If you’ve read Brain over Binge, you know how much trouble I had with cereal during my dieting and binge eating days. But now, many years after recovery, I don’t eat much cereal at all, and it’s not a struggle to avoid it. I never would have believed that was possible when I was a binge eater, because cereal seemed to control me. It often consumed my thoughts until I ate bowl after bowl of it during binges. I never thought it would be possible to simply walk away from cereal without feeling extremely deprived; but to my surprise, it happened quite naturally. I want to share more about this healthy change with you, in hopes that it gives you some insight and ideas for how similar healthy changes may occur in your own life after binge eating recovery.
I don’t have a rule against eating cereal, but cereal has mostly lost it’s appeal, and my days of binge eating cereal are long gone. I actually do eat cereal sometimes, but the vast majority of the time, it’s not the kind I used to crave when I was dieting—sugary cereal—which eventually became the kind of cereal I binged on frequently.
Before I dive deeper into talking about how I stopped bingeing on cereal and craving it, I want to mention that this post is the second part of a two-part series about healthy changes after recovery. You can read Part I: Moderation, Choice, and Creating Your Way of Eating to learn more about feeling in control around all types of food, deciding what’s best for your unique body and lifestyle, and being patient with yourself as you make healthy improvements to your eating habits. Both Part I and this Part II post are primarily for people who are now binge-free, or who do not actually struggle with binge eating, and instead have other problematic eating habits like overeating, grazing, or feeling addicted to certain foods.
My Healthy Change: From Cereal Binges to Not Even Thinking About Cereal
I used to eat sugary cereal often for breakfast as a kid and teen. My mother—like most 80’s/90’s moms—used to buy the “fun” cereal brands like Lucky Charms, but she also tried to balance it out with varieties that were viewed as healthier at the time, like Raisin Bran (the kind with sugar-coated raisins, which of course is far from what is considered healthy today). I ate various types of cereal in normal amounts, and I always stopped when I was comfortably satisfied without thinking about it at all. It wasn’t until I started restricting my food intake (in order to try to control my weight) that I began labeling sugary cereal as “bad,” and began trying to avoid it…and then ended up eating more of it than I ever thought possible.
At the time I started dieting (1997), dietary fat was mostly considered the villain, and because cereal was generally low-fat, my reason for thinking it was “bad” didn’t have much to do with its nutritional content or high sugar. I thought it was bad because of the way I started feeling around it. When I was restricting my food, I suddenly craved cereal and I had trouble controlling myself around it, and had trouble stopping once I started eating it. I seemed to want so much cereal, which I’d never experienced before and which scared me. I feared that eating too much of it would give me too many calories and make me gain weight, so I decided to try avoiding it altogether, which made me crave it even more.
I shared in Brain over Binge that my first binge was on sugary cereal—8 full bowls of it. In hindsight, it’s easy to see exactly what happened, and what turned me from a normal-cereal-eater to someone who could binge on 8 bowls of cereal. The short version is that I was starving. I wasn’t eating enough, and because of that, the appeal of the cereal skyrocketed. Calorie deprivation increases the reward value of food*, especially food that is highly palatable (which usually means it’s high in sugar and carbs and/or fat). My strong cravings for cereal made sense from a survival perspective—my brain was just trying to make me eat large amounts of the foods it sensed would help me survive the “famine” I’d created for myself by dieting.
Before I was in a calorie-deficit, I could totally forget we had cereal in the house, and in my life today, it’s the same. But, when I was in that calorie-deprived state, I would often wake up in the morning and go to bed at night obsessively thinking about the cereal in the pantry. Then, once I binged on cereal once, it quickly became a habit. Eating bowl after bowl of cereal became a regular part of my binges, and during binge urges and binge episodes, it felt like my body truly needed that much cereal.
At certain times during my binge eating years, I read information about foods being addictive or people being powerless, so I tried to give up cereal (and other foods) from time to time. However, this never worked, and seemed like such a baffling approach to tell someone who feels so out of control around a food to simply never eat that food. If I couldn’t stop my cereal binges, how was I supposed to give up cereal altogether? Maybe that approach would have worked for me if cereal suddenly no longer existed on earth; but in my world of living in a college town with roommates, there was no way to fully escape cereal.
I also tried moderation approaches with sugary cereal, which made more sense to me, but proved to be frustrating as well—because I actually did learn to eat sugary cereal in moderation…and I still binged on it. At the time, I didn’t understand that it was the binge urges that caused the binges, not the sugary cereal. (If you are new to this approach and want to learn more about binge urges and how you can avoid giving in to them, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics).
Looking back, it makes sense that I could only eat sugary cereal in moderation when I did not have binge urges. But, if I had an urge to binge before, during, or after eating the cereal, it was very likely that I’d follow that urge and binge on the cereal.
I Stopped Bingeing on Cereal When I Stopped Acting on My Urges to Binge on Cereal
Once I learned how to stop acting on my urges to binge, which I talk about thoroughly in Episode 7: Dismiss Urges to Binge: Component 4 (Stop Acting on Urges to Binge), those urges went away—even when I was eating my former binge foods, like sugary cereal. Then, I could eat sugary cereal in moderation again—every time—without it being difficult.
I resumed my normal life and simply ate cereal when I wanted. It was a common breakfast food for me after recovery, although I’d try to mostly buy the kinds that were a little “healthier.” (I put that in quotes, because today, processed cereals of all types are generally not considered healthy). I still ate high-sugar varieties now and then as well, primarily as a night snack. After binge eating ended and my appetite stabilized, I quickly realized that eating too much sugar in the morning didn’t make me feel good. Choosing the low-sugar varieties if I was eating cereal in the morning, and then sometimes having a high-sugar treat at night was what seemed to work for my body, and not something that I forced myself into.
As the months and years went by, nutrition research pointed more and more to the idea that sugar and processed grains cause harm to health. My carefree cereal-eating days seemed to be in question. Although I had never been under the impression that cereal was super-healthy, I didn’t think it was causing harm.
I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the idea that I could absolutely have anything I wanted in moderation, but also that some foods are— without a doubt—not healthy. At the time, my binge eating days were long gone, but I was also firmly set in an anti-diet mentality. I knew dieting caused harm; I knew I never wanted to go down that path again, but would not eating sugary-cereal be “dieting”?
The short answer is no, it would not be dieting, but it took me a little while to truly see it that way. I gradually came to believe that making healthy changes in a gentle, non-stressful way—while making sure you are nourished and eating enough—is not dieting. It’s simply trading out foods that are no longer serving you, with foods that serve you better, and it never has to mean banning foods completely.
What Helped Change My Relationship to Cereal After Binge Eating Recovery?
Fast forward to today, I can’t even remember the last time I ate the types of cereal I used to binge on. I sometimes eat types of cereal that are more natural, such as granola—still typically as a night snack—but it’s not very often. I may eat it for a couple of nights, and then forget I have the box for weeks or months, or I simply won’t want it.
How is it that I’m not craving sugary cereal like I used to? How can I (mostly) not eat sugary cereal, but also not feel restricted at all? How can I basically never eat the brands of cereal I thought about morning and night as a dieter, and no longer think about them?
Like I mentioned in the beginning of this post, my past self would have never believed this to be possible. So, I want to share some practical tips and ideas to help you if you feel like you don’t have control around certain foods, and you want to make healthy changes.
Here’s a rundown on what helped me change my relationship with cereal, and hopefully it will help you see how healthy changes can be possible for you too.
I no longer feel out of control around cereal because…
1. I know I can have cereal if I want it. I can absolutely go buy a box of cereal right now—even a very unhealthy kind like Lucky Charms—and have a bowl and enjoy it, no big deal. It’s not forbidden in my mind. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure (in moderation) is not always a bad thing. It’s fun, it’s delicious, and we all have to find that balance in our own lives between pleasure and focusing on our health.
2. I’m no longer calorie restricted. Sugar doesn’t hold that high appeal that it did when I was starving and it was so attractive to my survival instincts. It’s amazing what eating enough will do to help your cravings! It’s so important that half of my 8-lesson online course focuses on helping you learn to eat adequately, so that you have the ability to stop binge eating.
3. My decision to reduce my cereal intake came gradually and naturally. My slow shift away from cereal came partially from nutritional information I read, but also from my own insight about how the cereal was making me feel, as well as from learning to expand my tastes to other, more nourishing foods. I never felt like I was fighting against myself, or holding myself back from something I truly wanted. Also, the changes came when I was ready to make the changes, not because someone else told me that’s what I should do.
4. I don’t believe I’m powerless against cereal, or any other food. I know I can eat a normal amount of cereal without a problem, so there’s no fear around eating it. Conversely, there’s no fear that not eating it will lead me to crave it more. When I tried to give up cereal during my binge eating years, it was out of a sense of fear—because I thought that one bite would lead to 8 bowls. Fearing a food tends to keeps it on your mind, and keeps your attention focused on that food. Now, there is relaxation around cereal, and I rarely think about it. (To learn more about why giving up certain foods isn’t a cure for binge eating, and what to do if you need to avoid certain foods for medical reasons, you can read my 3-part blog series on Eliminating Foods).
5. I do not have a restrictive rule to “not eat sugary cereal.” This is similar to reason #1, but I want to expand on it by saying that when you make a genuine choice to eat in a healthier way and it feels good, you feel in alignment. You don’t feel restricted. You don’t fantasize about the unhealthy foods that you’re not eating. You simply choose (most of the time) to have other things, and don’t really miss what you aren’t having.
6. I’m simply older…and I don’t think many adults are still eating Lucky Charms for breakfast. It’s okay to walk away from childhood foods that aren’t benefiting you in adulthood. This is not dieting. You could simply call it “growing up,” or learning to take care of yourself.
I don’t want to give the impression that my eating is perfectly healthy. There are many other unhealthy foods that I still choose to eat! But, I wanted to share this personal story to let you know that giving up binge eating and giving up dieting does not at all mean giving up on health. After binge eating ends, you are free to make (or not make) any healthy changes you want, in a way that works for you, and on a timeline that works for you.
Making those healthy changes is not part of binge eating recovery, it’s simply part of life. However, as a former binge eater, you will want to make sure you make changes in a healthy way that doesn’t involve putting yourself in a calorie deficit or becoming obsessive or overly restrictive about foods.
If you want more guidance in learning to eat normally, and ending the binge eating habit, you can get the Brain over Binge Course for $10.99 a month.
For more on this topic:
*One example of research demonstrating this: Stice, E., K. Burger, and S. Yokum. “Calorie Deprivation Increases Responsivity of Attention and Reward Brain Regions to Intake, Anticipated Intake, and Images of Palatable Foods.” NeuroImage 67 (2013): 322-330
*Originally posted on May 1 , 2011. Updated and re-published on July 23, 2019 (My little boy I wrote about here is almost 13!)
My four-year-old son gave up sucking his “binky” (pacifier) a couple weeks ago. We had already reduced his use of it during the day, but he was still very attached to it at naptime and bedtime. We decided to offer him a reward to quit. We let him pick out a toy in exchange for his pacifiers, and he’s been thoroughly enjoying the airplane set he chose, and he’s seemingly forgotten about his pacifiers.
This is a kid who I could have never pictured without his pacifiers. When I think back to his baby years, the main image in my mind is him looking at me with big blue eyes and sucking away on his pacifier. When he was very young, we couldn’t leave the house without a binky, and when I kissed him goodnight, I had to always make sure he had one for his mouth, and a couple extra in his bed so he’d be sure to find one if he woke up in the middle of the night. He loved his binkies, they were his favorite way to self-soothe.
An Lesson in Simply Letting Go
I didn’t think it would be as simple as it was for him to give up the pacifiers. He had a few nights where he slept less and fussed more, but now, he acts like he never had them in the first place. My husband and I were prepared to give him lots of extra comfort during the initial “withdrawal” phase; but it turned out that he was fine without them. He stopped performing the habit, and in turn, the desire for the habit seems to have gone away already. I can’t be absolutely sure because I haven’t talked about the pacifiers in over a week, as I don’t want him turning attention to them unnecessarily. I told myself I’d only talk about them if he started the conversation; but he hasn’t, and because he’s a very talkative kid, I think this is good evidence that he’s not thinking about the pacifiers.
Observing my son simply let go of this habit that he was so attached to just weeks ago has me thinking about how people – young and old – have the ability to give up bad habits without much drama. I’ve been drawing parallels between a child giving up a pacifier and adults giving up their harmful behaviors and addictions. I believe that if adults who struggle with destructive habits could model the example of young children, then giving up those habits would be much less complicated.
Adult Habits are Treated with More Complexity
Why are adults told they are diseased or psychologically unwell because they have a bad habit or because they repeatedly overuse a substance? Why are they often excused from simply quitting, and told they are powerless? We do not tell our children they are powerless over their habits (otherwise, there would be widespread adult pacifier use).
Was my son “addicted” to his pacifier? I realize that the word “addiction” can be charged and has different meanings to different people, but I think I could argue that yes, he was addicted to his pacifier, even though there was not a chemically-addicting substance involved. But, did being “addicted” mean he was flawed or broken or had underlying emotional issues he needed to resolve? Absolutely not. Did being “addicted” mean he was not capable of simply stopping the behavior moving on with his life? No. And, I want to encourage binge eaters to believe that they are also capable of simply letting go.
The way I quit binge eating was indeed very similar to the way my son quit using his pacifiers. I stopped letting a binge be an option. I decided that I didn’t do it anymore, no matter what, and the urges to binge faded when I no longer acted on them. It did take longer for my urges to binge to go away than it seemed to take for my son to lose his desire to suck his pacifiers; and this is possibly because a child’s brain is more plastic and more easily changed than an adult’s. Nevertheless, my brain moved on and developed new neural pathways; and I developed new interests and things to think about; and the feeling of wanting to binge became merely a memory.
Your Lower Brain May Act Like a Child, but Your Higher Brain Can Guide You to Freedom
A difference between my son and me was that my son wouldn’t have chosen to stop sucking his pacifiers on his own, at least not anytime in the near future. He needed my husband and I to tell him when it was time to stop, and take the pacifiers away. Likewise, the more primitive part of a binge eater’s brain (which I call the lower brain) is “addicted” to binge eating and wants to continue the habit indefinitely, receiving whatever temporary pleasure and comfort it brings. The lower brain needs a higher authority to say “it’s time to stop,” and in adults, that voice of reason is the prefrontal cortex (which I call the higher brain). The higher brain is the part of you that knows binge eating is not what you truly want, and it is the part of you that is capable of dismissing the urges to binge. *For help learning how to dismiss the urges to binge, you can get my free eBook.
Ending Binge Eating Can be as Straightforward as Quitting Your Childhood Habits
If, right now, you believe your binge eating brings you comfort and pleasure that you can’t live without, just think of all the children who bravely hand over their binkies, or stop sucking their thumb, or stop carrying their favorite blanket everywhere they go. I know that not all children give up their habits as easily as my son did, but even if there is a difficult phase in the beginning, the child eventually stops and it just isn’t that big of a deal.
I am not trying to minimize the problem of adult addictions by comparing them to childhood habits, but I am trying to help you see that quitting a harmful behavior does not have to be so complicated. It also does not have to involve a major personal transformation or solving your life’s problems. Deciding to give up a harmful habit does take courage, but it’s well worth it, and it may not be as difficult as you think. After a couple of weeks binge-free, you may be surprised to feel your desire to binge fading quickly. You’ll feel confident when you realize you didn’t truly need the habit after all, and you’ll feel free when you realize you are so much better off without binge eating in your life.
The Brain over Binge Course will help you let go of ideas that are making habit change more complicated than it needs to be, and help you tap into your own power to end binge eating without drama.