Moderation, Choice, and Creating Your Way of Eating: Healthy Changes After Recovery, Part I

*Originally published in May 2018

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This is the first part of a 2-part blog series on creating healthy changes for yourself after you end binge eating…that is, if you want healthy changes. There are certainly no requirements, and there’s nothing you have to do. You don’t need to eat healthily to achieve or maintain freedom from binge eating, but I know that so many binge eaters and former binge eaters are health conscious and want to improve their health.

I frequently promote the idea of eating all foods in moderation or allowing all foods (provided there are no allergies/sensitivities). Health-conscious binge eaters can be skeptical about this advice, because they may imagine that allowing all foods involves eating Lucky Charms for breakfast (more on cereal in part 2!), McDonald’s for lunch, take-out pizza for dinner, then maybe some candy for snacks, and being totally okay with eating like that every day. Eating all foods in moderation can involve eating that way sometimes, and I’ve had days since I stopped binge eating when my eating closely resembled what I just wrote; but if any of us ate like that for more than a few days or weeks in a row, we’d feel awful, and set ourselves up for health problems. This is not new information.

Where “everything in moderation” meets recovery…and good health

All of us living in this time of increasing nutrition knowledge need to come to terms with the reality that what we eat is important to our longevity and vitality. Even though you know this, you’ve likely experienced how difficult it is to try to make healthy changes while caught up in the binge eating habit. Binge eating typically sabotages efforts to make healthy changes; and also, trying to make a lot of healthy changes can take the focus off of the most important healthy change you need to make: stopping the binges.

I’ve worked with many people who are trying their best to eat as healthy as possible. They aren’t eating much sugar or processed foods, for example, as part of their normal daily intake. But privately, and with a lot of guilt, they are bingeing on large amounts of those very same foods. For some of these individuals, the only time they eat unhealthy food is when they are binge eating. They often believe they are powerless to eat unhealthy foods in moderation, or believe that eating those foods in moderation will make them gain weight. However, the cycle of trying to restrict the foods and then bingeing on the “restricted” foods is actually leading them to eat much more of those “restricted” foods than a moderation approach would.

This is why learning to allow foods is important.

If you can learn that you aren’t powerless against any food, you will build confidence that you can eat anything and not binge. If you instead continue to think one bite of sugar or wheat or fast food will cause you to be out of control, then you will never be totally free of the binge eating habit. This is the reasoning and purpose behind the everything in moderation approach in recovery…to empower you to realize that no food can make you binge. The purpose is not to convince you to be unhealthy.

So, when you hear me or anyone else recommend eating everything in moderation or allowing all foods, it doesn’t mean I don’t understand nutrition; it doesn’t I haven’t read the latest research on the keto diet, or whatever the popular “healthy” eating approach of the day happens to be. It means I want you to stop thinking you are powerless; it means I want you to have freedom from food rules; it means I want you to be realistic about the world we live in and the foods you will encounter, and the fact that no one follows a healthy eating plan 100 percent of the time. But, primarily, it means that – first and foremost – I want to you to be free of binge eating.

Becoming binge-free is a massively healthy change, and other healthy changes often naturally and effortlessly flow from there. Furthermore, allowing all foods, over time, usually leads to you eating less of those foods, because it breaks the diet mentality that gives those foods such a strong appeal. Of course, ending binge eating itself also vastly reduces the amount of unhealthy foods you consume.

What if you want more health improvements than stopping the binges provides?  

You need to know that, although it’s life-changing and amazing, becoming binge-free does not automatically equal becoming healthy. It does not automatically equal you eating in way that makes you feel nourished day after day. It does not automatically equal sharp mental clarity and high energy. It certainly helps in a big way, but after binge eating recovery, you may indeed want to make more healthy changes.

The rest of this 2-part blog series is for those of you who are now binge-free, but feel a pull toward improving your health. It’s possible that you feel confused about how to improve your health if you are supposed to be allowing all foods, and eating everything in moderation, and of course – not dieting. In this post and the next, I’m going to discuss some issues related to this challenge. I hope you’ll come away from reading this series with some ideas and insights to help lead you into a healthier lifestyle (if that’s what you want), without feeling restricted.

You never have to stop eating everything in moderation…but make sure to”allow” a lot of nourishing foods

There is not a point after recovery where you say, “ok, I’m done with binge eating, so now it’s time to stop allowing all foods.” Eating everything in moderation isn’t only a strategy for recovery, it’s a lifelong strategy. You always have the freedom to eat what you want to eat, without fear of being out of control.  But, again, that doesn’t mean you’ll be eating junk food at every meal. That, in fact, would not be “allowing” all foods, because you would not be allowing the truly nourishing foods that are natural and simple and good for your body.

The more you can allow foods that nourish you, the more satisfied you’ll feel, the more nutritionally balanced you’ll be, and the less you’ll tend to want the foods that aren’t serving you. You never have to put unhealthy food “off limits,” but adding and allowing and welcoming nourishment – without a restrictive mindset – can naturally help you move away from unhealthy foods. And, that choice won’t feel like it’s coming from a place of deprivation.

As you work to improve health, you get to make your own food choices on your own timeline 

There are so many options when it comes to how to improve your eating and your health. You are the expert on your own body and it’s important to empower yourself to make choices that are in your best interest. If your friend is vegan and swears that makes her feel amazing, but you try eating that way and it doesn’t feel good, then trust that it’s not for you. If your co-workers are all trying to eat low-carb, but you feel unbalanced when you eat that way, then listen to your own body. Last year, I studied at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and a big concept was what they called “bioindividuality.” The term means that everyone’s biology and physiology are different, and what’s healthy for one person may not be healthy for another, based on countless factors. Some people do better with more carbs, or more protein, or less protein, or more fat, or less carbs…or with or without dairy, or soy, or wheat…or with more or less fruit or starch…and the list could go on and on. These are your decisions to make.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek advice from nutritionists or health experts, or do research on what may be healthy for you; but you have to sort through it and see what makes sense to you personally, and fits with the lifestyle you want to create for yourself. You also get to decide the timeline for implementing any healthy changes you want to make. There is no rush, there are no rules, and there is no pressure. You are crafting a way of eating and a lifestyle that works for you, and there is no end point. You will be on this ever-changing journey for the rest of your life.

In the next post (Part 2), I’m going to share a personal story of making a healthy change after recovery. I’ll talk about my relationship to sugary cereal – the food I most craved when I was dieting, and the food that made up my first binge and countless more after that. I’ll explain how I no longer eat it much at all, and how that change came about.

Before I end today, I want to also direct you to a podcast episode and a resource that fits with this topic. In Episode 31: Making Healthy Changes After Binge Eating Recovery, I interviewed Daniel Thomas Hind (*listen to this important message prior to the episode), who helps people improve their health through a process of learning new skills and habits around food. Although Daniel does work on helping people with weight loss, he always comes from a place of making sure his clients are well nourished and not feeling deprived. If you’ve stopped binge eating, and you want to make improvements to your health, it’s important to have options that don’t send you down the path of dieting. This is why I’m bringing Daniel’s ideas to you – as one possible resource you can use on your journey to better health.

I am not an expert in helping people make healthy changes to the way they eat (my main focus is on helping people end the binge eating habit), but Daniel provides a free call to help propel you into creating whatever healthy changes you want to make, and also to determine if his coaching program may be a fit for you. This is especially useful if you don’t actually struggle with binge eating, but instead tend to overeat frequently or have other eating habits you feel are problematic (like emotional eating, constant grazing, or food “addictions”). If you are someone who is still binge eating, keep your focus on ending that habit – by learning to dismiss binge urges, learning to eat enough, and practicing eating all foods in moderation, in whatever way works for you.

One final thing I want to mention about Daniel’s work relates to what I said in this post about choosing how you want to eat, based on your own unique body and lifestyle. It’s important for you to know that, although Daniel personally subscribes to a paleo-type lifestyle and does teach about that, he wants clients to choose and craft their own way of eating. Here is an excerpt from Daniel:

“It’s important to note that my stance on diet and nutrition is philosophically-rooted in an ethic of what’s natural and simple. As far as your actual diet goes, I do not claim to be a guru, and you are a unique human being. My teachings are a guideline, and are meant to serve as a foundational template, an example that’s worked for many. I provide all of these tools, foundations, teachings, and my approach in order for you to feel empowered to choose the diet that best expresses who you are in the world and the life you’d love to live.”

You can learn more about Daniel’s work and program by filling out this questionnaire.

Go to part 2 of this blog series.

Weight after Recovery

Before I begin this post, I want to say that I’m not a nutritionist, a personal trainer, or an MD.  This post is not to be taken as medical advice about how to lose or gain weight, or how to have an ideal diet.  Please know that these are my own opinions about the issue of weight as it relates to recovery, and this does not substitute for nutritional advice.

When it comes to weight, the reality is, we are all different; and binge eaters come in all shapes and sizes.  I have said before that even if I never would have lost a single pound after recovery, recovery still would have been 100% worth it. Binge eating brought so much misery to my life, and the weight gain was only a small portion of that misery. Sure, it was good to get back to my regular size after recovery, but that was by far not the greatest benefit. However, I realize that being overweight or having an extreme desire to be very thin can be factors in tempting a person to go on restrictive diets or to avoid eating normally.  

Although the issue of weight in recovery will affect everyone differently, I think that wanting to lose weight and actively trying to do that while also trying to stop binge eating can complicate things. Some bulimics may fear recovery because they worry that life without purging will inevitably lead to weight gain; some of those with BED may fear recovery because they are overwhelmed at the thought of losing the weight gained from binge eating. I strongly feel that anyone who wants to quit binge eating – regardless of how much they weigh or how much they desire to weigh –  should try not to focus on weight loss until long after binge eating stops.

There are two primary reasons why I feel this way:

1.) Weight will likely take care of itself after binge eating stops.

For me, stopping the binge eating was all I needed to do to lose weight. My metabolism started working the way it should and there was no need to try to shed those extra pounds. I believe this is the case for the vast majority of people with BED or non-purging bulimia, and even most bulimics who self-induce vomiting. Some people seem to think that extra weight from binge eating just stays there until you do something (diet/exercise) to make it come off, but that’s usually not true. Some patience may be needed while the body regulates itself, but pounds should come off by stopping binge eating alone. Here is why I think it happened for me and can happen for others: 

 Caloric expenditure increases with body weight (overweight people burn more calories per day than slender people). The reason is because it requires more energy to carry around extra weight, and extra surface area also means more energy lost as heat. For example, one study showed that slender people used 2,481 calories per day, and obese people used 3,162.*  This fact comes to the aid of those who have gained weight from binge eating, and let me explain that using myself as an example:

I was about 20 pounds above my natural weight when I stopped binge eating. My normal diet was about 2,300 calories, but with the binges added (let’s say approximately 4 binges per week, around 8,000 calories each), it upped my weekly caloric intake by 32,000 calories. Spread that out over 7 days, and my daily average was around 6,870 calories. Yes, I was exercising frantically to try to compensate for that, but my “purging” only burned a minimal amount of all of those calories. Even if I would have been dieting restrictively between binges (which I was doing in the earlier years of my bulimia) – eating let’s say only 1,000 non-binge calories each day, the daily average with the binges added would still be 5,570 calories. So, in short, quitting binge eating obviously reduces calorie intake…big time.

But, how does that automatically lead to weight loss? I probably still eat somewhere around 2,300 calories per day now (I don’t count), and my weight stays the same; so why did that same amount of food allow me to lose 20 lbs after recovery? Because of the fact I mentioned previously – more body weight means more calories burned. At 20 pounds above my natural weight, I may have been using around 2,600 calories a day, but eating less than that (2,300), leading to gradual weight loss. (*I realize this is vastly oversimplifying things due to the fact that weight loss is not a simple calories in-calories out equation, which I’ll explain more later in the post). This is not starvation or putting oneself in a calorie deficit; this is just how people naturally lose weight after consuming too many calories for too long. The body gravitates back to it’s normal size, because the larger size can only be maintained with an overabundance of calories.

To sum it up: while there is something you need to do (binge) to maintain a larger size, there is often nothing you need to do to slowly gravitate back to normal. For most binge eaters, the weight is likely only staying high because of the binges; it’s not permanently stuck there until you diet it away. No, it won’t come off overnight like it might with some fad/crash diet, but it’s healthier in the long run to lose it naturally, and it can help you avoid repeating the diet/binge cycle in the future.
  
What about those who think they are “getting rid of” those binge calories by self-induced vomiting?  It’s not much different logic there either. Most people who self-induce vomiting probably already know that it does not actually get rid of all of the binge calories. Studies have shown that calorie absorption may even begin much earlier in the body when you have bulimia – another one of the body’s natural ways of protecting itself. If you binge and self-induce vomiting, your daily calorie intake is likely still much greater than the number of calories you’d consume through a normal diet with no binge eating or purging.  Another factor is: purging can slow down metabolism, so that calories a bulimic consumes are stored instead of being used as energy; but once the binge eating and purging stops, metabolism can get back to normal allowing for weight to regulate.    

2.)  If weight doesn’t take care of itself, you’ll be in a much better position to tackle the problem.

I don’t believe weight loss is a simple calories in/calories out equation, so the above explanation might not hold true for every unique body. If you are overweight and don’t gradually lose weight after stopping binge eating, even after you are very patient about it; I still feel it’s vital not to try to address it until after you are confident the binge eating is done for good. Once you are sure of your ability to not binge, you’ll be better able to tackle the problem with a healthy solution. 

During the time that you are becoming binge-free, I think it’s also important to be aware that your lower brain might use a lack of weight loss as fuel for the binge urges. If you don’t see the scale dropping (and I wouldn’t even recommend getting on one during this time), you may hear thoughts like, “You are not losing weight so you might as well binge.” Rationally, you know how ridiculous that sounds, because obviously binge eating will only bring you further away from ever finding a solution to your weight issue; but in the moment, it can seem like a convincing thought. Always remember that you can stop binge eating for good even if you are not the weight you want to be.   
We all come in all different shapes and sizes, and what’s a healthy weight for one person of a certain height might not be a healthy weight for another person of that same height, and I also believe it’s possible to be fit and healthy even if you technically overweight (I don’t think BMI is the best indicator of health); however, there are some who would unquestionably benefit from some weight loss. I don’t subscribe to the belief that we can be far above our natural and unique body weight range, yet still be very healthy. (On a side note, being thin is not a guarantee of health either.)

I am not against healthy weight loss, but I feel strongly that advice to simply restrict calories is completely misguided and does more harm than good (especially in those susceptible to binge eating), and just doesn’t work in the long run. For example, I think the typical 1200-1400 cal/day weight loss diet for a woman is starvation, unless she is lying in bed all day and not moving at all. Low calorie diets lead to a slower metabolism, malnourishment (which some claim is one of the causes of obesity), and more weight gain in the long run. It’s also simply unrealistic to think you can maintain a 1,200 calorie per day diet to lose weight and then keep that weight off for life.       

So, then how does one lose weight without restricting calories? First of all, when I say “don’t restrict,” I don’t mean eat excessively. I mean eat enough, eat to nourish yourself well, eat what your body needs. Of course, a bit of overeating happens from time to time even in normal people; but as a rule, daily intake should be within a normal range.  

That being said, I know that excessive eating isn’t usually to blame, and I definitely think there are a myriad of other problems that can contribute to not losing weight (for example: hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, leptin resistence, food allergies/sensitivities, thyroid problems, infections, damage to the organs involved in metabolic control, too many toxins in the diet, not enough activity, too many processed foods, not enough water, not enough sleep, too much stress…etc). 

If you go from binge eating to eating a normal diet, and you don’t eventually lose weight; then I believe it makes sense to look into what might be preventing that from happening.  Reasons for not losing weight can be multifaceted, and science currently has an incomplete understanding of why some people can lose weight easily and for others, it’s a struggle; but I don’t think the complexity should prevent us from looking for answers.  

I believe that making some changes to the composition of one’s diet (without letting it become an obsession and still allowing for flexibility) can help many, and is a much better approach than simply slashing calories. Focusing on eating a lot of nutrient dense, nourishing foods can lead to more weight loss in the long run without ever putting the body in “starvation mode.”  Everyone is different, and some people might find that changing diet composition to add more protein and fat helps them feel better and lose weight, while others find that adding more plant-based foods and high quality carbs help them achieve the same results. I also am a big advocate of healthy, enjoyable, non-stressful exercise as a way to move the body toward a healthy weight.  

In my opinion, the goal for anyone trying to lose weight, whether they have a history of an eating disorder or not, should be to gain better health, not to simply lose weight fast. I think when people are truly focused on becoming healthier, it becomes an effort to nourish the body well, to feel better, to gain energy for living, to prevent disease; and it ceases to be about how many pounds they can lose or what size jeans they can fit into. And, usually, if one focuses on becoming healthier (and he/she does need to lose weight) the weight will come off naturally. In those who desperately want to be super-thin, focusing on health can help them realize that trying to maintain an unnatural weight is not good for their body. Focusing on health can also allow them to appreciate food for it’s nourishing qualities, without worrying about how many calories foods contain or if they can possibly lead to weight gain.  

But focusing on health is usually not possible when binge eating is still occurring, because when you fundamentally feel like you don’t have control of what or how much you eat at times, it’s hard to implement healthy changes. This is why I believe those who want to quit binge eating should not address weight issues until after recovery.  Improvements in health, weight, and attitudes toward your weight are just some of the positive changes that recovery can free you up to make.    

To help you end the binge eating, I’ve created a downloadable guide that gives you the basics of the Brain over Binge approach.

*Leibel RL et al.  Changes in energy expenditure resulting from altered body weight. N Eng J Med. 1995 Mar 9;332(10):621-8

Paleo binge eating

My Recovery Diet & Thoughts on Paleo as a Binge Eating Cure

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.

Breakfast:

  • 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.

Snack #1:

  • 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)

Lunch:

  • 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.

Dinner:

  • 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).

Snack #3:

  • 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.

Desserts:

  • 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.

Eating out:

  • 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).

Drinks:

  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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

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For more help with ending binge eating, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF, or learn more about my Coaching Audios or Course.