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.
In episode 100, I did a “Best of the Podcast” episode where I put together audio clips that I thought would best summarize the Brain over Binge concepts and would be the most useful for you to keep in mind as you work on recovery. I thought this would be helpful for you to have in writing as well, so I’ve turned the “Best of the Podcast” episode into a blog post here. I hope this post provides an additional source of inspiration and practical advice to apply while you stop binge eating.
Today is Episode 100 and I feel like it’s a big milestone. I’m very happy to have been able to produce 100 episodes! I want to thank everyone who has listened to the podcast along the way, whether you’ve listened to one episode or all 100 episodes.
I wanted to do something special for the 100th episode so I decided to compile a Best of the Podcast episode. What I did is just went through and picked out some of my favorite parts that I felt like would be the most useful for you to review and to keep in mind as you work on ending the binge eating habit.
I found it to be a fun project to go through all of the episodes and revisit a lot of the topics that we’ve covered so far, and also to hear a lot of the guests that I’ve had on the show. I’ve had some really amazing guests, and I want to thank everyone who has been on the show and shared their ideas. Although I wasn’t able to include everyone, just know that I’m so thankful for all of the insights and information that my guests have shared over the years.
I’m also very thankful for everyone who has subscribed to the podcast, and for those of you who have not subscribed already, I would encourage you to subscribe because I plan to keep this podcast going for as long as I can, and I would love for you to be here listening.
So now I’ll go ahead and share the best of the Brain over Binge podcast…
“The Brain over Binge approach is about learning to see your binge eating in light of the brain, and then using that information to empower yourself. It’s about changing your perspective to see yourself as fundamentally healthy, and not broken, and not diseased. In the Brain over Binge philosophy, binge eating is a natural (but also very primitive) brain response to restrictive dieting, which becomes a habit over time. Or, binge eating can also develop as a primitive response to repeated overeating of highly stimulating foods, which increases over time and then forms the same binge eating habit. Either way, it’s a primitive brain response that makes you feel out of control, and what we’re going to teach you is to take control back.”
“In conventional treatment, it’s common to hear that the urges to binge are symptoms—that they are symptoms of underlying emotional problems or psychological problems. This is a very popular and mainstream idea. The theory is that you have urges to binge because you’re not able to cope with those problems or with difficult emotions in your life in an effective way. Because binge eating is seen as a coping mechanism, then the urges are viewed in a more symbolic way—like a signal that you need to learn to cope better. This is what I was taught, but to me, the urges never felt like a need to cope. They always felt like a need to eat massive quantities of food. At a very basic level, it didn’t seem any more complicated than that, and it wasn’t.”
“One of the things that’s important for you to know very early in learning about this approach is that it may improve your life if you learn how to deal with moods, it may improve your life if you learn how to solve problems and live a better life, but the most important thing is to separate improving yourself/improving your life from stopping binge eating. It is not necessary to be the best that you can be in order to stop this problem. You may be interested in that anyway, but it’s really important to know that you can stop binging and not perfect all these different areas of your life, because we see the urges themselves as the problem. And when you look at it that way, the answer is to stop responding to the urges, and eventually they will fade away.” -Cookie Rosenblum
“All the lower brain can do is send impulses and encourage you to act. But when you feel these urges, know that you have complete power to choose not to act. When you know you’re separate from the urges, it allows you to have access to the self-control functions in your higher brain. In other words, when you absolutely believe you have this power over the urges and that these urges can’t control you, then it’s much easier to choose not to act on them.”
“It’s possible that you’ve learned the information that we’ve shared so far about dismissing the urges to binge, and (either because you have a strong desire to lose weight or you’re just still in that habit of food restriction) you’ve taken the strategy of dismissing urges too far. Maybe you’ve been thinking that you should dismiss every desire for unhealthy food or every desire to eat more than a very strict calorie limit that you’ve set for yourself. This is not the intention of the Brain over Binge approach. Dismissing urges is not a way to become a better dieter—it’s a way to stop binge eating.”
“It’s not that you truly want to binge one last time, it’s that this “one last time” mentality is just something that our lower brains automatically produce when we have a destructive habit. I want you to think about all the times you’ve thought “just one last time”…you truly believed it in the moment, but then the next time you had a urge to binge, the thought came up again and you believed it again. What if you stopped believing this thought? What if you instead realized that the “one last time” mentality is a reaction of the primitive part of your brain with the goal of getting what it wants right now. The lower brain is not concerned with your long term goals or even what you’ll do tomorrow. It’s job is only to get you to binge right now, and the one last time thought is an extremely effective way that it does that.”
“It’s very important not to put too many conditions on your ability to recover. However, if there is truly an area that you feel, if you worked on it would help you either better dismiss urges or eat adequately, then please work on it. Looking at it this way, you aren’t endlessly trying to work on other problems in hopes that it will take your urges to binge away or that it will make recovery effortless. You’re approaching it in a much more targeted and practical way. If you’re having trouble dismissing the urges to binge, think “what can I do that will help me better dismiss them?”… then work on it, and you will be ready for recovery. If you’re having trouble eating adequately, think “what can I do or what can I work on that will help me eat enough food?”…and then work on it and you’ll be ready for recovery. In other words, please do what you need to do so that you can start to feel more capable of eating adequately and dismissing binge urges. Don’t just say you “aren’t ready,” for whatever reason, and then not do anything about it. You deserve a binge free life, so try to remove any issues that you feel are truly holding you back.”
“My personal opinion is that relying on your intuition is a good thing. However, you always need to know that you have your higher brain to oversee your actions and your choices, and you can use your higher brain to steer yourself toward better choices if your intuition seems not to be leading you in a good direction. If you find yourself only eating highly processed, highly stimulating food, every time you’re hungry, it may be time to insert some rational, higher brain choices as well. Highly processed, modern food doesn’t quite interact with our body in a way that always leads to completely clear and reliable hunger and fullness signals or completely reliable cravings, and people with or without eating disorders have to deal with the effects that modern foods can sometimes have on us. It’s important to know that your higher brain always has the ability to veto harmful cravings and exert self-control to guide your choices. Using your higher brain and your intuition in conjunction can provide you with the balance that you need.”
“Thoughts that encourage purging will often give you the message that a purge or some form of compensation for the binge will undo the damage of a binge. But when you’re not feeling tempted to binge, you can see how false this thought is, because of course a purge does not undo any damage. It actually does the opposite. It causes severe damage to your health and to your life. A purge does not rectify a wrong. A purge is an additional wrong. It’s an additional source of suffering. During binge urges, thoughts about purging can make it seem like repeating this binge-purge cycle one more time will be harmless, but you know that it’s not harmless. You know it’s causing damage in your life, and you know it’s not what you truly want to be doing. Like any thought that makes binge eating seem appealing, thoughts that use purging as a reason to binge need to be dismissed.”
“We’re experiencing life through our moment to moment thinking, and that moment to moment thinking, it comes up and it looks so real to us. So again, if you’re a binge eater and you’re having an urge, or you’re just really caught up in “should I eat this, should I not eat this,” you know, you’re in that. You are in it, and it is absolutely real, and it feels true, and it feels important to you, but that’s just the nature of thought. That’s the same if you’re considering like, “should I buy this house or that house,” you know, “should I wear these shoes or those shoes.” Now, those might feel like they have a different level of urgency to them or a different level of importance, but it’s all the exact same when we look level deeper. It’s all thought coming to life within us. And it’s not who we are and it’s not permanent, and it’s nothing we need to try to fix and figure out and sort through because it does that on its own. It moves through us. So I’ll pause, but I’ll just say that’s sort of the cornerstone of it—helping people see how all human experience works—because when we aren’t afraid of our experience, when we aren’t afraid of feeling fat or an urge or the next diet or whatever, when we aren’t caught up in our heads, we’re kind of back to life being really easy (like before we found ourselves in this issue).” –Dr. Amy Johnson
“If binge eating has been clouding your life for a long time, you may not be able to fully see what your life could be like after recovery. But no matter what life brings, that opportunity to have the freedom from food issues is so worth it. You’ll be free from the shame, the physical discomfort, and the feeling of being out of control of your own life. If you can experience even a moment of that freedom from the consequences of bingeing, and you can get excited about that, it can solidify your desire to keep going and to keep moving toward recovery, despite any uncertainty about what your life might be like afterward. I encourage you to keep focusing on all of your motivations to recover, but remember that underneath those reasons lies a desire to be free to live all of your life—the good and the bad—without the pain of binge eating”
“Behavior happens through action, and the actions taken consistently time and time again—small actions—not only do they build up new behaviors, but they actually create optimism, and they actually generate motivation. And so if somebody’s not feeling motivated, a lot of times they want inspiration, they want motivation. I remember feeling this way all the time…where’s it going to come from? What new book can I download? What new piece of wisdom can I find? And all of that can be useful, but until you start taking constructive action, the motivation’s going to hit a ceiling. It’s the general building up of behaviors that creates energy, that creates momentum, and that helps a person’s self-esteem.” –Katherine Thomson, Ph.D.
“Learning to deal with emotions better is fine. There’s nothing wrong with that. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do that. I’m just saying you don’t need to solve all your emotional problems to stop bingeing. I’m not saying you have to learn to deal with emotions perfectly before you can quit—because if that were true, recovery would be elusive because no one deals with emotions well all the time. You know, all of us get overwhelmed sometimes, but bingeing just needs to become something that’s not an option, and when bingeing is not an option, then you have so many options available to you for helping you get through tough emotions, and these options don’t lead to consequences. You need to realize that bingeing never actually helped you cope with any of these emotions. If it provided the secondary benefit of distraction, you know now that it’s not worth it, that it’s much better to dismiss that urge. And then, if you continue to have distressing emotions, and you aren’t able to kind of learn to see them in a new way, you’re not able to let them pass or find ways to deal with them, then it’s something you can address in a more healthy way once the bingeing is done. If you have emotions that feel unmanageable, bingeing is never the solution.”
“Mindfulness points you towards your inner power. It really, really shows you who you truly are and that you are not your thoughts, that you were never your thoughts, that you are the one who is observing your thoughts.”
“The first tip I have for you is to ask yourself: Is my exercise an unhealthy compulsion? Or is it a healthy habit? It’s important to make this distinction because healthy habits, you can also feel compelled to do them. For example, you’ll feel compelled to brush your teeth at night, and it’s a compulsion (you could call it a compulsion) because you feel that drive to do it, but it’s healthy. So that’s a healthy habit. So even though there could be some compulsion and you feel driven towards something, it can still be a healthy habit. So I think it’s useful to look at your exercise like that and think, “okay, yes, I do feel driven toward it, but is my brain driving me towards something healthy? Or is this something unhealthy?”
“What I teach is specifically for binge eating, and it can be applied I think also to other problematic eating habits that feel really compulsive—like excessive overeating, or compulsive overeating, or whatever you want to call it. But what I really want to get across today is that the intent of my approach is not to use it as a strategy to try to stick to strict diets or to use it as a strategy to try to follow really rigid weight loss plans, or to try to get yourself to eat less than you physically need. In fact, a big part of my approach is about making sure that you are eating enough—that you’re allowing yourself all types of foods…and I realize that not everyone can eat all types of foods, so another way of saying that might be to learn to eat in the least restrictive way that’s possible for you personally. And then also in addition to eating enough comes the dismissing urges piece—learning to not act on those thoughts that encourage you to binge. The only way that dismissing binge urges works to get rid of the binge eating for good is if you’re also eating enough—if you’re eating adequately as I call it in my approach. Now I realize that some creators of diet plans or weight loss strategies could argue that the plans are adequate and they’re not overly restrictive, and I completely understand that point of view, and some of these plans may certainly be adequate, but that’s not the issue I’m raising today. What I’m talking about today is clarifying the intention of the brain over binge approach, which is to dismiss the urges to binge. My approach is not meant to be used to dismiss every urge to veer from your diet or your eating plan, whatever that may be—even if you could argue that your eating plan is technically adequate.”
“I’ve seen research that if you’re in that food deprived state and you are, you know, starving yourself trying to lose weight that it does make you feel like you’re addicted to food. It’s kind of a natural survival instinct. And once you start nourishing yourself, once you start eating enough, I think a lot of that can rebalance. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that’s very true. When you’re starved, you are seeking food, you’re needing it, and you’re also going to be more sensitive to the effect. So if you’ve been under eating for a period of time, or maybe haven’t eaten in several hours, whatever you do eat is going to hit you harder. So I think that it does kind of create this increased sensitivity to certain foods, and it does perpetuate the whole cycle.” – Katherine Thomson, Ph.D.
“It’s not so much that you care about your weight or you want to be kind of your best version of yourself, it’s when you try to be a version of yourself that’s not possible, that’s unrealistic, that’s a weight that your body cannot physically be unless you do harmful things. So, you know, if you’re wanting to, like I said, kind of make the most of your own body and to feel good in it, it’s not a problem, as long as you’re not obsessed. But when you try to sort of go outside of your natural range (which you might not quite know what that is yet, and that’s okay), but when you try to go outside of that, that’s when things become harmful.”
“Okay, I want to dive deeper into one thing you said—you mentioned the fact that purging is not a form of weight control, it’s a very ineffective form of weight control. And I find that talking to people, you know, they know the health risks of purging, they know that it’s ruining their life, but they have this fear that if they stop, they’re going to gain all this weight. So can you kind of speak to that, maybe from your own experience of what happened to your weight in recovery and also your clients as well—just to kind of alleviate that fear that people have that stopping purging means that their weight will skyrocket.
Sure, absolutely. This is something that terrified me as well, you know—thinking, oh, I’m going to have to recover and recovery was going to be gaining lots of weight. Because in my eyes, at that time, to me normal eating was chaotic eating, and my body wanted to eat a lot. So I thought in general, that was what had to be done—I was going to eat lots and lots of food all the time and to take away the purging was scary. However, that’s not the case. So yes, purging is not an effective form of weight loss, not at all. Purging, you know, there is science behind it as well, there are experiments where they show that through self-induced vomiting, I think the body retains around 50% of the calories, depending on whatever the measurement of that binge during that experiment was. And, you know, because digestion starts in the mouth. Also as well, I think your body is really highly, highly, so clever. When you’re doing all these self-destructive habits, your body’s like really getting clever at retaining more calories as well—it’s trying to save your life.” –Ali Kerr
“One of my main goals is to empower you to believe that you absolutely can stop this habit and move on with your life, and that it does not have to be overly complicated, but I want to be clear that I’m not telling you to “just stop the habit and move on with your life.” I think that’s where some people misinterpret the simplicity of my approach. They think I’m saying the solution to binge eating is to “just stop the binge eating.” And of course, in any approach to stopping binge eating, the goal is ultimately to stop the binge eating, but it understandably makes people upset if they think someone is telling them “well, if you’re having a problem with bingeing, just stop bingeing.” I would’ve been upset too—when I was in the depths of my problem—if someone would have said to “just stop.” That would’ve made me very angry because I was of course trying to stop, of course I did not want to be binging. If I could have just stopped, I would have. So, when you hear me say in these episodes or in my books that you have the power to stop binging, I fully realize that there’s much more to this than “just stopping.” I do believe that in many approaches, recovery is too overcomplicated, especially if you’ve learned through other approaches that you’re flawed or broken or diseased, or you need to fundamentally transform yourself in order to recover. I strongly believe you should keep your recovery from binge eating as simple as possible. I don’t think you need to change so many parts of your life or change your personality or your relationships, or think you need to eat perfectly, or love your body all the time, or have amazing self-esteem in order to stop this habit. In the brain over binge approach, recovery is fundamentally about stopping a harmful habit that you’ve inadvertently developed. But if I believed that the solution to stopping the binge eating habit was to tell yourself to “just stop” or to have someone else tell you to stop, then my books would not be over 600 pages in total. I believe that you definitely can stop your habit, and like I say, at the end of every show, “you have the power to change your brain and live a binge free life.” But this approach is not just about telling yourself to quit. I’m sure you’ve already done that a thousand times. To use the concepts that I teach, it may take letting go of some old ideas that are no longer serving you, it may take realizing that the binge eating is not doing anything positive for you, it may take a new understanding of how your brain is working to get you to binge. It may take learning to consistently nourish your body, and it will likely take some practice to learn to recognize your binge urges and then to dismiss them. I hope that the brain over binge approach does give you a much more efficient path to ending this habit—by cutting out any unnecessary confusion—but I definitely do not want you to feel like a failure or to feel like you’re doing something wrong if you can’t “just stop.” You’re learning and you will improve, and you will overcome this habit.”
“You will have moments when you feel like a binge is what you want, but that’s the key—you’ll only “feel” like a binge is what you want, in certain moments. Feelings are sensations that rise and fall and change and are constantly in flux. Your feelings of wanting to binge have nothing to do with what you actually want—which is to be free of this habit.”
“…something that brings up just a lot of anxiety, so an important starting point when it comes to making peace with your hunger is realizing that the sensations of hunger are not the problem. The problem is these negative associations that you’ve developed surrounding hunger. And you can start trying to separate that out and starting to dismiss some of those negative thoughts you have around hunger and dismiss some of those self-judgments, and start gravitating back toward feeling hunger as a more pure experience—as you probably did when you were a child. And to decondition any of the fear you have around hunger—as it relates to fearing that you’ll binge in response to hunger—as you get more and more confident that you won’t, then this fear naturally subsides. So in order to break this association, it’s going to take many times of being hungry and satisfying that hunger, but then dismissing the urges to go on to binge. Once you’re confident that you can eat in response to hunger, and that it won’t spiral into a binge, then hunger is going to feel like much less of a threat. Eating adequately will also help make hunger feel like less of a threat, because remember some of your anxiety about hunger came from the fact that hunger seemed like the enemy when you were dieting. As you give up dieting, and as you learn to nourish your body, you start viewing hunger simply as a signal that you need to eat, and you stop viewing it as an enemy.”
“At what point am I going to accept this reality, and just realize I can accept me for where I’m at. So, it’s kind of owning your suffering. It’s going “okay I didn’t cause it, but I own it,” and this sort of idea I think really helps to free you because you can now move forward in your life. You’re able to accept your suffering, but at the same time, you can still work on changing it. And I think the most powerful thing about that is rather than putting all your attention and focus on, you know, “what’s happened? what’s wrong with me? I’ve been dealt a bad hand,” instead, you can just think to yourself, “well, what can I do about it?” – Richard Kerr
“What I want to talk about today is the fact that an eating disorder takes so much from you. And one of the things that it seems to take is the ability to be truly present in your life, and I think this becomes most evident during hard times in your own life, or in the life of your family, or your community, or your country, or the world. Feeling so compelled to binge, and purge, and restrict, and obsess about your weight takes away from you focusing on what’s truly important to you. I know you don’t want this. I know that you’re not intentionally taking your focus away from meaningful matters in order to focus on food. I know this because I’ve been there. I remember when I was stuck in a cycle of binging and purging having really bad things happen in my life and in the world… just as some examples, my best friend passed away, other family members that I was close to also passed away. Natural disasters affected the world. September 11th caused so much suffering, and through these events and many more, I continued to binge and continued to purge and focus on food and weight. I remember feeling like such a bad person, I remember feeling selfish because I so wanted to turn my energy outward to help others and I so wanted to be with others in their suffering and be present with them, and to even just be present with my own suffering with an open heart, but I felt so closed down. I felt stuck, and I really beat myself up over this. I would ask myself, “what kind of person continued to binge when I knew there were people in this world who were in need?” I would ask myself, “what kind of person would continue to spend hours and hours in the gym to try to compensate for binges when I could be using that time to make a difference in a meaningful way.” Looking back, I see that the kind of person who does that is a person that simply stuck in a vicious brain-based habit.”
“I have to just say it—like there’s some really harmful rhetoric out there on social media about, people, you know—with good intentions, for sure—but it damages people who are looking on and trying to learn about intuitive eating. The message is often: when you’re doing this right, you’ll know exactly what you feel like eating, and you’ll know exactly when you’re hungry, and you’ll know what you’re craving…and it just makes it feel like—first of all, it feels really inaccessible even to me to approach food that way. I’m not able to just run out and grab whatever food I want whenever I think about it—like financially, schedule wise, like that’s just “no.” –Paige Smathers, RDN
“What you also have to understand is like, it’s not because you recover from your eating disorder, that you will not have cravings anymore, but you will learn to trust your body. When you have an eating disorder, the cravings are often, as you mentioned, spiraling out of control—binging and purging. But here you start learning that your body is your friend, and because it sends some kind of message, you have to listen to that. And in a way, you have to understand why you have that, but you can also learn to honor the cravings because they are not, you know, spiraling down into a full binge. So sometimes you will want an ice cream and that’s totally fine, but you will eat it with love, you know, and not, “oh, I shouldn’t do that, and I’ve done that, and I failed, and I better binge and purge, right?” It’s like the relationship with your own body and the cravings that it sends to you is totally different.”
“I want to tell you that once you stop acting on these urges, and once you stop following that desire to binge, you’re going to realize that it was never any form of pleasure. Binge eating is going to start to look like the exact opposite of pleasure the further and further you get from that behavior. You’ll wonder why you ever had a desire for that fleeting, primal pleasure. That desire is simply conditioned in your brain right now. But once you extinguish that habit, you’re no longer going to view it as pleasurable. So, it’s not like you’re going to stop the habit and then you’re going to go the rest of your life having this desire inside of you for something that you are no longer doing. You’ll stop having that desire. You’ll start to think that binge eating would be the last thing you would do if you wanted pleasure.”
“Maybe there’s a little bit of time, “oh boy, oh boy, I get to do this thing, I get to have these foods,” but that stops right away when we can’t taste anymore, when we can’t stop, when we’re feeling sick, when we’re disgusted—we can’t seem to break away until we’re just totally worn out. I now hold onto that image so tightly (it’s not even now, it was back then)—when I was able to more strongly hold on to how difficult that really was, how uncomfortable, how unappealing that really was, as opposed to glorifying that binge as “oh boy, oh boy.” That picture and then the end result—how it was going to feel afterwards, and the reality of how it felt afterwards, and the downward spiral, and the physical discomfort—not just immediately afterwards, but the next day—the memories, the physical destruction that happens when we fill ourselves with stuff that is not good for us, and then in any way we happen to purge it, we purge it. It leaves us empty on all levels. That’s what I hold onto.”
“I do not believe that it’s helpful for me to tell you the one right way that you should eat, because that way is going to be different for everyone. I think it’s very important for you to discover how you should eat on your own, because your own personal way of eating that comes from experimentation and seeing what feels good in your body and what works for you—that will be much more powerful and more lasting than any meal plan than I could give you. So, I’m definitely not going to come out here and say that you absolutely must be eating three meals a day, and you must be eating a certain amount of snacks, and it has to be structured, or you need an exact amount of calories. You certainly can have a structured approach to eating, and you can count your calories to make sure you’re getting enough. There’s nothing wrong with doing that. It can be helpful just to ensure that you’re meeting your physical needs, but I do not believe that handing you a way of eating is what will be most helpful to you right now. If you’re like the majority of binge eaters, you may have gone from diet to diet, from meal plan to meal plan, or different eating program to eating program, thinking that would be the cure only to end up binge eating again. I want you to try to take a new approach to this: make your primary focus to be on learning to stop binging, and then just do the best you can to eat enough and eat in a way that works for you. Start to let go of dieting, in whatever form that takes in your life, and in doing that, you’ll already be on a path to discovering your own authentic eating habits.”
“Binge eating disorder, dieting, food and body obsession is what I think of as a life thief. I lost the majority of 40 years of my life and so much of my daughter’s life that I can never get back. It’s really unfathomable when I think about this. It makes me think of a line from a Mary Oliver poem that I love: “are you breathing just a little and calling it a life?” And to everyone listening, who can relate to the years lost to this, I want to add that it’s never too late to heal, and that on the other side, you’re going to see that all that matters is now.” –Julie Mann (Brain over Binge coach)
“I encourage you to start dropping the pressure that you’re putting on yourself and to start thinking that you should be eating in exactly the way that you are eating, or in exactly the way that you just ate. And here I’m talking about eating habits that are not binging. It gives you a ton of freedom to think, “maybe I ate exactly as I should have, and this is not about tricking yourself into thinking that you ate healthy when you clearly didn’t, or that you ate the perfect amount when you feel like you’ve overeaten a little, but it is about accepting the way that you ate in that moment, and maybe there’s something to learn from that; but either way, you can simply move on without all of the overthinking. Consider that you can just eat and let it be what it is, consider that you can make a decision about food in the moment that you think is best for you—for whatever reason—and eat the food, and then let go of all of the overthinking afterward, and simply go on with your life.”
“I love to teach my clients that a huge and fun part of recovery is to generate desire for life. It’s time to start daydreaming about all the things that you really enjoy in life, as in things that give you true pleasure—while you’re thinking about it, while you do it, and after it’s done. I’d also love for everyone listening to think right now about what those true pleasures are for you. For me, it’s hugs from my daughter and conversations with her about what’s going on in her life, it’s also about reading great novels, looking at the view of Manhattan from my apartment window as the sun sets. I also love taking photos of flowers up close, and then sharing them with people I love. And what’s amazing about these things is that even talking about them now gives me a hit of pleasure—not the numbing out kind of hit from a binge, but the kind of gentle and heart-nourishing pleasure that leaves no net negative consequence. So again, to everyone listening, here are some great questions to consider: “If this moment isn’t about food, what do you want it to be about? What areas of your life would you like to generate desire on purpose for? What do you desire way more than food? What is your bigger and truer want? I think it’s so exciting to know that you can create desire for life and what you want for yourself on purpose.” –Julie Mann
“In the same way that dealing with stage fright as a pro musician helped me to understand the principles of moving through urges to binge, the skillset that we develop (I think you’ve mentioned this before and I was like, yes, absolutely!) …the skillset that we develop from learning to manage these urges and kind of move through them is something that we can then use moving forward when we want to look at other things.” –Marcus Kain
“So what are some ways people can say focused on those non-weight motivations, because I think the brain will habitually pull (and I’ve seen that the brain habitually pulls) people back to focusing on weight simply because that’s what it’s used to. So how do we change that pathway?
Yeah. I mean, it is a practice. So first of all, you start to engage in ways to remind yourself of it. So for me, it was journaling every single day—because I kept my promises to myself, because I didn’t binge today, I get these benefits immediately and I would write them down every single day. And I would tell them to people, and I would celebrate them because that was solidifying that new pathway for me. And, you know, another thing is: every time you find yourself going to weight, you can remind yourself, “and I’m feeling so much better in these ways.” – Julie Mann
“What’s your mission for Brain over Binge?
I just want to keep sharing my story as long as I can…I mean, part of me is like, “nobody wants to hear this story again,” but I think there is power in hearing someone’s story rather than just, “okay, this is what you have to do.” There’s a difference in just getting a bunch of advice, or really reading about someone’s journey and being there with them, and then sort of adjusting it to apply to your own life. So I just want to keep sharing my story, and then keep providing the additional help people may need to, you know, create their own story.”
I hope you enjoyed that compilation, and I hope it gave you some useful insights and information that you can use going forward as you end the binge eating habit. Thank you again for your support over the years, and thank you for being here for the 100th episode. If a lot of the clips in this episode resonated with you and you want to learn more, you can head over to BrainoverBinge.com and there you can get started with a free ebook (The Brain over Binge Basics) that I have available. When you get that free ebook, you also get a free track from the Brain over Binge Course called Manage Your Mindset After a Binge, and this is a track that will guide you in overcoming any slips that you may have during recovery. If you need more personalized support and accountability during recovery, you can learn more about coaching. One of the voices you heard toward the end of this episode was our wonderful Brain over Binge coach, Julie Mann, who offers one-on-one coaching and also group coaching.
I look forward to many more episodes and I hope you’ll join me. 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.
I want you to escape the daily pain that bingeing brings. I want you to stop eating in an out-of-control way that makes you feel sick and ashamed. I want you to get your life back, so that you can pursue what is important to you. I also want you to eat in a way that works for you and makes you feel nourished and satisfied.
I do not want you to make it your goal to eat perfectly. I do not want you to think that stopping binge eating also means learning how to stick to a strict eating plan. I do not want you to feel like you have to avoid all unhealthy foods, or say no to yourself every time you want to eat something just for pleasure, or stop acting on all desires for food that is not in line with a certain diet.
My goal is to teach you how to dismiss urges to binge and eat adequately; my goal is not to teach you to how to stick to a diet. This post is inspired by Episode 49 and Episode 12 of my podcast, and I hope it helps clear up the intent of the Brain over Binge approach.
Binge eating recovery includes giving up restrictive dieting
If you are familiar with my blog, podcast, or books, you know about the strategy of dismissing binge urges, which is the practice of separating yourself from the lower brain’s desire to binge (listen to Episode 5), and not acting on the thoughts and feelings that encourage binge eating (listen to Episode 7).
You can also learn more about dismissing urges to binge in my free 30-page guide, the Brain over Binge Basics.
What I teach is for ending binge eating, and although I do believe that similar methods can be used to help with other problematic eating habits, I want to make it clear that the Brain over Binge approach is never about learning how to stick to a restrictive diet. It is never about helping you follow rigid weight-loss plans, or helping you eat less than you physically need—because that would be extremely harmful to your recovery.
A big part of my approach is about helping you give up restrictive dieting and implement nourishing eating habits that work for you. I also believe in learning to allow yourself all types of food in moderation, and avoiding the harmful mindset that can develop when you have “forbidden” foods. (You can learn more about giving up the dieting mentality in Episode 48). I realize that not everyone can eat all types of food due to certain health conditions, so another way of saying this is that I believe in eating in the least restrictive way that’s possible for you.
Dismissing too many eating urges is harmful
Over the years of working with binge eaters, I’ve found that some people want to ignore my advice about eating enough, and only want to focus on dismissing urges—and this does not work and prevents recovery. Some people even want to take it a step further and start dismissing not only binge urges, but urges to eat anything that is not in line with a strict diet plan. When used in this way, dismissing urges becomes a dieting strategy in and of itself, which is the opposite of my intention.
The only way that dismissing binge urges works to get rid of binge eating for good is if you’re also eating adequately. If you are dismissing too many desires to eat, then you’ll remain in a food-deprived, survival-instinct-driven state that fuels binge eating.
Now, I know that creators of some diets or weight loss plans might step in here and argue that their eating plans are adequate and not overly restrictive. It’s possible for that to be true in some cases—meaning that the way of eating required for a certain “diet” actually does meet your physical needs and nourishes you well. But that’s not the type of diet I’m talking about, and it’s also not the issue I’m raising today. This post is about clarifying the intention of the Brain over Binge approach; it’s not about evaluating the merits of each and every diet plan that is out there.
Not sticking to a diet is not binge eating
Even if you could argue that a certain “diet” is technically an adequate and nourishing way to eat, my approach is still not meant to be a way for you to dismiss every urge to veer from that plan. I don’t think it’s necessary to have perfect eating habits, and in many ways, trying to get your eating habits exactly right is counterproductive in recovery. This is why Brain over Binge is not and should not be used as a “how to stick to a diet” strategy—that is contrary to the message I want to send.
Dismissing urges is not a way to avoiding eating any food that’s not “keto,” or “paleo,” or “vegan.” It is not a way to stop eating anything at all when you are fasting, and it is not a way to say no to all processed foods or any foods you think are unhealthy.
Eating sugar is not bingeing, eating carbs is not bingeing, eating meat is not bingeing, eating junk food is not bingeing—unless of course, you are bingeing on these things. Likewise, eating when you think you shouldn’t be eating, or when a diet plan says you shouldn’t be eating is not bingeing—unless of course you are bingeing at those times.
There is certainly value in not acting on all of the food cravings that you have. There are benefits of being able to observe your thoughts about eating and then to choose which thoughts to act on and which to ignore. There are benefits of being able to decide to eat foods that make you feel good. My approach is never about giving up on health. It’s never about eating anything you want, anytime you want, without regard for the effect food has on you. It is absolutely appropriate to not follow your every desire for food.
Furthermore, if there’s a certain way of eating that works well for you and is adequate and satisfying, then it may make sense to dismiss thoughts that cause you to veer too much from that way of eating—and this is especially true if you need to eat a certain way for medical reasons. I realize this may seem like a subtle distinction, but deciding to eat in a specific way to take care of yourself is very different from following a restrictive diet and then trying to dismiss urges to eat anything off of that diet. For example, someone with a dairy sensitivity who chooses to dismiss thoughts of eating dairy is not the same as someone who implements a strict calorie deficit and then tries to dismiss urges to eat any additional calories.
Get rid of the binge problem, don’t aim for perfect eating
To further explain why stopping the binge eating habit does not include learning how to stick to a diet, I’m going to end with an excerpt from the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide (from the Healthy Eating chapter). I hope that reading the following few paragraphs helps you better understand the purpose of the Brain over Binge approach, and the purpose of separating your higher brain from your lower brain—in a way that promotes recovery, not dieting.
“It’s common for binge eaters to mistakenly merge the part of themselves that wants to binge with the part of themselves that wants any unhealthy food. They begin to apply the lower brain/higher brain idea to the consumption of all junk food by viewing their lower brain as their “unhealthy eating” brain and their higher brain as their “healthy eating” brain. I don’t think this is useful, especially when first trying to quit binge eating, because it can lead to an “all or nothing” trap. When you start trying to view all of your cravings for anything unhealthy as neurological junk, it can be overwhelming.
It can lead you to believe that if you follow a desire for a dessert or some processed or convenience food, then your lower brain has already won, so you’ll be primed to believe any thoughts that say you “might as well binge.” You don’t actually have a good brain and a bad brain, because both the lower and the higher brain are necessary for a rich human existence. Your lower brain, with its pleasure centers, is indeed behind most of your junk-food cravings, but everyone has those. The lower brain also causes you to crave and take pleasure in delicious, healthy food as well, as desire for food is rarely a purely rational experience. Recovery is about trying to get rid of the “glitch” in your reward system, not banish the system altogether.
Craving french fries doesn’t make you abnormal or weak, and it certainly doesn’t mean your animal brain controls you. If you choose to follow those brain signals and have the fries, great—enjoy them! If you choose not to, then that’s fine too—have some organic carrot sticks with almond butter instead, and enjoy those! Don’t think that if you choose the french fries, you are giving in to a binge urge. Likewise, don’t think that if you decide on the carrot sticks, depriving yourself of the fries will lead you to binge. It won’t. There will be other opportunities for fries. The methods and advice in this book are for quitting binge eating, not for sticking to very strict, healthy-food-only eating plans and banishing all cravings for anything unhealthy.” (pgs. 262-263)
I encourage you to find a balance in your eating that works for you, but remember, you never have to eat perfectly!
If you want extra guidance in learning how to eat normally, you can get the Brain over Binge Course for $18.99 per month.