’s Role in Normal Eating (and Binge Eating)

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 (now available on Audible) 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:

Episode 16: Eating Intuitively: Is it Right for You in Recovery From Binge Eating?

Indulging in Food: Getting over Overindulging

Overeating: Don’t Overdo Self-Control 

Listen to Your Body?

Episode 47: What if I’m Overeating After I Stop Binge Eating?

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More 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.

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.