If you’ve read Brain over Binge, you know how much trouble I had with cereal during my dieting and binge eating days. But now, many years after recovery, I don’t eat much cereal at all, and it’s not a struggle to avoid it. I never would have believed that was possible when I was a binge eater, because cereal seemed to control me. It often consumed my thoughts until I ate bowl after bowl of it during binges. I never thought it would be possible to simply walk away from cereal without feeling extremely deprived; but to my surprise, it happened quite naturally. I want to share more about this healthy change with you, in hopes that it gives you some insight and ideas for how similar healthy changes may occur in your own life after binge eating recovery.
I don’t have a rule against eating cereal, but cereal has mostly lost it’s appeal, and my days of binge eating cereal are long gone. I actually do eat cereal sometimes, but the vast majority of the time, it’s not the kind I used to crave when I was dieting—sugary cereal—which eventually became the kind of cereal I binged on frequently.
Before I dive deeper into talking about how I stopped bingeing on cereal and craving it, I want to mention that this post is the second part of a two-part series about healthy changes after recovery. You can read Part I: Moderation, Choice, and Creating Your Way of Eating to learn more about feeling in control around all types of food, deciding what’s best for your unique body and lifestyle, and being patient with yourself as you make healthy improvements to your eating habits. Both Part I and this Part II post are primarily for people who are now binge-free, or who do not actually struggle with binge eating, and instead have other problematic eating habits like overeating, grazing, or feeling addicted to certain foods.
My Healthy Change: From Cereal Binges to Not Even Thinking About Cereal
I used to eat sugary cereal often for breakfast as a kid and teen. My mother—like most 80’s/90’s moms—used to buy the “fun” cereal brands like Lucky Charms, but she also tried to balance it out with varieties that were viewed as healthier at the time, like Raisin Bran (the kind with sugar-coated raisins, which of course is far from what is considered healthy today). I ate various types of cereal in normal amounts, and I always stopped when I was comfortably satisfied without thinking about it at all. It wasn’t until I started restricting my food intake (in order to try to control my weight) that I began labeling sugary cereal as “bad,” and began trying to avoid it…and then ended up eating more of it than I ever thought possible.
At the time I started dieting (1997), dietary fat was mostly considered the villain, and because cereal was generally low-fat, my reason for thinking it was “bad” didn’t have much to do with its nutritional content or high sugar. I thought it was bad because of the way I started feeling around it. When I was restricting my food, I suddenly craved cereal and I had trouble controlling myself around it, and had trouble stopping once I started eating it. I seemed to want so much cereal, which I’d never experienced before and which scared me. I feared that eating too much of it would give me too many calories and make me gain weight, so I decided to try avoiding it altogether, which made me crave it even more.
I shared in Brain over Binge that my first binge was on sugary cereal—8 full bowls of it. In hindsight, it’s easy to see exactly what happened, and what turned me from a normal-cereal-eater to someone who could binge on 8 bowls of cereal. The short version is that I was starving. I wasn’t eating enough, and because of that, the appeal of the cereal skyrocketed. Calorie deprivation increases the reward value of food*, especially food that is highly palatable (which usually means it’s high in sugar and carbs and/or fat). My strong cravings for cereal made sense from a survival perspective—my brain was just trying to make me eat large amounts of the foods it sensed would help me survive the “famine” I’d created for myself by dieting.
Before I was in a calorie-deficit, I could totally forget we had cereal in the house, and in my life today, it’s the same. But, when I was in that calorie-deprived state, I would often wake up in the morning and go to bed at night obsessively thinking about the cereal in the pantry. Then, once I binged on cereal once, it quickly became a habit. Eating bowl after bowl of cereal became a regular part of my binges, and during binge urges and binge episodes, it felt like my body truly needed that much cereal.
At certain times during my binge eating years, I read information about foods being addictive or people being powerless, so I tried to give up cereal (and other foods) from time to time. However, this never worked, and seemed like such a baffling approach to tell someone who feels so out of control around a food to simply never eat that food. If I couldn’t stop my cereal binges, how was I supposed to give up cereal altogether? Maybe that approach would have worked for me if cereal suddenly no longer existed on earth; but in my world of living in a college town with roommates, there was no way to fully escape cereal.
I also tried moderation approaches with sugary cereal, which made more sense to me, but proved to be frustrating as well—because I actually did learn to eat sugary cereal in moderation…and I still binged on it. At the time, I didn’t understand that it was the binge urges that caused the binges, not the sugary cereal. (If you are new to this approach and want to learn more about binge urges and how you can avoid giving in to them, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics).
Looking back, it makes sense that I could only eat sugary cereal in moderation when I did not have binge urges. But, if I had an urge to binge before, during, or after eating the cereal, it was very likely that I’d follow that urge and binge on the cereal.
I Stopped Bingeing on Cereal When I Stopped Acting on My Urges to Binge on Cereal
Once I learned how to stop acting on my urges to binge, which I talk about thoroughly in Episode 7: Dismiss Urges to Binge: Component 4 (Stop Acting on Urges to Binge), those urges went away—even when I was eating my former binge foods, like sugary cereal. Then, I could eat sugary cereal in moderation again—every time—without it being difficult.
I resumed my normal life and simply ate cereal when I wanted. It was a common breakfast food for me after recovery, although I’d try to mostly buy the kinds that were a little “healthier.” (I put that in quotes, because today, processed cereals of all types are generally not considered healthy). I still ate high-sugar varieties now and then as well, primarily as a night snack. After binge eating ended and my appetite stabilized, I quickly realized that eating too much sugar in the morning didn’t make me feel good. Choosing the low-sugar varieties if I was eating cereal in the morning, and then sometimes having a high-sugar treat at night was what seemed to work for my body, and not something that I forced myself into.
As the months and years went by, nutrition research pointed more and more to the idea that sugar and processed grains cause harm to health. My carefree cereal-eating days seemed to be in question. Although I had never been under the impression that cereal was super-healthy, I didn’t think it was causing harm.
I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the idea that I could absolutely have anything I wanted in moderation, but also that some foods are— without a doubt—not healthy. At the time, my binge eating days were long gone, but I was also firmly set in an anti-diet mentality. I knew dieting caused harm; I knew I never wanted to go down that path again, but would not eating sugary-cereal be “dieting”?
The short answer is no, it would not be dieting, but it took me a little while to truly see it that way. I gradually came to believe that making healthy changes in a gentle, non-stressful way—while making sure you are nourished and eating enough—is not dieting. It’s simply trading out foods that are no longer serving you, with foods that serve you better, and it never has to mean banning foods completely.
What Helped Change My Relationship to Cereal After Binge Eating Recovery?
Fast forward to today, I can’t even remember the last time I ate the types of cereal I used to binge on. I sometimes eat types of cereal that are more natural, such as granola—still typically as a night snack—but it’s not very often. I may eat it for a couple of nights, and then forget I have the box for weeks or months, or I simply won’t want it.
How is it that I’m not craving sugary cereal like I used to? How can I (mostly) not eat sugary cereal, but also not feel restricted at all? How can I basically never eat the brands of cereal I thought about morning and night as a dieter, and no longer think about them?
Like I mentioned in the beginning of this post, my past self would have never believed this to be possible. So, I want to share some practical tips and ideas to help you if you feel like you don’t have control around certain foods, and you want to make healthy changes.
Here’s a rundown on what helped me change my relationship with cereal, and hopefully it will help you see how healthy changes can be possible for you too.
I no longer feel out of control around cereal because…
1. I know I can have cereal if I want it. I can absolutely go buy a box of cereal right now—even a very unhealthy kind like Lucky Charms—and have a bowl and enjoy it, no big deal. It’s not forbidden in my mind. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure (in moderation) is not always a bad thing. It’s fun, it’s delicious, and we all have to find that balance in our own lives between pleasure and focusing on our health.
2. I’m no longer calorie restricted. Sugar doesn’t hold that high appeal that it did when I was starving and it was so attractive to my survival instincts. It’s amazing what eating enough will do to help your cravings! It’s so important that half of my 8-lesson online course focuses on helping you learn to eat adequately, so that you have the ability to stop binge eating.
3. My decision to reduce my cereal intake came gradually and naturally. My slow shift away from cereal came partially from nutritional information I read, but also from my own insight about how the cereal was making me feel, as well as from learning to expand my tastes to other, more nourishing foods. I never felt like I was fighting against myself, or holding myself back from something I truly wanted. Also, the changes came when I was ready to make the changes, not because someone else told me that’s what I should do.
4. I don’t believe I’m powerless against cereal, or any other food. I know I can eat a normal amount of cereal without a problem, so there’s no fear around eating it. Conversely, there’s no fear that not eating it will lead me to crave it more. When I tried to give up cereal during my binge eating years, it was out of a sense of fear—because I thought that one bite would lead to 8 bowls. Fearing a food tends to keeps it on your mind, and keeps your attention focused on that food. Now, there is relaxation around cereal, and I rarely think about it. (To learn more about why giving up certain foods isn’t a cure for binge eating, and what to do if you need to avoid certain foods for medical reasons, you can read my 3-part blog series on Eliminating Foods).
5. I do not have a restrictive rule to “not eat sugary cereal.” This is similar to reason #1, but I want to expand on it by saying that when you make a genuine choice to eat in a healthier way and it feels good, you feel in alignment. You don’t feel restricted. You don’t fantasize about the unhealthy foods that you’re not eating. You simply choose (most of the time) to have other things, and don’t really miss what you aren’t having.
6. I’m simply older…and I don’t think many adults are still eating Lucky Charms for breakfast. It’s okay to walk away from childhood foods that aren’t benefiting you in adulthood. This is not dieting. You could simply call it “growing up,” or learning to take care of yourself.
I don’t want to give the impression that my eating is perfectly healthy. There are many other unhealthy foods that I still choose to eat! But, I wanted to share this personal story to let you know that giving up binge eating and giving up dieting does not at all mean giving up on health. After binge eating ends, you are free to make (or not make) any healthy changes you want, in a way that works for you, and on a timeline that works for you.
Making those healthy changes is not part of binge eating recovery, it’s simply part of life. However, as a former binge eater, you will want to make sure you make changes in a healthy way that doesn’t involve putting yourself in a calorie deficit or becoming obsessive or overly restrictive about foods.
If you want more guidance in learning to eat normally, and ending the binge eating habit, you can try a free preview of the Brain over Binge Course.
For more on this topic:
*One example of research demonstrating this: Stice, E., K. Burger, and S. Yokum. “Calorie Deprivation Increases Responsivity of Attention and Reward Brain Regions to Intake, Anticipated Intake, and Images of Palatable Foods.” NeuroImage 67 (2013): 322-330
It’s common for binge eaters to primarily binge at night; and even after binge eating stops, you may still find yourself having late-night food cravings. Some people are bothered by these cravings, and wonder if giving in to them means that they are overindulging; or conversely, if ignoring those cravings means that they are being too restrictive. Everyone has to navigate the balance between restriction and overindulging, and at night is when we usually have the most opportunities to do that. Most people don’t get up in the morning craving a piece of cake, but after the work of the day is done, that piece of cake may seem much more appealing.
An important thing to know as a recovering binge eater—or anyone who feels like they eat too much at night—is that night food cravings are very common. One study found that appetite and interest in food peaks at around 8 pm, as part of our natural circadian rhythm. So, when you find yourself craving a sugary snack after dinner or after dark, know that you are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you. There are many theories as to why this is so, and you can read about some of them in this article: The Science of the Midnight Snack. From an evolutionary perspective, night eating had a survival advantage in that it helped our ancestors store calories more efficiently when food was less abundant. Even today, we live in a sort of “hunting” mode during the day—working, moving, and doing—and once we slow down at night, our survival mechanisms recognize this and give us a “time to eat!” signal. It’s as if we are wired to want to eat more at night to replenish the energy stores we lost during the day, and store up more for tomorrow.
We tend to crave sweets at night not only to replenish and store up energy, but for quick energy in the moment. At night we are tired and our brains are energy depleted. If we choose to stay awake or have to stay awake, our brains will naturally view sugary food as attractive and rewarding because it is a source of quick energy. Sure, a banana would do the trick, but for most people, that’s not what is the most appealing after dark. Our self-control functions are at their weakest when we are exhausted, so it’s no wonder that many people don’t make their healthiest food choices at night.
For people struggling with binge eating, these natural mechanisms can make them more likely to experience (and give in to) urges to binge at night; or their decision to follow a night craving leads to thoughts that say: “I’ve already blown it, so I might as well binge.” Instead of learning of the normalcy of late-night cravings, binge eaters often learn that wanting to eat at night is a signal that they aren’t emotionally fulfilled, or that their day was too stressful, or that they didn’t eat the right foods for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. While stress, sleep, and diet patterns certainly can play a role in the frequency and intensity of night cravings, realizing that this type of heightened interest in food—especially junk food—is normal may help you spend less time asking why, and instead focus on some useful strategies to manage the night cravings when they occur.
Common advice for dealing with night eating is to keep healthier food options in the house, make sure you are eating enough throughout the day, eat dinner a bit later, do some light exercise at night, stay hydrated, make plans for when cravings hit, or just go to bed earlier. These common suggestions are certainly useful, but I want to go beyond that and give you 4 more things to think about when night cravings hit. These 4 tips can be helpful whether you are still binge eating at night or if you simply feel like you are eating too much after dark.
1: Stop Telling Yourself You Shouldn’t Eat at Night
We’ve all heard the popular advice that eating late leads to more weight gain, but this idea is actually rather controversial. While some experts say that the body doesn’t process and use food and calories well at night, so night eating can lead to weight gain, others claim that eating late at night is actually better for fat loss. Here is an article that says overall food intake matters more than timing, and it’s possible that the any observed link between late night eating and weight gain is not a causal relationship.
It’s important not to take all weight loss advice at face value and use it to make rigid rules for yourself. Telling yourself, “It’s late, I shouldn’t eat anything” can lead you to want to eat more—because anything that is forbidden in your mind becomes more appealing. You have freedom to eat at night if you want to, and only you can make that choice. I frequently have a snack before bed, and I’ve also eaten in the middle of the night from time to time since I recovered from binge eating. I’ve struggled with insomnia at various points, and during those sleepless nights, I’d eat about every 2 to 3 hours. I didn’t plan the intervals—that’s just when my body would naturally signal hunger. I’ve also been awake all night countless times with my babies, and I’ve spent long nights writing; and again, I eat when I’m hungry. The reason most people don’t eat in the middle of the night is because they are sleeping, not because they are telling themselves that they “shouldn’t”. If you are awake for one reason or another, don’t beat yourself up for being hungry and having some food.
2: Enjoy Your Late Night Snack
If you decide to eat something at night—either before bed or if you wake up in the middle of the night—don’t do it in a guilt-ridden way. Own your choice and enjoy the food. It sometimes helps people to put the food on a plate and sit down to eat, instead of standing at the refrigerator. This makes your choice to eat feel more like a well-thought out decision instead of an impulsive one.
When I was in therapy for bulimia and binge eating disorder, I worked with a nutritionist who created a meal plan for me. She spread out my calories evenly during the day, which is fine; but it didn’t quite feel right to me and now I understand why. I didn’t find myself wanting a big breakfast or lunch, and found myself basically forcing in the food. Then, I’d come to the end of the day not feeling like my dinner or bedtime snack was big enough. I’d become frustrated and resentful; and if I decided to eat something extra late at night, I’d feel so guilty that I wouldn’t truly enjoy it. This mindset often led directly to urges to binge at night, and I’d proceed to eat thousands more calories after my snack. My therapist explained that this night binge eating pattern stemmed from emotional issues.
Now, looking back, I can see that I simply needed more calories at night. I was an athlete at the time, and big meals during the day weren’t practical because they made me feel sluggish and full for track practice—which was usually twice per day. I needed more at night because that’s when my body signaled me to replenish my energy reserves. Altering my eating plan wouldn’t have stopped my binge eating (because I didn’t know how to dismiss the binge urges at the time), but there was simply no need for me to beat myself up over wanting to eat more at night. I should have eaten a little less during the day to fit my lifestyle, and then enjoyed a larger dinner and bedtime snack, without all the shame. Everyone has different patterns, so trust yourself to settle on eating times and amounts that work for you.
[If you feel like you need one-on-one support in creating a meal plan for yourself and nourishing your body during and after bulimia/binge eating recovery, Binge Code Coaching specializes in this.]
3: Deal with Blood Sugar Fluctuations
If you are waking out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night feeling hungry, it could be a blood sugar imbalance. Of course, if you have any blood sugar problems, you should always seek a doctor’s advice. Here I’m talking about a simple dip in blood sugar that is making you feel like you need to eat something. You can try sipping some diluted juice before eating to take the edge off of the craving, and that has the added benefit of hydrating you—to ensure your craving isn’t partially due to thirst.
Then, if you are still feeling hungry, you will be in a less ravenous state and you can make a more rational decision about what to eat. I realize you don’t want to do this every night because it interrupts sleep, so as a long term strategy, you’ll want to balance blood sugar overall, and you can get nutritional support to do that. Some people find it helpful to eat something right before bed that will help regulate blood sugar—including protein, healthy fat, and possibly some high quality carbohydrates.
4: Use Detachment from Cravings in Conjunction with Other Strategies
Even if you stop binge eating at night, you might find that your night cravings still feel problematic. You can be confident that you never have a follow a night craving (or any craving) with a binge, but it makes sense to start addressing the night cravings. These type of cravings are more common if you are overtired, overworked, or overstressed, so working on those areas can often tweak your physiology enough to reduce nighttime cravings. Meditation, exercise, and supplements may also have a place in balancing your body. However, there will inevitably be times when life is rough, and stress is inevitable, or there is no time to meditate or exercise, or you have no extra money for supplements. That’s why it’s important to know that you aren’t powerless when it comes to any type of craving.
Yes, it’s normal to have night cravings; yes, it’s okay to follow them; and yes, it’s great to enjoy whatever food you choose to eat at night—but you are still capable of a drawing a line when enough is enough, or deciding to simply say no. You can detach from night cravings just like you detach from binge urges. You can choose not to act on a night craving just like you choose not to act on an urge to binge. You don’t ever need to make night eating off-limits, but know that you get to decide the place that night eating has in your life.
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.
I understand what it’s like to be confused about what to eat, and to feel like maybe if you just have the right meal plan, or if you eat all of the right foods, you can finally stop binge eating. Many people have asked what I ate at the time that I recovered, and today I’m going to share those details.
Since this post will address my diet and paleo eating, I want to say right away that I did not eat paleo when I stopped binge eating, and in fact, my diet was quite the opposite of paleo. Paleo is becoming a popular way to eat to pursue better health, weight loss, and even binge eating recovery. But, for reasons I’ll explain in this post, I do not believe paleo eating is a cure for binge eating disorder, bulimia, or any form of binge eating.
What I Ate During Binge Eating Recovery
I didn’t share exact details in my book, because I didn’t want people to feel like they should follow my way of eating. Everyone has different needs, and I certainly didn’t recover because of my specific diet. I am using the word diet in this sense to mean way of eating, and not a form of restriction.
My diet at the time I recovered in 2005 was not very healthy compared to today’s standards, especially if you believe that paleo eating is the healthiest. For example, when I recovered, whole wheat and whole grain food items were mostly considered healthy, and now some experts think they are at the root of many health problems and diseases. Also, low-fat dairy seemed to be considered healthier than full-fat dairy, and now many experts claim the opposite, or that dairy isn’t healthy in any form.
What I considered a pretty good diet then isn’t what I consider healthy today; and sometimes I am not even sure what I consider healthy (you can see my What is Healthy? post for a discussion about this). Nevertheless, I want to share what I ate in hopes that it will help you realize that you don’t have to eat perfectly, and that it’s important to eat enough.
Most of the time, I ate 3 meals plus 3 or 4 snacks per day, likely averaging about 2300 calories per day. I usually stayed in the range of 2000-2500 calories, sometimes slightly more, sometimes less. I didn’t count calories at the time, nor do I today; but I was pretty knowledgeable about calories, as most people with a history of eating disorders are, so I knew generally how much I was getting. I was very active at the time, because I was on my feet all day working in a special education classroom with kids who had severe and profound disabilities, and I exercised about 5-6 times a week for 20-30 min.
Even though I ate pretty regular meals and snacks, the meal/snack times and what I ate were very flexible. Sometimes I’d inadvertently miss a meal, sometimes I’d eat more that usual at a meal, and sometimes not as much. Below, I’ve included a small sample of some of the meals/snacks that I ate, and if you want to learn more about my overall thoughts on food intake, you can read my post, How Much Should I Eat?. Note that any measurement I give in this sample is just an average because I didn’t measure my food.
- Bowl of cereal (about 1 ½ cups dry cereal and 1 cup of 1% or 2% milk) and fruit. The cereal was usually something low-sugar/whole grain like Bran Flakes, but sometimes I’d chose a more sugary option. or…
- 2 whole grain waffles with about 2 tbsp peanut butter, and fruit. or….
- Whole grain bagel with about 2 tbsp Cream cheese, and fruit. or….
- 2 eggs (scrambled, fried, or hard-boiled) with 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast and butter, plus some fruit. or….
- Bowl of oatmeal (2 servings based on the label) with a little low-fat milk and some fruit.
*The fruit that I ate with my breakfast was something like an apple, banana, grapes (maybe 15 or so), or an orange.
- 8 oz container of flavored yogurt or….
- Granola bar or….
- Protein bar or….
- Low-fat cookies (about 4) or….
- Cheese or peanut butter-filled cracker sandwiches (I believe 6 came in a pack)
- Turkey and cheese sandwich (2 pieces whole grain bread, about 1 tbsp mayonnaise, 1 piece of cheese, a few slices of deli turkey), with chips (about 15) and a vegetable (usually a small can of green beans; or fresh celery or carrot sticks) or…
- 1 can of soup (lentil, chicken noodle, black bean, tomato) with wheat crackers (about 8) or 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast, fruit- Lean pocket (usually 1, sometimes 2), vegetable, wheat crackers (5-10) or chips.
Snack #2: Generally the same choices as snack #1 above.
- Whole wheat pasta and meatballs (about 1 1/2 cup cooked pasta, 2 medium meatballs, marinara sauce), with a serving of vegetables like corn or green peas, and a roll with butter.
- Pork chops with gravy, brown Rice (1 1/2 cup cooked), a serving of vegetables, and a piece of garlic bread.
- Tuna salad sandwich (2 slices of wheat bread, 3/4 can of tuna, mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, with chips (about 10-15).
- My late night snack was usually a bowl of cereal (about the same serving size as when I had it for breakfast). It was usually a cereal I thought was pretty healthy at the time; but I’d have a sugary option probably once every couple of weeks.
- I had dessert an average of 2 times a week (usually after dinner). Desserts were something like 1 cup of ice cream, 1-5 cookies, an average size piece of cake, ½ of a chocolate bar, or just a couple of hard candies after a meal.
- My husband and I were not the greatest cooks, and we did eat out a lot. We ordered pizza about once every two weeks for dinner, and I would usually eat 2 to 3 slices, depending on the size of the slices. We got fast food at least once per week for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I ordered either a breakfast sandwich, or hamburger or fish sandwich with fries (usually small, but sometimes a bigger size if I was more hungry).
- I drank mostly water at the time, but I’d often have a cup of orange, grape, or apple juice sometime during the day, and I drank a diet soda a couple times a week. I also drank coffee each day with 1% or 2% milk in it. I had one or two alcoholic drinks (beer or wine) a couple times per month.
The Opposite of Paleo
Considering that I thought whole grains/whole wheat were healthy, this seemed like a decent diet to me. It allowed me flexibility, foods that I liked, and variety. But, as it turned out, my diet was nearly the antithesis of the way of eating that many experts now claim is healthy, and that’s paleo eating.
The paleo diet has been popularized especially in the past couple years by books like The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf (2010), and The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain (2010). The paleo theory basically argues against consumption of all wheat, grains, legumes, dairy products, sugar, and processed oils. In the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about this way of eating, and the implications for binge eaters.
When I first heard the theory that whole grains and whole wheat are not healthy, it honestly caught me off guard, because I’d spent so much time believing they were good for me. I could completely understand why someone would say that sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods were unhealthy, but whole grains? It also shocked me that legumes and dairy (foods I assumed were healthy for many years) are excluded from the paleo diet. I did some research, and realized there is compelling evidence behind the idea that these foods are not the best choices for our health.
Is Paleo a Healthy Way to Eat?
The basic theory is that humans are not genetically adapted to digest grains, dairy, legumes, and the other foods that the paleo diet eliminates, and these foods act like toxins to our systems. There is still a lot of controversy about this theory, and I’m not saying I’m 100 percent sold on the idea. There are studies and experts who refute it, and some say it’s just another fad diet.
Personally, I still eat grains and beans, albeit less and especially less wheat; and I’ve been eating more meat, eggs, fresh veggies, and a lot more fat (in the form of coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.) I still eat dairy as well; but now I always buy full-fat dairy.
If grains are a culprit in a lot of health problems in our society; I find this news pretty hard to take. One walk through the grocery store shows that most food manufactures promote “whole grain” food as a healthy option, or as a positive addition to any food. It’s one thing when you eat sugar or processed food and you know it’s not the best for you, but also okay in moderation; but it’s quite another when you eat something for years and years thinking it’s healthy, and you find out it probably wasn’t healthy after all.
A more bothersome part about this is that I’ve fed a lot of whole grains and beans to my children, basically since they started eating solid food, thinking I was doing something good for them. I bought a book about preparing healthy and natural baby food when my first born began eating solids. The book was more vegetarian in nature, and it recommended starting a baby’s day with a breakfast of homemade porridge, consisting of whole grains and beans blended together. When I think of all the whole grains and beans I bought in bulk from the health food store, and all of the nights I stayed up late cooking beans and grains for my babies, and how I went through a lot of extra trouble to lovingly feed them something I thought was healthy; I feel terrible to think all of it may have been in vain, or even toxic to their systems.
Again, it’s one thing to give your kid a cookie or candy knowing it’s primarily for pleasure and that they aren’t getting nutrition from it; but it’s quite another when you find out the majority of the “healthy” food you’ve fed your kids might not have been healthy at all. But enough of me venting about my personal feelings on this matter; now I want to turn to talking about how paleo eating relates to recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder.
Paleo as a Fix for Binge Eating?
Special diets as cures for binge eating and bulimia are nothing new. In Brain over Binge, I talked about the addiction model of treating binge eating. Addiction treatment is based on the idea that the foods a binge eater typically binges on, which are usually foods high in sugar and carbohydrates, are physically addictive; and to recover, the binge eater must abstain from those addictive foods, often indefinitely.
One of the pioneers in the addiction model of treating binge eating, compulsive eating, and food addiction was Anne Katherine, author of Anatomy of a Food Addiction. In her book, Katherine recommends avoiding what she believes are the culprits of a food addiction – sugar and refined carbohydrates. She recommends “converting to whole wheat eating,” and says that “nearly every beloved flour product can be replaced with a sugar-free, 100 percent whole-wheat product.” This book also recommends converting to other whole grains, like eating brown rice instead of white rice.[i]
Now, some are taking it one huge step further, by making a paleo diet a requirement, or at least an important step in recovery. While paleo eating might be helpful to some people in some ways, I would hate to see a situation where binge eaters are told they must give up many food groups in order to live free of binge eating. To make these types of sweeping changes in the way you eat is very difficult. I know several extremely health conscious people, and none of them follow a perfect paleo diet. Quite simply, asking binge eaters to only eat paleo foods in order to fix binge eating is asking too much, when even normal eaters can struggle greatly with eliminating foods from their diets.
The Problem with Paleo as a Potential Solution to Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder
The reality is, grains are everywhere and we have learn to live with them. If we choose not to eat them, I believe it has to be just that – a choice – not a requirement for recovery. Avoiding certain foods for health reasons might be a beneficial choice for certain people, as long as the person is making sure they are eating enough calories and getting enough nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. However, as far as being helpful in recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder, I think there are several reasons why a paleo diet is not the answer, and I’ve explained those reasons below:
- Avoiding certain foods with the belief that one bite of those foods will spiral into a binge can be self-fulfilling. What happens if the former binge eater decides to eat grains again one day? Does this mean she or he is destined to relapse? Feeling like you can control yourself around any food seems to be the safer option.
- Binge eaters can binge on anything. Even though carbohydrates are the most common binge foods, the reality is that binge eaters can and do binge on all types of foods. If you don’t break the binge eating habit, the primal brain will continue looking for opportunities to binge, and will find them on any eating regimen, including the paleo diet.
- A paleo diet does not take away the desire for the temporary pleasure of a binge. Binge eating alters the reward system in the brain and it becomes a habit of pleasure (which ultimately leads to pain). Just because the paleo diet says to eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates does not shut off the urges to binge on those foods. If a paleo diet is going to alter body and brain chemistry to eventually reduce cravings for certain “addicting” foods, it still doesn’t guarantee that the desire to binge will go away.
- Telling a binge eater to eat a paleo diet fails to address behavioral conditioning. The habit becomes wired into the brain so that the brain can produce cravings for binges automatically, regardless of what the person is eating.
- A paleo diet does not address the lack of self-control binge eaters feel. A sense of lack of control over eating is fundamental to all cases of bulimia and binge eating disorder; so telling a binge eater that the solution to their problem is to use a ton of self control to avoid many foods simply doesn’t make sense.
Can Paleo at Least Help Eliminate Some Cravings and Urges?
Getting past these problems, if binge eaters could manage to eat a paleo-type diet for a long time, would it eliminate urges to binge?
If the person did not binge during this time, then I believe the urges would lessen or go away, but not due to the paleo diet itself. Not acting on the binge urges weakens the habit in the brain, and the urges fade, whether or not you are eating paleo. So, it’s not the paleo diet that eliminates the binge eating habit; it’s not binge eating that eliminates the binge eating habit.
If a person eats paleo, and binges on paleo foods, then they still have a binge eating habit. If a person eats a diet including all foods, and binges on none of those foods, then they do not have a binge eating habit. I realize this is obvious, but I think it’s important to point out that a certain way of eating is not the cure; the cure is to stop acting on the binge urges. (If you are new here and want to learn how to avoid following your urges to binge, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.)
Then the question becomes: Is it easier to stop acting on urges to binge if you are eating paleo? I think the answer is possibly, for some people. If eating grains, sugar, and carbs typically leads to binge urges for you, then eating a paleo diet could potentially create a situation where you have less urges to deal with. That’s assuming you can stick to a paleo diet, but based on the problems I discussed above, it’s very difficult.
On the other hand, feelings of deprivation and restriction are some of the main drivers of urges to binge, so the elimination of certain foods may have the opposite effect of giving you more urges to deal with. Additionally, given that many binge eaters claim that stress brings on their urges to binge, it’s possible that the time, effort, and money it requires to eat a paleo diet might end up leading to more frequent urges. This is not to say that you need to eliminate stress or that you can’t try to eat healthy. I’m just pointing out that binge urges arise in many different situations and in response to eating many different foods, and it’s not always predictable. That’s why I believe it’s important to view the urges as the problem, not the situations or foods.
I didn’t eat a paleo diet, and neither have many others who have recovered; yet we managed to end the binge eating habit for food. Maybe if I would have eaten no sugar, dairy, wheat, grains, or legumes, I would have had less urges to deal with…or maybe more? Either way, looking back, I’m glad I recovered the way that I did; because now no food is dangerous to me. I can eat whatever I want without having to worry about it leading to urges to binge or to relapse. Furthermore, I don’t have to worry if and when science makes new discoveries that change what we currently know about nutrition, and gives us a whole new set of guidelines to be healthy or remain food-addiction free.
Brain over Binge is Not a Way to Stick to Diets
I want to end this post by telling you that the Brain over Binge approach is for ending binge eating, not for resisting every urge to eat something unhealthy or something that’s not paleo. When you recover, you are saying no to urges to binge; you are not saying no to hunger signals, or all cravings, or all desires to eat in a way that may not be ideal. (I’ve talked about this thoroughly in Episode 12: Dismissing Urges to Binge is Not a Dieting Strategy, and Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?).
[i] Katherine, Anne. Anatomy of a Food Addiction: The Brain Chemistry of Overeating. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 1991. P. 189-190