Overindulging in food

Indulging in Food, Part 3: Getting over Overindulging

This is the third and final post in my blog series on indulging in food. If you have not read Part 1 and Part 2, I recommend you do that before continuing with this post, which aims to help you stop overindulging in food. In those previous two posts, I talked about what indulging may mean to you, how you can think about indulging, and I reminded you that’s it’s normal and okay to indulge in food.

Is Your Indulging a Problem?

Do you think your particular form of indulging is harmful? Do you feel like your indulging is more frequent than it should be?  Do you worry that you’re eating too much when you indulge?  Do you think it’s possible that you are overindulging in food?

If you are certain that you’re not defining indulging with a restrictive mindset (see Indulging in Food, Part 1: Reality Check), then this may be something to look at and address. I’m going to break down how and why indulging in food could become problematic, and I’ll give you some guidance to help you overcome overindulging. First, I’ll take you through a series of questions that will help you determine if this is an issue for you, and then I’ll explain how you can start gaining control.

Have you very recently stopped binge eating (or are you still binge eating)?

In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I described a process that you may go through as you transition from binge eating to eating in a normal way—I called it a bridge to normal eating. I explained that you probably won’t go from binge eating to completely normal eating habits overnight, and that it can take time for you to feel like you are on steady ground with food. When you are a binge eater, you become accustomed to eating large amounts of food; and even when you stop the harmful binge eating behavior, you may find yourself overeating a little more than you’d like, and that includes over-indulging in pleasurable food more than you think you should. (For more on this, you can listen to Episode 47: What if I’m Overeating After I Stop Binge Eating?)

I don’t think you should waste energy worrying about this, and instead you should stay focused on becoming confidently binge-free. Your physiology will gradually stabilize and the size of your stomach can return to normal—so that normal amounts of food and normal-sized indulgences will feel more satisfying. (Please seek any needed medical and nutritional help to support you as your body and appetite regulates). 

The main message here is that—if you are only recently removed from binge eating—and you think you may be overindulging in food, try to give it some time and allow yourself to heal. If the issue does not resolve over time, then you can begin to address it. The same advice applies if you are still binge eating—try not to worry about any overindulging right now and focus instead on ending the binge eating habit and allowing your body to regulate. Then, you’ll be in a better place to work on any problematic eating issues that remain.

Do strong cravings primarily drive your indulgences?

There’s a difference between deciding to go out and indulge in some ice cream with your family, and impulsively driving to the nearest fast food restaurant for a milkshake in response to strong sugar cravings. Neither situation is a binge, but if you feel like you are being overrun by your cravings, then it’s going to feel more problematic than if your decision to indulge feels rather calm and relaxed. Even if the desserts in both scenarios contain a similar amount of sugar and calories, you’ll feel more conscious and in control in the first example of getting ice cream than in the second example—when you feel more like you are being controlled by your desires.

Even though there is certainly food pleasure in both situations, they feel very different. If strong and uncomfortable cravings are the driving force behind most of your indulgent eating, then I believe this is something to work on, and you can start by using the suggestions I’ll give at the end of this post.

Are you obsessing over your indulgences?

If thinking about your food indulgences and looking forward to them takes up too much mental space, that’s another reason indulging could feel like a problem to you. Normal indulgence isn’t something that consumes your thoughts in a bothersome way. It’s something you choose to do, either in the moment or by planning it beforehand; but it doesn’t feel like an absolute priority in your life. If getting your treats feels so important that you can’t focus on anything else, and it causes you to lose sight of what is truly important to you, then you’ll definitely want to bring food indulgence back into it’s proper place in your life.

[If you are someone who struggles with incessant food thoughts on a regular basis—not just related to overindulgence—you can listen to this free Q&A audio from the Brain over Binge course: “Food is constantly in my thoughts. Even if I’m not having urges to binge, I’m incessantly thinking about eating.”] 

Are the consequences of indulging too great?

Even if you don’t feel driven by strong cravings, and even if you aren’t obsessing about indulgences beforehand, you may be experiencing problems after indulging. You may be someone whose decision to have ice cream in the first example leads to uncomfortable digestive issues or an exacerbation of certain inflammatory symptoms. You may have a health condition that makes the indulgences you are choosing too physically damaging for you personally.

You can start to find replacements that are equally or nearly as enjoyable, or you may need to let certain indulgences go in the name of better health. (For help with this, you can read my post: Eliminating Foods in Binge Eating Recovery, Part III).  Do not take this too far by completely banning anything that is not healthy, but if you have specific symptoms and issues with certain pleasurable foods, then you should take that into account as you approach indulging in food.

Do you find yourself saying “it’s okay to indulge” too much?

Yes, it’s true that indulging in food is okay, but if you hear this thought over and over in your head and it justifies overeating every day, or even at every meal, then it’s going to feel problematic. It’s definitely a good thing to remind yourself that indulging in food is not “bad,” and that you don’t need to be restrictive; but know that you don’t have to eat anything and everything that comes into your mind. Take an honest look at your behavior, and know that you get to decide when it is okay to indulge, and when it may not be the best idea. You get to strike a balance that works for you.

How to Get Over Overindulging in Food:

The simple advice I’m going to give you about dealing with overindulging can be organized into five D’s:

Define (what indulgences are okay to you): Take some time to think about what indulging means to you and how you want it in your life (see Part 1 and Part 2 for help with this).  Your definition of normal indulging will provide guidance when you have opportunities and/or desires for certain foods, and you hear that voice in your head saying “it’s okay to indulge.” If you’ve already determined what’s okay and not okay for your personally, then it becomes clear whether or not you will follow that voice. You do not need to set exact, strict rules, and in fact, I would not recommend that at all (listen to Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?). It’s best just to have a general idea of what food indulgences you want in your life, and follow that in a flexible way.

Desire (accept food cravings and possibly address some of them): Desire may or may not be present prior to indulging. If it is, it’s not a problem—desire for pleasurable food is a normal part of life. Desires are part of the human experience. I realize that here I could probably insert an entire book about the effects that modern foods and our modern lifestyle have on cravings, and I understand that many theories abound; however, I believe it’s best to keep it simple and realize that desire has always been a part of the human condition. Even if certain modern foods are more “addicting,” we still have a choice about how much to indulge in these foods. If you want to dive deeper into this, you can listen to Episode 52 on food addiction.

It’s important to accept that desire for food is okay, but also to know that it doesn’t mean you are destined to have what you are craving (and if you do decide to have what you are craving, you are never destined to overindulge or binge.)

When you have desires, try to pause and determine the course of action you want to take. That may be to have the indulgence you are craving (and not binge afterward); that may be to have a healthier food option; that may be to do another activity. You may also want to develop an overall strategy for addressing the cravings you feel are out of the range of normal. Cravings can be dismissed like binge urges, but additionally, you may want to get nutritional or medical support with any physiological issue you feel is contributing to problematic cravings, like blood sugar and/or hormone imbalances. You can also look into improving sleep, reducing stress, and improving hydration, which can all help reduce some cravings.

Decide: This is where your power of choice comes in. It’s important to realize that you are the one deciding to eat the food, or indulge in the food, or overindulge in the food. Your cravings and desires do not control your voluntary muscle movements, even if you have some physiological imbalances that are contributing to those cravings. You can start to experience your own power to determine what you indulge in and how much you indulge.

I believe that bringing the power of choice into your eating decisions is how indulging stays in the proper place in your life. When you know you have a choice—even if strong cravings are present, and even if you do decide to have the indulgence you are craving—you can still feel conscious and in control. You have the freedom to decide to indulge anytime, and you also have the freedom to decide against it when it doesn’t feel like the right decision for you.

Deliberately enjoy the indulgence: You don’t have to eat super-slowly, or chew a certain number of times, or be completely mindful, or avoid doing anything else while you are eating; but try to slow down enough to enjoy what you are indulging in. If you are eating rapidly, or eating mindlessly in front of the TV or in the car, it will feel more impulsive and is more likely to lead to overindulging. Eating a little more deliberately goes hand in hand with deciding to indulge—it’s another way of keeping your higher brain engaged, realizing what you are doing, and proving to yourself that you are in control.

Delicious: This is a bonus “D” to remind you that you can and should enjoy eating and indulging in food. When you indulge, it’s perfectly okay to soak in the pleasure (without the guilt!). Then, when you are done, put the food aside and move on with you life.

I hope this series on indulging has been helpful to you. I hope you are able to determine the proper place in your life for indulging in food and put aside any overindulging that feels harmful to you.

_________________________________

If you are still binge eating, you’ll want to stay focused on ending that harmful habit before working on other problematic eating habits like overindulging in food. For help stopping the binges, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics

primal brain binge eating

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

I received a good question today from someone struggling with binge eating regarding which part of the brain—the higher brain (rational) or the lower brain (primal, habitual, and instinctual) is involved in normal eating. This is topic I address thoroughly in my new book, the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, but I want to answer it briefly here—and direct you to a few other posts and podcasts episodes where you can learn more—because this issue can be confusing for some people.

The more animalistic and primal part of the brain (that I call the lower brain) has a fundamental role in eating, and when it’s functioning properly, we should be able to trust it to regulate our appetite and steer us toward good food choices—based on our taste preferences and physiological needs. However, when restrictive dieting and binge eating become involved, the primal brain becomes dysfunctional—driving the person toward massive amounts of food, as if that’s imperative for survival. To overcome this, it’s necessary to use the rational higher brain to override the primal brain’s (temporarily) faulty programming.

When you recover and end the binge eating habit, you are not banishing the primal brain. You are instead returning it to its normal role in regulating hunger and fullness and the desire for pleasurable food.  Where my opinion differs from a purely intuitive eating approach is that I don’t think we can rely completely on the the primal lower brain to guide our eating in today’s modern food environment. There are so many unnatural and over-stimulating foods that our appetite regulation system and our brain’s reward system (located in the lower brain) weren’t meant to deal with.  We need our higher brain power to override any abnormal or problematic cravings.

Eating is never a purely rational experience, nor should it be. But in today’s world, I don’t think eating can necessarily be a purely primal-brain-driven experience either.

To explore more about this topic, you can check out the following resources:

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

Indulging in Food: Getting over Overindulging

Overeating: Don’t Overdo Self-Control 

Listen to Your Body?

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

If you are ready to end your struggle with binge eating, you can download the Brain over Binge Basics to get started:

Brain over Binge PDF

Binge eating at night and late night cravings

Binge Eating at Night and Late-Night Cravings

It’s common for binge eaters to primarily binge at night; and even after binge eating stops, you may still find yourself having late-night food cravings. Some people are bothered by these cravings, and wonder if giving in to them means that they are overindulging; or conversely, if ignoring those cravings means that they are being too restrictive. Everyone has to navigate the balance between restriction and overindulging, and at night is when we usually have the most opportunities to do that. Most people don’t get up in the morning craving a piece of cake, but after the work of the day is done, that piece of cake may seem much more appealing.

An important thing to know as a recovering binge eater—or anyone who feels like they eat too much at night—is that night food cravings are very common. One study found that appetite and interest in food peaks at around 8 pm, as part of our natural circadian rhythm. So, when you find yourself craving a sugary snack after dinner or after dark, know that you are not alone, and there is nothing wrong with you. There are many theories as to why this is so, and you can read about some of them in this article: The Science of the Midnight Snack. From an evolutionary perspective, night eating had a survival advantage in that it helped our ancestors store calories more efficiently when food was less abundant. Even today, we live in a sort of “hunting” mode during the day—working, moving, and doing—and once we slow down at night, our survival mechanisms recognize this and give us a “time to eat!” signal. It’s as if we are wired to want to eat more at night to replenish the energy stores we lost during the day, and store up more for tomorrow.

We tend to crave sweets at night not only to replenish and store up energy, but for quick energy in the moment. At night we are tired and our brains are energy depleted. If we choose to stay awake or have to stay awake, our brains will naturally view sugary food as attractive and rewarding because it is a source of quick energy. Sure, a banana would do the trick, but for most people, that’s not what is the most appealing after dark. Our self-control functions are at their weakest when we are exhausted, so it’s no wonder that many people don’t make their healthiest food choices at night.

For people struggling with binge eating, these natural mechanisms can make them more likely to experience (and give in to) urges to binge at night; or their decision to follow a night craving leads to thoughts that say: “I’ve already blown it, so I might as well binge.” Instead of learning of the normalcy of late-night cravings, binge eaters often learn that wanting to eat at night is a signal that they aren’t emotionally fulfilled, or that their day was too stressful, or that they didn’t eat the right foods for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. While stress, sleep, and diet patterns certainly can play a role in the frequency and intensity of night cravings, realizing that this type of heightened interest in food—especially junk food—is normal may help you spend less time asking why, and instead focus on some useful strategies to manage the night cravings when they occur.

Common advice for dealing with night eating is to keep healthier food options in the house, make sure you are eating enough throughout the day, eat dinner a bit later, do some light exercise at night, stay hydrated, make plans for when cravings hit, or just go to bed earlier. These common suggestions are certainly useful, but I want to go beyond that and give you 4 more things to think about when night cravings hit. These 4 tips can be helpful whether you are still binge eating at night or if you simply feel like you are eating too much after dark.

1: Stop Telling Yourself You Shouldn’t Eat at Night

We’ve all heard the popular advice that eating late leads to more weight gain, but this idea is actually rather controversial. While some experts say that the body doesn’t process and use food and calories well at night, so night eating can lead to weight gain, others claim that eating late at night is actually better for fat loss. Here is an article that says overall food intake matters more than timing, and it’s possible that the any observed link between late night eating and weight gain is not a causal relationship.

It’s important not to take all weight loss advice at face value and use it to make rigid rules for yourself. Telling yourself, “It’s late, I shouldn’t eat anything” can lead you to want to eat more—because anything that is forbidden in your mind becomes more appealing. You have freedom to eat at night if you want to, and only you can make that choice. I frequently have a snack before bed, and I’ve also eaten in the middle of the night from time to time since I recovered from binge eating. I’ve struggled with insomnia at various points, and during those sleepless nights, I’d eat about every 2 to 3 hours. I didn’t plan the intervals—that’s just when my body would naturally signal hunger. I’ve also been awake all night countless times with my babies, and I’ve spent long nights writing; and again, I eat when I’m hungry. The reason most people don’t eat in the middle of the night is because they are sleeping, not because they are telling themselves that they “shouldn’t”. If you are awake for one reason or another, don’t beat yourself up for being hungry and having some food.

2: Enjoy Your Late Night Snack

If you decide to eat something at night—either before bed or if you wake up in the middle of the night—don’t do it in a guilt-ridden way. Own your choice and enjoy the food. It sometimes helps people to put the food on a plate and sit down to eat, instead of standing at the refrigerator.  This makes your choice to eat feel more like a well-thought out decision instead of an impulsive one.

When I was in therapy for bulimia and binge eating disorder, I worked with a nutritionist who created a meal plan for me. She spread out my calories evenly during the day, which is fine; but it didn’t quite feel right to me and now I understand why. I didn’t find myself wanting a big breakfast or lunch, and found myself basically forcing in the food. Then, I’d come to the end of the day not feeling like my dinner or bedtime snack was big enough. I’d become frustrated and resentful; and if I decided to eat something extra late at night, I’d feel so guilty that I wouldn’t truly enjoy it. This mindset often led directly to urges to binge at night, and I’d proceed to eat thousands more calories after my snack. My therapist explained that this night binge eating pattern stemmed from emotional issues.

Now, looking back, I can see that I simply needed more calories at night. I was an athlete at the time, and big meals during the day weren’t practical because they made me feel sluggish and full for track practice—which was usually twice per day. I needed more at night because that’s when my body signaled me to replenish my energy reserves. Altering my eating plan wouldn’t have stopped my binge eating (because I didn’t know how to dismiss the binge urges at the time), but there was simply no need for me to beat myself up over wanting to eat more at night. I should have eaten a little less during the day to fit my lifestyle, and then enjoyed a larger dinner and bedtime snack, without all the shame. Everyone has different patterns, so trust yourself to settle on eating times and amounts that work for you.

[If you feel like you need one-on-one support in creating a meal plan for yourself and nourishing your body during and after bulimia/binge eating recovery, Binge Code Coaching specializes in this.] 

3: Deal with Blood Sugar Fluctuations

If you are waking out of a deep sleep in the middle of the night feeling hungry, it could be a blood sugar imbalance. Of course, if you have any blood sugar problems, you should always seek a doctor’s advice. Here I’m talking about a simple dip in blood sugar that is making you feel like you need to eat something. You can try sipping some diluted juice before eating to take the edge off of the craving, and that has the added benefit of hydrating you—to ensure your craving isn’t partially due to thirst.

Then, if you are still feeling hungry, you will be in a less ravenous state and you can make a more rational decision about what to eat. I realize you don’t want to do this every night because it interrupts sleep, so as a long term strategy, you’ll want to balance blood sugar overall, and you can get nutritional support to do that. Some people find it helpful to eat something right before bed that will help regulate blood sugar—including protein, healthy fat, and possibly some high quality carbohydrates.

4: Use Detachment from Cravings in Conjunction with Other Strategies

Even if you stop binge eating at night, you might find that your night cravings still feel problematic. You can be confident that you never have a follow a night craving (or any craving) with a binge, but it makes sense to start addressing the night cravings. These type of cravings are more common if you are overtired, overworked, or overstressed, so working on those areas can often tweak your physiology enough to reduce nighttime cravings. Meditation, exercise, and supplements may also have a place in balancing your body. However, there will inevitably be times when life is rough, and stress is inevitable, or there is no time to meditate or exercise, or you have no extra money for supplements.  That’s why it’s important to know that you aren’t powerless when it comes to any type of craving.

Yes, it’s normal to have night cravings; yes, it’s okay to follow them; and yes, it’s great to enjoy whatever food you choose to eat at night—but you are still capable of a drawing a line when enough is enough, or deciding to simply say no. You can detach from night cravings just like you detach from binge urges. You can choose not to act on a night craving just like you choose not to act on an urge to binge. You don’t ever need to make night eating off-limits, but know that you get to decide the place that night eating has in your life.

For more help with ending binge eating at night (or at any time of day), you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF, or learn more about my Course.

Enjoy food binge eating

Enjoy Your Food: Giving up binge eating does not mean giving up food pleasure

I want to share a blog post from my good friend Emily, who is a health writer, called The Food Enjoyment Equation (copied below as it is no longer available online). It describes such a simple, but powerful idea about enjoying our food.

To a binge eater, the idea of enjoying food in normal amounts can seem foreign. When I was bulimic, I often feared eating meals and snacks because there were so many foods I thought might trigger binge eating, and many more foods that I labeled “too fattening” to eat as a part of my regular diet. At the time, I probably would have taken the advice to “enjoy your food” as a justification to binge, because I felt that the only time that I enjoyed eating was when I let go of all inhibition, and secretly ate whatever I wanted in huge quantities. Although binges felt unsettling and out of control, there was always an experience of temporary pleasure.

But as the article below explains, enjoying your food is the opposite of the fruitless and fleeting pleasure of binge eating. Thinking back, my binges brought no true enjoyment, but only a temporary high that faded fast and led to shame and pain. Even before the binge was over, any sense of pleasure was long gone, and even in those initial moments of eating pleasure, there was always a part of me that realized it wasn’t what I actually wanted.

You already know that binge eating leaves you feeling awful – physically and emotionally.  Even so, the thought of giving it up can bring a sense of fear of losing that “enjoyment” that you think you feel during binges.

It’s important to realize that binge eating is not real enjoyment or true pleasure, but only short-lived gratification that brings very harmful consequences. Once you realize this, you are on the road to letting go of the destructive behavior. However, you may not know how to enjoy food otherwise, and you may think that once you quit binge eating, you’ll have to view food as fuel only and no longer take pleasure in eating. This is simply not true!

It’s important to start looking at “enjoying food” with a new perspective. I want you to know that, when you give up binge eating, you will open yourself up to learning how to truly enjoy your food. You’ll stop getting that fleeting pleasure of a binge that’s only leading to pain, and you’ll begin learning to take real, satisfying pleasure in food in normal portions. You’ll stop letting go of all inhibition because you tell yourself that “tomorrow starts a new diet;” you’ll end the shame of hiding your eating habits; you’ll stop obsessing about weight and calories; you’ll end the guilt that comes after binges; and instead, you’ll start learning to enjoy the way you feel during and after a good meal, snack, or dessert.

As you read the article below, think about how you can start applying it in your own life, and how you can balance the two aspects of enjoyment that are discussed:

—————–

“The Food Enjoyment Equation”

You may wonder how I can espouse a view of no-rules, enjoy-your-food freedom, and subsequently launch into the world of nutrition science to examine optimal diets.

The two ideas are not mutually exclusive.

Enjoying your food is of the utmost importance. Nutrition is hugely important as well. But the big-picture view of health includes so many factors, in varying degrees of importance, that it’s not an easily defined black-and-white issue. Add to that that health is a highly individual matter, and it gets more complicated.

My simplified take is this:  Enjoy your food.  And that means looking at what that actually means.  I define the notion of enjoying food as follows:

food enjoyment = how does it taste? + how does it make me feel?

This is my way of accounting for food quality when discussing the principle idea of food enjoyment. Many people would say they “enjoy” regularly eating fast food and candy bars, but if they assessed how they felt afterward, would they say eating low-quality foods on a regular basis actually made them feel good?
Conversely, someone adhering to a strict diet of high-nutrients foods might feel good physically, but are they stressed and anxious all the time?  If so, it’s not an enjoyable way of eating.

Balancing these two aspects of enjoyment is key. If you’re in a social situation and being served a type of food you’d prefer to avoid, sometimes it’s more enjoyable to focus on having a nice dinner with friends than to worry about the food that’s being served (barring any serious food allergies, of course).

By the same token, if eating a certain item will make you feel ill, it’s probably worth it to speak up. I tend to think that the healthiest option is the one that maximizes enjoyment by making me feel good mentally (low stress) & physically, and that tastes good.

Food should be one of the greatest joys, not a technical breakdown of “Should I or shouldn’t I eat this.”

It highlights one of the most fundamental aspects of eating: That food is meant to be enjoyed, not fretted over.

—————–

To jump start your recovery, you can download my free eBook, The Brain over Binge Basics by signing up for my monthly newsletter and updates.

You can also learn about the Brain over Binge Course and how to get additional support.

binge eating journal

Before Therapy for Binge Eating: A Telling Journal Entry

I often kept a journal as a kid and teen, and continued journaling as I began to struggle with binge eating. Writing was an outlet for me and seemed to help me process things I was going through. When I started to feel so out of control with food, my journal often felt like the only place I could turn, because I was too ashamed to tell anyone about my binge eating and didn’t think anyone would understand.

A Binge Eating Journal in Therapy Was Complicated (and Didn’t Stop Binges)

Once I began therapy for binge eating, my therapists encouraged me to journal as a way to try to uncover deeper emotional reasons for my binges. I learned to use my journal as a way to try to find patterns in my binge behavior, and figure out which events, feelings, situations, interactions, and stressors preceded and supposedly triggered my out-of-control eating episodes.  Because therapy taught me that binge eating was a coping mechanism for problems and emotions, I also wrote in my journal as a way to help myself cope, thinking that would take away my desire to binge.

In Brain over Binge, I explained the many reasons why mainstream therapy concepts didn’t work for me and why thinking my binge eating was due to deeper underlying problems or a need to cope was not helpful. The way I used my journal in therapy may have helped me have some insight into my life, and problems, and emotions, but it did not help stop my binge eating. It made my binge eating seem meaningful and important, and also made it like a mystery that I needed to solve. (You can learn more about why digging into emotional and psychological issues is not always useful in recovery my blog post: What Makes Recovery “Work”? Part III (You Don’t Need to Work so Hard)

Pre-Therapy Journal Entries More Accurately Described My Binges

I did write about binge eating a bit before I started therapy. I think my pre-therapy journal entries are raw and telling, and more accurately interpret what my binge eating was about: It wasn’t about coping, it was about the food.

I wrote the journal entry below a couple months after I turned 18—about a week or two before my first appointment with a therapist regarding my binge eating/bulimia. At the time, I was still underweight from anorexia, but I had been binge eating for about 7 months, and the binges had been steadily increasing in frequency and quantity of food. It’s evident from this journal entry that I had not been introduced to the idea of binge eating being a coping mechanism. Instead I had a couple intuitive and clear ideas of my own about my binge eating. I think these ideas can be summed up as:

1. I feel like I can’t control myself around food   

2. I think I might like to binge, even thought I hate it’s effects

At this point in my eating disorder, my strong cravings and urges to binge were the result of my survival instincts. The binges were an adaptive response to my extended and extreme dieting; and those urges were generated by a primitive part of my brain, which I call the lower brain. But all I knew at the time was that I couldn’t seem to control myself around food, and I hated myself for it. I didn’t realize that the part of me that seemed to like binge eating wasn’t really me at all, but a primal part of my brain that was driving me toward massive amounts of food in order to defend against starvation—and that part of my brain was steadily becoming more and more addicted to the binges. Each time I binged, I cemented the pattern a bit more until it became powerful habit, and my body and brain seemed to become dependent on large amounts of the foods that were initially so attractive to my survival instincts—foods higher in sugar/carbohydrates and fat.

If you want to know more about survival instincts and habit and how they lead to urges to binge (and how to overcome those urges) you can get my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics

This is the journal entry from October 1999:
_____________________________

I don’t know who I’m writing to or why I am writing, but I thought it might help me to get this out. Basically, I’m out of control. I can’t stop eating or thinking about food. I’ve been bingeing almost every other day. Since last night, I have been really really crazy. Before I went to bed, I had 3 bowls of cereal, 3 Nutri-Grain bars, 1 pudding cup, 1 bagel, a half a can of beans, a piece of cheese, a few handfuls of Fruity Pebbles, and 7 pieces of bread with butter. Then, I woke up at 12:30am and ate another pudding cup and a cup of milk, and another Nutri-Grain bar. Then, I woke up at 2:00am and ate another Nutri-Grain bar. Then, I woke up at 5:30am and had 2 more Nutri-Grain bars (totaling 7), a cup of milk, a cup of juice, then a piece of bread, then about 20 crackers, and a protein bar. I finally had to stop because it was time to go. [*I was leaving with my cross-country team to drive to South Carolina for a race, which was to take place the following day.The next part of this entry was written on the road with my team. I was sitting in the back of the team van, where no one could see my writing]

We just stopped at Cracker Barrel for lunch on our way to Clemson. I was still so full from last night so I decided to just order a turkey sandwich and a side of green beans. That would have been ok, but then I ate 2 pieces of cornbread & a biscuit as well. I was doing my best to eat slow and be normal, but I really just wanted to dig into everything. I’m like this almost all of the time now, and I don’t know why. Last night it was like I almost wanted to binge. After the first part of the binge that ended about 10:30pm, I actually felt good. But, then when I kept getting up at night and after lunch today, I just feel like a big failure. I spent so much time and energy and used so much self control to get down to this weight. And, now I’m ruining it. I weighed myself yesterday before dinner and this morning and  I gained 5 pounds in one night! That’s absolutely ridiculous. 

Do you think my body is just trying to tell me something? Or am I just crazy? Sometimes I feel like if I had a choice of what I wanted to do, I would choose to just sit in my room and stuff myself. I’ve actually gotten to the point where I enjoy it. After I binge, I just lay in bed and go to sleep. If I could just learn how to throw up, I could binge and not gain any weight. [*I left this here to show the desperation that goes on in a bulimic’s mind, but I want you to know that self-induced vomiting is never a solution and only makes the problem worse. It’s an extremely dangerous behavior and I’m thankful that I was never able to self-induce vomiting, because I might not even be here to write about my experience and recovery. For help with this, you can read a guest post from Ali Kerr: Tips to Help You Stop Purging.]

I think I just need to stop being such a baby. It’s sad but sometimes I would rather eat than do anything. Every time I do it, I swear to myself that I’m never going to do it again, but I always do. Right now, I’m feeling so nauseous and sick, but if I were alone in my room, I know I would eat more. I need a babysitter 24/7. My parents and sister know some of what is going on, but, they don’t know how to help me. I told the sports psychologist about the problem this week and I went home after the appointment and binged. It was like the whole day, I just knew it was going to happen. I went to Wal-mart with [two of my friends] and I bought the Nutri-grain bars knowing I would probably end up eating a ton of them, but not thinking I would eat the whole box in one night.

I feel like no one eats as much as me in the entire world, but I’m skinnier than the majority of people I see. How is that? I know it’s going to catch up with me very soon if I keep this up. I hate myself so much right now.I just want to be normal. I just want to eat and forget about it. I don’t want to think about food all day long. I feel so alone.

_____________________________

I think this entry is telling because of my honesty—admitting that I liked the binges. As I said earlier, this was a lower-brain-driven, primal form of pleasure that I didn’t understand, but still, this type of honesty was extremely rare in my journal entries after therapy—when I became convinced I binged for complicated emotional reasons and it was a coping mechanism for life’s problems. In later journal entries, I attributed my binges to things like feelings, stressful events, daily inconveniences, problems from my past, or relationship issues; and I rarely said what I said here, which was basically: “my cravings feel out of control, but you know what?…it feels good (temporarily) when I give in.” It only made sense that it felt good—of course there was great pleasure in the relief from self-imposed starvation.

Simplifying Recovery Based on What My Binge Eating Was About

The last paragraph in this journal entry is also telling in that I say “I want to be normal“. Even thought there was an unsettling pleasure in it, I didn’t want binge eating in my life, and I was taking steps to try to get help. I was receptive to help—to therapy— which I began shortly after writing this. Once I began therapy, I didn’t need to learn that all of this was a symptom of underlying emotional issues spend years digging through and trying to resolve those issues. I needed to learn that I was starving and my body and brain were reacting to try to protect me. I needed to learn that trying to maintain such a low weight was the cause of all this, and if I stubbornly continued to put my body in a calorie deficit, there would be no chance of stopping the binges.

It’s not that my dieting was completely ignored in therapy. I did learn that food restriction was part of the problem, but even when I normalized my non-binge eating—which wasn’t too difficult because I was motivated to do it—the binge urges persisted. As I discuss in my books, this was due to the persistent nature of the survival instincts and also due to habit. Simply normalizing my diet wasn’t enough; therefore, I also needed to learn something else—how to say no to each and every urge to binge.

In other words, I think my therapy, and the therapy for most bulimics or people with binge eating disorder, could be made simple—consisting of only 2 components:

1. Learn to eat adequately

2. Learn to resist urges to binge  [*I now say dismiss urges to binge, and you can learn about this in the free PDF]

I do not believe that the exact same methods that helped me resist urges to binge will cure everyone; but I do not believe in making recovery unnecessarily complicated, time-consuming, and difficult. I believe the key is finding what works for you to help you say no to the binges and therefore erases the habit. You can find more guidance in this blog post: What Makes Recovery “Work”? Part II (The Work You Need to Do.

If you need even more help, you can learn more about my Course.

Non-Hungry Cravings

A huge topic that is beyond the scope of this blog and my book is what I’ll call “non-hungry cravings.” Most people experience at least some cravings for pleasurable foods even when they are not hungry. Those of you who have read my book or followed my blog know that I believe choosing to give in to some “non-hungry” cravings every now and then is perfectly normal. In order to recover from bulimia/BED, of course you must deny the body/brain the binges it’s been conditioned to crave; however, I don’t think denying it of pleasure completely is necessary.

The fact that most people have food cravings, even when they are not truly hungry should come as no surprise. We are wired to enjoy food.Food is good; it’s meant to be pleasurable – after all, it’s how we survive. I don’t think there is a species on earth that views eating as a chore. The pleasure of eating is one mechanism that motivates us to stay alive. Unlike some nutritional experts, I don’t fully blame non-hungry cravings on an overabundance of “junk food” in society or a less than ideal diet; because even if you have perfectly healthy diet, you probably enjoy certain foods in particular and crave them sometimes when you are not truly hungry- even if they are the healthiest of foods.

When you stop binge eating and your urges to binge fade away, that doesn’t mean every food craving will disappear.I think keeping this in mind is very important, as is realizing that not every craving for pleasurable food is a craving to binge. Just because “non-hungry cravings” might feel similar in some ways to binge cravings, remember that “non-hungry” cravings are not eating-disorder specific.

However, it’s also important to realize you aren’t a slave to those “non-hungry” cravings either.If you have been successful in refraining from binge urges; I believe you can use some of the same techniques to refrain from any food cravings that are bothersome to you.However, I think learning to resist all “non-hungry” cravings is over-reaching and not necessary. I think it can even be harmful in some cases if it leads to a “dieting” mindset (having very rigid, restrictive eating habits; denying your body of sufficient calories), which as you know, can lead to more urges to binge.

If you are bothered by what you think are too frequent food cravings when you aren’t truly hungry, I would suggest first making sure you are eating enough.Even though you may have just had a meal when you find yourself craving a little more, maybe you simply didn’t eat enough. In other words, maybe your “non-hungry” cravings really aren’t that at all, maybe they are a signal that you aren’t feeding your body sufficiently.In this case, you may want to consider adding more calories to your diet; because if your body/brain gets the message that you are food deprived, the food cravings and even the binge urges may persist.

But, what if you are eating enough but find yourself having too many annoying non-hungry cravings? Like I said, addressing all the possible causes is beyond the scope of this blog and my book, and I am certainly not a nutritional expert; but I will attempt to address some aspects of this broad topic here.

Food cravings definitely have a physiological basis. Hormone imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, insulin resistance, food allergies, hypoglycemia, adrenal imbalances, and even something as simple as thirst can cause an overabundance of food cravings. In order to break these food cravings, some nutritional/medical experts recommend not only avoiding the foods you crave, but also addressing the physiological factors that may be involved (by doing such things as taking nutritional supplements, changing the composition of your diet to include more protein and fat, getting more healthy exercise, drinking more water…etc). Of course, many therapists apply the “emotional eating” perspective here, asserting that you crave pleasurable foods in an effort to cope with/stuff down/avoid feelings. If you’ve read my previous blogs or my book, you’ll know that I don’t think that perspective is useful for a lot of people. But the physiological basis of your non-hungry cravings might be worth exploring if you feel like those cravings are not in the range of normal.

There are three things I think are important to keep in mind, however, if you do attempt to address the physiological causes of food cravings.

First: The pleasure problem. Some experts believe that if you crave a certain food too often, like chocolate for example, that food has a nutrient in it that your body is deficient in.Following this example…chocolate is high in magnesium, so in theory, if you take magnesium supplements, it should make your craving for chocolate go away.To illustrate, the following quote is from a book on adrenal fatigue – a condition resulting from stress that can make one crave “pick me up” foods like sugar/caffeine.

“…it is much better to use your cravings for chocolate as a reminder to get your magnesium from some other source. The easiest solution is to supplement your diet with 400mg of magnesium per day.That physical craving for chocolate should decrease rapidly, often within one to two weeks after beginning the magnesium supplement.”(Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndromeby James L .Wilson, pg. 157-158)

To me, this logic sounds a bit similar to the logic that says to use a binge craving as a reminder that you have an unmet emotional need that you should address.While this nutritional deficiency theory is valuable, it fails to address the pleasure issue. Does 400 mg of magnesium in supplement form taste as good as chocolate? Does it provide whatever pleasurable benefits the individual receives from chewing and swallowing it and allowing it to alter their brain chemistry? Whatever the reason someone starts eating chocolate too often in the first place, I can guarantee that the reward system in the brain becomes involved and lights up every time the individual takes a bite.Even if you correct the nutritional deficiencies or other theoretical physiological causes, your primitive brain might still send urges for the rewarding nature of the foods you crave. Addressing physiological causes also fails to address behavioral conditioning, which is the second thing you should keep in mind. Following too many food cravings can become a habit.

All the thoughts/situations/feelings that make you feel compelled to reach for pleasurable foods when you aren’t truly hungry become wired into your brain, and correcting nutritional deficiencies or other theoretical physiological causes of cravings won’t necessarily turn off those automatic thoughts.

The third thing that is important to consider is the issue of self-control.The book I referenced above was one of the many books I purchased during my eating disorder that I thought would help with the binge eating. I self-diagnosed myself with adrenal fatigue (I did have most of the symptoms) and thought if the book claimed to help people overcome cravings for sugar/carbs, then it could help me with my binge eating.One sentence from it typifies why it didn’t help me much…on page 226, the author says,“Do not eat foods that adversely affect you in any way, no matter how good they taste or how much you crave them.” The lack of control I felt over my binge eating at the time made following the author’s advice impossible.This is why I believe telling binge eaters to eat a specific diet, or eat/don’t eat certain foods in order to address theoretical physiological causes of binge cravings often fails.It fails to address the fact that binge eaters often don’t feel like they have a choice.

This is why I believe it’s so important to know (and experience) that you fundamentally have control over your eating behavior (whether we are talking about binge eating or non-hungry cravings), regardless of what is going on in your body and brain at the time; and even if there are surely some physiological factors involved.

Drug Addict Status

If you are a binge eater, even if you have never seen the research, you know that there are similarities between food addiction and drug addiction. A recent study showing that you can get hooked on food the same way you can get hooked on drugs.

This study found what binge eaters sense – that in the brains of some, certain foods can “elicit cravings and trigger responses similar to those caused by addictive drugs.”

I think binge eaters sometimes find comfort in studies like these which confirm their suspicions that their behavior is indeed addictive. “It’s my crack,” I’ve often heard binge eaters and even non-binge eaters say when talking about their favorite foods; and when studies come out that prove food can really be “like crack” to the body and brain, it validates what they already suspect to be true. I know when I was a binge eater, I certainly found comfort in thinking I was “like a drug addict.”  But, why is this? Why did I find comfort in giving myself drug addict status?

I think likening myself to someone addicted to drugs made my problem more legitimate in my mind. It seemed all to weird, disgusting, and embarrassing to be hooked on enormous amounts of food; but if binge eating were indeed as addictive as shooting heroin, then maybe I wasn’t merely crazy or gluttonous after all. If I were like a drug addict, then maybe I really couldn’t control myself, I thought; and that’s precisely what the study linked above suggests.

The lead author of the study said that food addiction is “a combination of intense wanting coupled with disinhibition.” But, just because we can see “intense wanting” and “disinhibition” light up on a brain scan, does that mean the person has no control? I believe, even if there is some bungled brain circuitry causing someone to crave too much pleasurable food too intensely, and even if there is some under-activity in the executive areas of the brain that can inhibit actions; the person can still find ways to overcome those brain wiring issues. As humans, we can rise above our intense wanting for the greater good, and we can learn to inhibit.

While I think studies like the one above are useful, I think we have to be careful as a society not to give too many negative behaviors addiction status and not let differences in brain scans excuse too many actions. We could run into major problems if we eventually say that “intense wanting coupled with disinhibition” renders people helpless to control themselves. I can think of many wrong actions where this combination of intense wanting and disinhibition is present. Think of criminal offenses as extreme examples – shoplifting, robbery, rape; and moral dilemmas such as affairs, teen promiscuity, and pornography. Also, think of small children – every day they exhibit behaviors indicative of intense wanting coupled with disinhibition. If my daughter’s brain were to be scanned while she is shown a picture of a toy, I’m sure those same “intense wanting” areas would light up in her brain. Does this mean she must have the toy? It’s the same with the subjects in the study above.  It’s not a food addict’s fault they want the pleasurable food more and in greater amounts than others do; but in most cases, despite the brain processes at work, they still remain capable of learning to say no.

To recover from binge eating, I had to believe I could indeed control myself – whether I labeled my problem an “addiction” or not. I had to dismiss the belief that “intense wanting” could make me do anything. Strong desire is nothing in and of itself – it cannot make one act, and I had a choice or whether or not to let it get the best of me.  Once I stopped letting it get the best of me – in other words, once I learned to inhibit – the intense wanting subsided.

Listen to Your Body?

When my son Max (who is now 4) was about 2 years old, he began asking me during mealtime:”can I be done?” At first, I’d just asked him if he’d had enough, and if he said “yes,” I’d let him leave the table. However, he soon began asking “can I be done?” after the first or second bite; and he would get annoyed if I asked him to eat a little more. He later began asking, “how many bites do I have to take before I can be done?” Mealtimes quickly stopped being enjoyable because he only seemed to want to get back to playing instead of taking the time to eat and enjoy his food; and I didn’t feel comfortable insisting that he eat a certain number of bites or offering him more tasty (and usually more unhealthy) food choices as substitutes for what I’d prepared. It didn’t feel natural to me, and went against the philosophy I believed in before he was old enough to eat.

Before I began feeding him solids, I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted him to eat. I wanted him to be able to follow his own hunger and fullness signals, and I wanted to have a relaxed attitude around food – not forcing him to eat things he didn’t like, and also not putting any “unhealthy” foods off limits; but I also wanted to offer him healthy choices for the most part and have structure around his meal and snack times. I quickly learned that teaching a child to rely on his own hunger and fullness signals is more complex than I thought it would be.

When mealtimes became a struggle, I decided to start talking to Max about how to “listen to his body” (my husband jokingly made fun of me for using this phrase, but I thought the phrase brought the concept down to a child’s level). “What is your body telling you, Max?” I would ask when he would ask me how many more bites he had to take. “Does your stomach feel empty, like it has a little food in it, or like it is tight and full?” I tried to teach him to notice sensations that would signal that he still needed to eat more or that he’d had enough, in hopes that he could make a wise choice about how many more bites to take. Quite frankly, this didn’t work, and it became rather comical. Max would say he was full when the foods offered were not his favorites, and he would say he was still hungry even after eating plenty of his favorite foods. A conversation could have gone something like this:

(Max eating soup and crackers)
Max: “How many bites do I have to take before I can be done?”
Me: “Well, Max, why don’t you listen to your body and see what it’s telling you.”
Max: “My body says I’m done.”
Me: “But you’ve only eaten two bites. I think you need to eat some more so that you won’t be hungry at nap time and you will have energy for the rest of the day.”
Max: “My body says ‘stop eating soup! stop eating soup!'”

(Max eating chocolate cake)
Max: “Can I have some more cake?”
Me: “Max, you’ve already had a big piece, why don’t you listen to your body and see what it’s telling you.”
Max: “My body says ‘more cake, more cake!'”

As funny as these statements are coming from a 2-year-old, it actually provides an unfiltered look at our brain’s primitive pleasure center and how it influences food intake.

Palatability usually overrides satiety, so that even if we are physically full, we still want to continue eating a highly pleasurable food (hence, “my body says ‘more cake, more cake!'”). And unless we are famished, lack of palatabilty can override hunger (hence, “my body says ‘stop eating soup!'”) A 2-year-old doesn’t have enough higher brain power to always override these primitive, pleasure-seeking brain signals. Neither does a 5-year-old, a 10-year-old, or a 15-year-old, and even adults with fully developed higher brain centers have trouble resisting tempting food (in the most extreme cases, this takes the form of binge eating).

I think it is highly unfair to kids when their parents keep the house stocked with extremely pleasurable/sugar-laden foods, and let them have free reign of it. They aren’t always going to make a choice to stop when their brains’ say “more sweets, more sweets.” My experience with Max led me to believe that childhood obesity is partially due to parents letting their kids “listen to their bodies” too much in an environment filled with sugary foods. Their bodies are very survival and pleasure oriented, and although they may not binge, they will often reach for the sweets over the healthy choices.

I still want Max to learn to listen to his body, but I also want him to know that he must think too. Now that he is a bit older, I have explained to him that when we eat desert and sugary foods, sometimes our bodies don’t tell us to stop even when we are full (and it’s possible that Max has genes like me that make him susceptible *not destined!* to overeat pleasurable foods). I sometimes set limits on how much desert he can have, and even if he says “my body says more,” I have to tell him no. I try to get him involved in something else so he stops focusing on his desire for more; and sure enough, within a couple minutes he always forgets about the food. I want to teach him that we can’t have everything we desire, and sometimes doing the right thing means temporarily feeling deprived of pleasure (we can’t mistake pleasure for happiness).

One day, when his higher brain centers are developed, I hope this lesson will stick: You don’t always have to listen to your body and brain when you know (with your higher brain centers) that what it’s telling you to do is not right or good for you. This lesson doesn’t only apply to eating pleasurable foods, but to anything that involves a healthy dose of self-control.

On the flip side, I’m also trying to teach him that just because some foods don’t taste great (like vegetables, in his opinion), he still needs to make a good effort to try them. Also, if he is not hungry at a meal, I certainly don’t force him to eat; but I do make sure he eats something to give him energy to last him until the next meal. Food is fuel and even when the appetite is low for one reason or another, that doesn’t mean we can’t put food in our mouths (except, of course, in cases of illness when eating normally would not be advised). I know I tend to lose my appetite in times of stress, but I still eat normally, even though it may not be as enjoyable to do so. Following the appetite is important, but we need to use our higher brains too when making food choices because sometimes the appetite isn’t completely reliable – especially when bombarded with sugary, highly processed, “addicting” foods.

I’m certainly not saying I’m doing everything right in fostering good eating habits in my children, but I do find it interesting how the brain of a child gives us a glimpse into the adult “animal” brain, which I believe plays a huge role in the development and maintenance of binge eating.