[This is the Part II post of the Binge Eating Recovery During a Crisis series. Read Part I]. This is an unprecedented time, and no one is handling these sudden life changes perfectly; and no one is handling their anxiety, fear, sadness, and loneliness perfectly either. You may find yourself feeling lost, distracted, and questioning so much in your life. How can you best protect yourself and others from becoming sick? How are you going to work through quarantine and provide for your family? How is your business going to survive? How are you going to home school your children? How are you going to continue pursuing a hobby or sport that you love? How are you going to keep exercising? and…
How are you going to eat during quarantine? The answer to this question and all of the others is: imperfectly. If you are struggle with binge eating, the imperfection surrounding your eating may be giving you a lot of anxiety, and I’m writing today to help you with that.
You can only do the best you can given the circumstances. You can’t expect yourself to keep it all together and have a flawless plan for every area of your life. This is not going to be a smooth ride, and we are all going to need to continue to adapt to changes in the way we live, work, connect with others, and eat.
Anxiety about imperfect eating during isolation
Even if you were able to accept some imperfection in your eating prior to this crisis, maybe it feels different now. Maybe it feels like your eating is just too far from what you consider ideal, and too different from how you were eating just a few weeks ago, and you aren’t sure what to do.
If you struggle with bulimia or binge eating disorder, your anxiety about how you are eating may be more intense than it is for people who do not have a history of binge eating, but you are definitely not alone in feeling “off” with your eating during this difficult time. I’m sure you have noticed that many people are helping themselves cope with this situation through humor, and there are a lot of memes going around that relate to eating too much or too unhealthy while at home and isolated. Although people are joking about it, that doesn’t mean they’re not distressed by it. Even people who don’t have issues with food may find themselves out of their normal eating routines, and may find themselves grazing or snacking more, or not having any structure surrounding meals.
Most people have also found themselves eating lower quality food. When another paycheck is uncertain, or nonexistent, or business is way down because people aren’t buying non-essentials, it only makes sense that we would try to do whatever we can do to spend less, and our grocery bill is one area that most of us are trying to reduce. The reality is that cheaper food is typically lower quality food. People who were previously buying higher quality food and organic food are now opting for the less expensive options, and options with longer shelf lives in case we are in our homes for a while. For most of us, this means less fresh foods and more packaged, processed foods.
Please do not criticize yourself for this. The issue of poor quality food being cheaper is something that is problematic in society, but that multifaceted issue isn’t going to be solved right now during this crisis, and it does you no good to be upset about it at this time. You simply have to deal with what is, and feeling guilty about eating more processed foods or beating yourself up over not eating organic foods isn’t going to help.
I’m not saying to just give up on health and to only buy junk food, because there are ways to spend less and still get as much nutrition as possible. But the reality is that you probably didn’t have a plan in place for that, and it’s just not your highest priority right now, and you are definitely not alone. I’m also not saying to give up on having any structure in your daily eating, because it may indeed help you to work on having meals and snacks at relatively consistent times. What I am saying is that during this crisis, your eating will likely include a significant amount of imperfection, and that goes for binge eaters and non-binge eaters alike.
A new perspective on imperfection
Instead of being frustrated by your imperfect eating or feeling like it’s a roadblock to your recovery from binge eating, you can see it as an opportunity. It provides an opportunity to accept imperfection in your eating, and still not binge. It provides an opportunity to learn that you are not powerless around foods you may have previously tried to avoid. It provides an opportunity for you to see that you can snack often, or graze too much, or be out of your normal routine, and stay binge-free. It provides an opportunity for you to realize that you don’t have to get your eating exactly “right” to recover. In fact, you can eat very “wrong” (according to your own standards, or common health advice) and still not binge.
It’s common for people with eating disorders to think that they need to eat in a certain way to prevent binges, and this is your chance to truly see that this is not the case. If you follow my work, this is not a new concept for you, and you might even be tired of me saying that you don’t need to eat perfectly to recover from binge eating. But it’s so important, and that’s why I consistently remind you that life can get in the way of your eating plans, and it’s okay if you don’t eat healthy all of the time, and it’s fine if you choose fast food or convenience food, and it’s normal to overeat sometimes; and despite all of that imperfection, you can you can stay binge-free. This may have sounded great to you in theory, but now is your chance to powerfully experience it for yourself.
I think when I say “it’s okay to eat imperfectly,” many people believe I’m talking about slight imperfections, like maybe stopping at a fast food restaurant once per week, or eating a few bites of chocolate after dinner, or buying regular milk instead of organic milk. But I’m actually talking about much, much more imperfection than that. You can eat fast food or processed food at every meal, or eat desert after every meal, or have most of your eating be grazing, and you can still not binge. Of course, I know you aren’t going to want to eat that way on a consistent basis, because it will negatively affect your quality of life and your health over time; but if it happens, I want you to know that you retain the ability to avoid binges.
Eating imperfections will happen throughout your life, not just during quarantine
It doesn’t take a crisis of the magnitude we’re dealing with now to throw off eating habits, or to influence your food buying decisions. Even after this crisis passes, life will continue to throw problems your way that seem to interfere with how you want to eat. If you can learn now, during this crisis, that imperfect eating does not have to lead to binge eating, you will set yourself up to be able to withstand any change in your eating habits in the future, and roll with it, and never let it send you back into binge eating.
I’ve been wanting to share this for a while, but I simply haven’t gotten around to it. I often say how I personally do not eat perfectly, and that’s true every day; but in 2019, I had the longest stretch of low quality eating that I can remember. I went through a divorce last year, and although I know this is not even remotely close to what many people have to deal with in their lives (and what many people are dealing with during this crisis), it was still very difficult in it’s own way. The process was long and draining, and it was stressful emotionally, mentally, and physically. I found that I had so much to deal with and so much on my mind (and I wanted to focus so much on my children) that I just didn’t want to put much effort into my food choices.
It seemed like I just didn’t have enough energy to go around. I ate whatever was fastest and easiest and cheapest, and a lot of times that looked like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fast food, or leftover mac and cheese from the kids’ dinner the night before. It wasn’t all poor-quality food. I did make an effort to keep some easy, healthy foods around too, like nuts, carrot sticks, and apples; and I took vitamins and drank healthy protein shakes. I also tried to cook for my kids, but they are super-picky and I just didn’t have the energy to push them to try new things during this time, so even my “cooking” wasn’t much of an improvement over convenience food.
I wouldn’t say that I overate during this time-frame, at least not in any way that I’d consider out of the range of normal. I knew in the back of my mind that this way of eating was temporary, and that I was just trying to get through the days in the best way I could; and indeed, late last year I started craving healthier foods again and putting more effort into cooking and nourishing myself (although now, with the coronavirus crisis, we are back to easier and cheaper foods).
During the divorce process when my eating was less-than-ideal, I never once felt like I was using those lower quality foods to help me cope emotionally, and I never thought that those foods were making me feel better in any way (listen to Episode 39: Emotional Attachment to Binge Eating for more about the relationship between food and emotions). I never felt like it was comfort eating or emotional eating, and I primarily ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full (but not perfectly!). The type of eating that would have actually provided comfort would have been for someone to make a delicious, healthy meal for me. I just didn’t prioritize doing that for myself.
I knew I retained the ability to put in the extra effort to buy and prepare better food, but my choice to have convenience food seemed worth it to me at the time, to save energy. I knew rationally that the added effort to eat better would have possibly provided a net gain in my energy, but it simply didn’t happen…because like I keep saying, I’m not perfect:-). I’m sharing this because you might find yourself feeling the same way during this crisis.
I’m so far removed from the binge eating habit that any thoughts related to binge eating never crossed my mind. What did cross my mind however, was how thankful I am that almost 15 years ago I disconnected stress and binge eating, and I also disconnected imperfect eating and binge eating, so that now stress and imperfect eating don’t send me back into bingeing. I’m thankful that long ago, I stopped believing that recovery depended on my life’s circumstances, or on my stress level, or on my emotional state, or on my eating choices. If I still believed recovery depended on those things, 2019 would have been a prime time for relapse, and now 2020 as well because I’m right back to more stress and lower quality eating.
If you’ve binged during this crisis…
I want to say here that if you’ve acted on binge urges during this coronavirus crisis or during another difficult time in your life, I don’t want you to criticize yourself for it, and I don’t want you to think it means you won’t recover. Those of you who read my books know that even after I stopped linking my emotional problems to my binge eating problems, and even after I shifted to the brain-based perspective that led to my freedom from binge eating, I still acted on two more urges to binge. And, I acted on those urges when things were relatively normal in my life, aside from typical daily problems.
I was thinking today about how my recovery might have looked differently if a big, stressful event like my divorce or the coronavirus crisis would have happened around the time I learned to stop acting on urges to binge. Due to conditioned, habitual patterns, my binge urges did appear more often in times of stress than non-stress (listen to Episode 13: How to Stop Binge Eating Under Stress for help with this), and my binge urges did appear more when I ate more junk foods, although I definitely still had urges when I was otherwise happy and when I was eating well.
There were other problems during the time of my recovery that gave me practice disconnecting binge eating from difficult life circumstances, negative emotions, and imperfect eating; but if a life-altering crisis would have occurred alongside of my recovery, is it possible that I would have had an increase in my urges to binge? Absolutely. And, is it possible that because of the increased urges, I might have been tempted to act on more of them before stopping the habit for good? Yes, it’s definitely possible…although I do believe that because I saw the urges for the false, lower-brain messages that they were, and because I realized the binge eating wasn’t helping me cope with anything, I wouldn’t have kept acting on the urges for long.
I’m saying this here because I want you to give yourself forgiveness and compassion if you’ve been following binge urges more during this stressful time when there’s so much imperfection in your eating. Yes, you might be facing challenges that people who recovered at other times didn’t have to face, but you can also recognize the opportunity inherent in recovering now. You can recognize the opportunity to experience your own sense of choice and control in a powerful way, as you prove to yourself that imperfect eating does not need to lead to binge eating. Despite all of the negative feelings and thoughts you understandably have right now, you can also experience the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes when you don’t get your eating exactly right, but you also don’t use that as a reason to just give up and binge.
You aren’t giving up on the rest of your life during quarantine. Don’t give up on recovery from binge eating.
I want you to think about the rest of your life during this crisis. Your kids can’t go to school…does that mean they should just give up on trying to learn anything during this time? You might not be able to do your normal job right now, or you may be restructuring the way you work…does that mean you should just give up on your job or on trying to find other work? You can’t get together with many of the important people in your life…does that mean you should just give up on those relationships? The answer to all of these questions is of course not; you aren’t giving up on what’s important to you just because there are challenges, changes, and isolation.
If you are reading this, I know how important it is for you to become binge-free, so I want you to consistently remind yourself that imperfection in your eating does not mean you should just give up and binge.
An opportunity to see that you aren’t powerless over certain foods
If you’ve previously been of the mindset that lower-quality foods, or processed foods, or sugary foods, or too many carbs cause binge eating, this is your opportunity to show yourself that this is not the case. This is your opportunity to realize that the urges to binge cause binge eating. *If you are new to this approach, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics to learn more about the urges to binge and how to stop acting on them.
This is an opportunity to see that no food makes you powerless, and no food makes you destined to binge. It’s also an opportunity to realize that imperfect eating isn’t going to lead to your weight spiraling out of control. I realize that everyone is different and weight is dependent on many complex factors, and I cannot predict or guarantee anything as far as what may happen to your weight, but I do know that when you are not bingeing on the imperfect foods, you are so much less likely to experience weight gain.
More about weight…
If before this crisis, you were eating high quality foods, plus bingeing (on either low or high quality foods), you were likely eating much, much more overall than if you were to just eat low quality food in a normal way, without binges. So, it’s possible you could even lose weight during a time of significantly imperfect eating, provided you reduce or stop binge eating. But, what happens to your weight is not the most important thing right now, and this crisis also provides an opportunity for you to focus on what truly matters to you, and to put your weight concerns in perspective. I only wanted to mention weight here because I know that some people interpret my suggestion to accept imperfect eating as me saying to accept weight gain too because imperfect eating is going to make you gain weight. But that is not the case, and you can get more information about weight and binge eating recovery in my post, “So, How Do I Lose Weight?”
I talked earlier about how even normal eaters are making jokes about not eating well, and not exercising, and gaining weight during this time; but I want you to notice that after this crisis, the vast majority of people will look the same. Everyone has a unique weight range that their body wants to maintain, and it makes physiological adaptations to keep weight in that range. If you are doing your best to eat normal amounts, your body will naturally keep you in your general set range (or pull you back toward that set range if you’ve previously been dieting restrictively and/or bingeing).
I fully realize that this weight topic I’m briefly touching upon is complex, but please try to trust your body during this time (and always), and realize that you don’t have control over everything. You can’t control what’s going on in the outside world right now (aside from following recommendations about keeping yourself and others safe), and you can’t control what’s going on inside of you and what your metabolism might possibly do in reaction to how you are eating. But, you can avoid binges, and that can help your metabolism regulate over time and help you body find it’s own natural, healthy weight.
An opportunity to accept imperfection
There are so many things to be upset about right now, but your imperfect eating doesn’t have to be one of them. Try to see this as an opportunity to learn to dismiss binge urges even when you are dealing with eating challenges and changes, because you will have times of imperfect eating throughout your life. If you can avoid binges now—while you are home with the food, and while you are out of your normal routine, and while you are eating differently than you were before—you can avoid binges through any difficult time, and for the rest of your life.
[Go to Part III]
If you are like most people struggling with binge eating, you probably have questions. The women and men I’ve spoken with over the years—who have read my books or been in my course, or who are new to the brain over binge approach—find it comforting to know that they aren’t the only ones with a certain issue or concern. I’ve noticed common themes in what people have asked me, and I decided that it would be practical and useful to compile and record detailed answers to all of these questions.
This task took me over a year, but when it was complete, I had created 84 Q&A audios that are now a central part of the newest version of my course, which you can start anytime. This binge eating recovery course has 115 total audios—which includes the 84 Q&As and 31 additional audios, plus other resources to help you stop bingeing. (In total, there is about 1,000 minutes or 17 hours of guidance, tips, information, suggestions, and ideas).
I wanted course users to be able to simply click on a question they have, at any time of day or night, and listen to a thorough response from me. I’ve received extremely positive feedback about these Q&A recordings, but people who are struggling with binge eating disorder or bulimia—and aren’t sure whether or not to sign up for the course—have frequently asked me questions about the questions, wanting to know which topics are discussed.
So, in this blog post, I want to share the entire list of questions that are in the Brain over Binge course (see below). But first, I want to tell you a little more about why I took the time to create the Q&A’ audios…
I was previously answering these questions frequently in group coaching for binge eating or one-on-one coaching, but I saw room for improvement. I found that I would sometimes inadvertently leave out something I wanted to say, or I found it difficult to give a detailed answer in a short message on a forum or on a time-limited group call when there were many more questions to address. I also realized that a coach’s, counselor’s, or mentor’s time is extremely valuable, and because of that, it’s not financially feasible for everyone to have a personal coach.
I decided that answering these questions in a recorded format could be the next best thing to having a personal coach, and could be much more affordable for people who need guidance.
You definitely can’t put a price on freedom from bulimia and binge eating disorder because it’s worth any amount of money; but the reality is that binge eaters are often also struggling students, parents, caregivers, and people just trying to make it in this world, and I wanted to make coaching more accessible in the new version of my course. (The course also includes my coaching audios for encouragement, reinforcement, and motivation).
With that being said, here is a list of the questions you’ll receive detailed answers to in the course. Each Q&A audio is about 7 or 8 minutes long on average (some are longer, some are shorter).
You can listen to the two Q&A audios below that are marked with a * in the free course preview.
Can you explain more about the word “dismiss”? Is it the same as willpower?
What does “don’t diet” mean?
Should I exercise during recovery?
What if I’m taking medication to try to help me stop binge eating?
I’m having a hard time defining my binges. How can I decide what is a binge and what is not?
I don’t feel like I get urges. My binges feel automatic. How can I dismiss urges if I don’t experience them?
I feel like there are deeper emotional reasons for my urges. What does that mean for recovery?
What do I do about all or nothing thoughts that seem to lead to binge eating?
What if I’m unhappy with my weight during recovery?
What is the purpose of journaling in the Brain over Binge approach?
What is the role of alcohol in binge eating? Should I drink alcohol while trying to recover?
Should I continue therapy?
How do I deal with others who are dieting?
Can you talk more about the lower brain and why it’s not really me, and how to separate from it?
I don’t seem to be able to eat sugar in moderation. Should I give up sugar?
I’m overeating in a way that feels very similar to binge eating. I feel like my overeating is almost as problematic as my binge eating, and it makes me feel out of control.
How can others that I’ve confided in about my binge eating best help me?
How long will it take for my binge urges to go away once I stop acting on them?
Is it okay to do something else during urges or should I avoid distracting myself?
Is it okay to eat or drink while I’m having an urge to binge?
My urge thoughts are compelling and I often end up believing them and acting on them.
What do I do if my urges keep coming back after I dismiss them?
I feel like I can’t allow myself to get excited about dismissing an urge or having another success in recovery.
I’m planning binges in my mind long before I’ll have an opportunity to binge. What do I do about thoughts that come well in advance of a binge?
I’m still reacting strongly to binge urges. The urges make me feel panicked and stressed, and it seems like a binge is the only thing that will calm me down.
Should incorporate mindfulness or meditation into recovery?
I’m having trouble getting past the idea that my binges are enjoyable. Even if I did not have urges, I think I would still choose to binge, if there were no consequences.
My urges get worse when I’m stressed. I know the urges cause the binge eating, but the stress seems to make it so much harder.
I binge more at night more than I do during the day. How do I deal with nighttime urges to binge?
How are binge urges different from the binge triggers that I learned about in traditional therapy?
I only feel good when I’m a certain weight or when I look a certain way.
I’m grazing throughout the day and that’s leading to guilt, and binges.
How can I avoid a fear of relapse?
I do well on days that my life is relatively calm, but when I have a demanding work and family schedule, I find it so hard to dismiss urges.
How do I know if I’m having an urge to binge or if I’m just hungry?
I am working on ending the binge eating habit, but I need to lose weight. How can I lose weight without triggering my survival instincts?
My desire to restrict food feels very strong. How can I overcome this so that I can eat adequately?
I’ll eat dinner or another meal and then I just keep getting more and more food and I often end up bingeing. How do I find a stopping point when I eat?
Is it okay to eat healthy and avoid junk foods during recovery?
I’m having trouble stopping my purging behaviors. How do I deal with urges to purge?
Thoughts of compensating for the binge (by restricting or purging) are encouraging me to binge. How can I deal with these thoughts?
I’ll have a few good days, but then I seem to automatically slip back into restriction and binge eating. How can I have continued success?
How can I handle events where there is a lot of food?
I’m having a lot of trouble recognizing and deciphering my body’s signals of hunger and fullness. What should I do about this?
Fullness makes me feel anxiety and it also seems to triggers urges to binge, or binge and purge. How can I learn to deal with feelings of fullness?
I want to eat based on my hunger, but it often does not fit with my schedule or when my family is eating.
I don’t go into binges with the intention of bingeing. I tell myself I’m just going to have one bite, but then I find myself bingeing.
I fear my hunger. I worry that when I’m hungry, I’ll binge.
Should I incorporate former binge foods into my diet, and how do I go about doing this?
Late in the day, I want the immediate gratification of a binge, and I don’t even care about the consequences. How do I stay motivated at the end of the day?
Can I use a diet like keto, weight watchers, paleo, or intermittent fasting to guide my eating?
I’m bingeing or just eating in the middle of the night. How do I dismiss urges at this time?
I have a lot of anxiety about my weight.
I have a lot of black and white thinking, so I feel like when I don’t restrict, I binge.
I’m mindlessly overeating. How do I stop myself? Should I consider this behavior a type of binge?
I resist the work of recovery. Is it possible that I don’t actually want to quit binge eating?
Should I dismiss my desires to eat emotionally? How does emotional eating affect recovery from binge eating?
I feel like as I try to quit bingeing, my urges get stronger. What can I do about this?
I’ve heard that food addictions can stem from problems with my neurotransmitters. How can I overcome this?
How do I quickly overcome a setback?
How do highly processed foods affect binge eating and recovery?
What if I’m gaining weight during recovery?
How can I learn to accept my body?
I feel like my rational self wants to binge. What do I do when I feel like I’m choosing to binge?
Should I make a big resolution to never binge again? Or, should I just aim to reduce or delay binges and accept that slips are part of recovery?
I get more urges during PMS or when I’m feeling off hormonally or physically. What can I do about this?
My most convincing thought says it won’t hurt to binge “one last time.” How can I get past this thought?
Can I dismiss any thought that’s harmful to my recovery?
After stopping the binge eating habit, I’m having other obsessive thoughts and also regrets about the time I lost to binge eating problems.
I clear my plate every time, even if I feel full. How do I learn to put the fork down when I’m full?
I’m eating less than the calorie recommendation of the Brain over Binge approach. Is this okay provided I’m not feeling restricted? Also, if I’m counting my calories to make sure I’m eating adequately, how long do I need to do this?
I stopped bingeing and purging (in the form of vomiting). I thought I would feel great and healthy, but I feel less energetic, fuzzy, and bloated. Will I feel better over time, or is this the new normal I should expect?
I feel in control and successful when I restrict, and I feel guilty and fat when I try to eat adequately, which usually leads me to just giving up and bingeing.
Will there be a point when I can consider myself healed, or do I need to constantly work on recovery? What are my chances of relapsing?
When I binge, I feel like I might be subconsciously self-sabotaging my recovery. Is it possible that I’m continuing to binge because I think I don’t deserve recovery?
Can I do a gentle diet for health reasons? For example, a weight loss eating plan crafted by a nutritionist to make sure I’m not hungry.
When I want a dessert or sweets or to snack when I’m not hungry, I don’t know if it’s me or my lower brain that wants it. How can I tell which cravings to follow and which ones not to follow?
How do I deal with others who are giving me bad advice, eating in front of me in ways that are not helpful, or constantly offering me food?
During the urge to binge, I’m telling myself “No, I don’t want to binge, “ or I’m telling myself “This is just an urge from my lower brain,” or “A binge is not an option,” or “The urge has no power to make me act.” Is it wrong to do this? When I tell myself things like this, does it mean I’m fighting the urge?
I’m having trouble finding things to do instead of binge. What are some ideas of alternative activities?
I know that dieting can lead to the initial development of binge eating, but can problematic cravings also lead to the development of bingeing?
What if I need to gain weight after stopping the habit?
If you’ve read Brain over Binge, you know how much trouble I had with cereal during my dieting and binge eating days. But now, many years after recovery, I don’t eat much cereal at all, and it’s not a struggle to avoid it. I never would have believed that was possible when I was a binge eater, because cereal seemed to control me. It often consumed my thoughts until I ate bowl after bowl of it during binges. I never thought it would be possible to simply walk away from cereal without feeling extremely deprived; but to my surprise, it happened quite naturally. I want to share more about this healthy change with you, in hopes that it gives you some insight and ideas for how similar healthy changes may occur in your own life after binge eating recovery.
I don’t have a rule against eating cereal, but cereal has mostly lost it’s appeal, and my days of binge eating cereal are long gone. I actually do eat cereal sometimes, but the vast majority of the time, it’s not the kind I used to crave when I was dieting—sugary cereal—which eventually became the kind of cereal I binged on frequently.
Before I dive deeper into talking about how I stopped bingeing on cereal and craving it, I want to mention that this post is the second part of a two-part series about healthy changes after recovery. You can read Part I: Moderation, Choice, and Creating Your Way of Eating to learn more about feeling in control around all types of food, deciding what’s best for your unique body and lifestyle, and being patient with yourself as you make healthy improvements to your eating habits. Both Part I and this Part II post are primarily for people who are now binge-free, or who do not actually struggle with binge eating, and instead have other problematic eating habits like overeating, grazing, or feeling addicted to certain foods.
My Healthy Change: From Cereal Binges to Not Even Thinking About Cereal
I used to eat sugary cereal often for breakfast as a kid and teen. My mother—like most 80’s/90’s moms—used to buy the “fun” cereal brands like Lucky Charms, but she also tried to balance it out with varieties that were viewed as healthier at the time, like Raisin Bran (the kind with sugar-coated raisins, which of course is far from what is considered healthy today). I ate various types of cereal in normal amounts, and I always stopped when I was comfortably satisfied without thinking about it at all. It wasn’t until I started restricting my food intake (in order to try to control my weight) that I began labeling sugary cereal as “bad,” and began trying to avoid it…and then ended up eating more of it than I ever thought possible.
At the time I started dieting (1997), dietary fat was mostly considered the villain, and because cereal was generally low-fat, my reason for thinking it was “bad” didn’t have much to do with its nutritional content or high sugar. I thought it was bad because of the way I started feeling around it. When I was restricting my food, I suddenly craved cereal and I had trouble controlling myself around it, and had trouble stopping once I started eating it. I seemed to want so much cereal, which I’d never experienced before and which scared me. I feared that eating too much of it would give me too many calories and make me gain weight, so I decided to try avoiding it altogether, which made me crave it even more.
I shared in Brain over Binge that my first binge was on sugary cereal—8 full bowls of it. In hindsight, it’s easy to see exactly what happened, and what turned me from a normal-cereal-eater to someone who could binge on 8 bowls of cereal. The short version is that I was starving. I wasn’t eating enough, and because of that, the appeal of the cereal skyrocketed. Calorie deprivation increases the reward value of food*, especially food that is highly palatable (which usually means it’s high in sugar and carbs and/or fat). My strong cravings for cereal made sense from a survival perspective—my brain was just trying to make me eat large amounts of the foods it sensed would help me survive the “famine” I’d created for myself by dieting.
Before I was in a calorie-deficit, I could totally forget we had cereal in the house, and in my life today, it’s the same. But, when I was in that calorie-deprived state, I would often wake up in the morning and go to bed at night obsessively thinking about the cereal in the pantry. Then, once I binged on cereal once, it quickly became a habit. Eating bowl after bowl of cereal became a regular part of my binges, and during binge urges and binge episodes, it felt like my body truly needed that much cereal.
At certain times during my binge eating years, I read information about foods being addictive or people being powerless, so I tried to give up cereal (and other foods) from time to time. However, this never worked, and seemed like such a baffling approach to tell someone who feels so out of control around a food to simply never eat that food. If I couldn’t stop my cereal binges, how was I supposed to give up cereal altogether? Maybe that approach would have worked for me if cereal suddenly no longer existed on earth; but in my world of living in a college town with roommates, there was no way to fully escape cereal.
I also tried moderation approaches with sugary cereal, which made more sense to me, but proved to be frustrating as well—because I actually did learn to eat sugary cereal in moderation…and I still binged on it. At the time, I didn’t understand that it was the binge urges that caused the binges, not the sugary cereal. (If you are new to this approach and want to learn more about binge urges and how you can avoid giving in to them, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics).
Looking back, it makes sense that I could only eat sugary cereal in moderation when I did not have binge urges. But, if I had an urge to binge before, during, or after eating the cereal, it was very likely that I’d follow that urge and binge on the cereal.
I Stopped Bingeing on Cereal When I Stopped Acting on My Urges to Binge on Cereal
Once I learned how to stop acting on my urges to binge, which I talk about thoroughly in Episode 7: Dismiss Urges to Binge: Component 4 (Stop Acting on Urges to Binge), those urges went away—even when I was eating my former binge foods, like sugary cereal. Then, I could eat sugary cereal in moderation again—every time—without it being difficult.
I resumed my normal life and simply ate cereal when I wanted. It was a common breakfast food for me after recovery, although I’d try to mostly buy the kinds that were a little “healthier.” (I put that in quotes, because today, processed cereals of all types are generally not considered healthy). I still ate high-sugar varieties now and then as well, primarily as a night snack. After binge eating ended and my appetite stabilized, I quickly realized that eating too much sugar in the morning didn’t make me feel good. Choosing the low-sugar varieties if I was eating cereal in the morning, and then sometimes having a high-sugar treat at night was what seemed to work for my body, and not something that I forced myself into.
As the months and years went by, nutrition research pointed more and more to the idea that sugar and processed grains cause harm to health. My carefree cereal-eating days seemed to be in question. Although I had never been under the impression that cereal was super-healthy, I didn’t think it was causing harm.
I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the idea that I could absolutely have anything I wanted in moderation, but also that some foods are— without a doubt—not healthy. At the time, my binge eating days were long gone, but I was also firmly set in an anti-diet mentality. I knew dieting caused harm; I knew I never wanted to go down that path again, but would not eating sugary-cereal be “dieting”?
The short answer is no, it would not be dieting, but it took me a little while to truly see it that way. I gradually came to believe that making healthy changes in a gentle, non-stressful way—while making sure you are nourished and eating enough—is not dieting. It’s simply trading out foods that are no longer serving you, with foods that serve you better, and it never has to mean banning foods completely.
What Helped Change My Relationship to Cereal After Binge Eating Recovery?
Fast forward to today, I can’t even remember the last time I ate the types of cereal I used to binge on. I sometimes eat types of cereal that are more natural, such as granola—still typically as a night snack—but it’s not very often. I may eat it for a couple of nights, and then forget I have the box for weeks or months, or I simply won’t want it.
How is it that I’m not craving sugary cereal like I used to? How can I (mostly) not eat sugary cereal, but also not feel restricted at all? How can I basically never eat the brands of cereal I thought about morning and night as a dieter, and no longer think about them?
Like I mentioned in the beginning of this post, my past self would have never believed this to be possible. So, I want to share some practical tips and ideas to help you if you feel like you don’t have control around certain foods, and you want to make healthy changes.
Here’s a rundown on what helped me change my relationship with cereal, and hopefully it will help you see how healthy changes can be possible for you too.
I no longer feel out of control around cereal because…
1. I know I can have cereal if I want it. I can absolutely go buy a box of cereal right now—even a very unhealthy kind like Lucky Charms—and have a bowl and enjoy it, no big deal. It’s not forbidden in my mind. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure (in moderation) is not always a bad thing. It’s fun, it’s delicious, and we all have to find that balance in our own lives between pleasure and focusing on our health.
2. I’m no longer calorie restricted. Sugar doesn’t hold that high appeal that it did when I was starving and it was so attractive to my survival instincts. It’s amazing what eating enough will do to help your cravings! It’s so important that half of my 8-lesson online course focuses on helping you learn to eat adequately, so that you have the ability to stop binge eating.
3. My decision to reduce my cereal intake came gradually and naturally. My slow shift away from cereal came partially from nutritional information I read, but also from my own insight about how the cereal was making me feel, as well as from learning to expand my tastes to other, more nourishing foods. I never felt like I was fighting against myself, or holding myself back from something I truly wanted. Also, the changes came when I was ready to make the changes, not because someone else told me that’s what I should do.
4. I don’t believe I’m powerless against cereal, or any other food. I know I can eat a normal amount of cereal without a problem, so there’s no fear around eating it. Conversely, there’s no fear that not eating it will lead me to crave it more. When I tried to give up cereal during my binge eating years, it was out of a sense of fear—because I thought that one bite would lead to 8 bowls. Fearing a food tends to keeps it on your mind, and keeps your attention focused on that food. Now, there is relaxation around cereal, and I rarely think about it. (To learn more about why giving up certain foods isn’t a cure for binge eating, and what to do if you need to avoid certain foods for medical reasons, you can read my 3-part blog series on Eliminating Foods).
5. I do not have a restrictive rule to “not eat sugary cereal.” This is similar to reason #1, but I want to expand on it by saying that when you make a genuine choice to eat in a healthier way and it feels good, you feel in alignment. You don’t feel restricted. You don’t fantasize about the unhealthy foods that you’re not eating. You simply choose (most of the time) to have other things, and don’t really miss what you aren’t having.
6. I’m simply older…and I don’t think many adults are still eating Lucky Charms for breakfast. It’s okay to walk away from childhood foods that aren’t benefiting you in adulthood. This is not dieting. You could simply call it “growing up,” or learning to take care of yourself.
I don’t want to give the impression that my eating is perfectly healthy. There are many other unhealthy foods that I still choose to eat! But, I wanted to share this personal story to let you know that giving up binge eating and giving up dieting does not at all mean giving up on health. After binge eating ends, you are free to make (or not make) any healthy changes you want, in a way that works for you, and on a timeline that works for you.
Making those healthy changes is not part of binge eating recovery, it’s simply part of life. However, as a former binge eater, you will want to make sure you make changes in a healthy way that doesn’t involve putting yourself in a calorie deficit or becoming obsessive or overly restrictive about foods.
If you want more guidance in learning to eat normally, and ending the binge eating habit, you can try a free preview of the Brain over Binge Course.
For more on this topic:
*One example of research demonstrating this: Stice, E., K. Burger, and S. Yokum. “Calorie Deprivation Increases Responsivity of Attention and Reward Brain Regions to Intake, Anticipated Intake, and Images of Palatable Foods.” NeuroImage 67 (2013): 322-330
*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.
I created the Brain over Binge blog to give you a variety of tips, ideas, information, and insights to go along with my two books. Even if you haven’t read the books, you can benefit from my posts, especially if you’ve learned the basics of the Brain over Binge approach in my free PDF or by listening to my podcast. I hope what I have written so far on the blog, and what I will write in the future, will help you toward freedom from binge eating.
This post and the next (Tips to Help You Achieve Recovery, Part 2) will be a central part of the Brain over Binge blog, because I’m writing it for people who need extra help in recovery. This two-part blog series will give you additional ideas if you are struggling to stop binge eating, and if you are having a difficult time letting the binge urges pass rather than acting on them. I’ve heard from many women and men who understand the Brain over Binge approach and know they have the ability to avoid binges, but they still find themselves following the binge urges. (For more about the urges, listen to Episode 2: The Cause of Binge Eating: Urges to Binge).
Are You Having Trouble Avoiding Binges?
The first thing I want to tell you is that not everyone stops acting on binge urges immediately. Even if you develop a new and empowering perspective about your binge eating, and even if you know that you are capable of overcoming the harmful habit without needing to solve other problems first, that doesn’t mean your recovery will be automatic. You are on your own path, and different ideas work for different people in different ways. That’s not to give you excuses, because you have the ability to end binge eating for good, but you always want to have self-compassion along the way. Being self-critical is not an effective way to move toward change.
To help you create the change you want, I’m going to list some common obstacles that may be getting in the way of you successfully avoiding binges, and I’ll explain how you can move past these obstacles. I’ll also share and link to other useful posts and resources on the Brain over Binge blog and website so that you can get more information to support your recovery.
Recovery Obstacle #1: You Are Arguing With the Binge Urges
Several people have asked if there was anything specific I did or told myself to detach from the urges to binge. Besides briefly reminding myself of the brain-based information I’d learned and the fact that those urge thoughts and feelings weren’t truly me, there wasn’t any specific mental dialogue or action that helped me separate from my lower brain—the primitive part of the brain that created my urges. (You can listen to Episode 3 and Episode 5 for more information about the lower and higher brain). I simply accepted the experience of the urges, without letting those urges affect me and lead me into a binge.
I think trying to have any sort of mental dialogue with the urges to binge is counterproductive, because it engages the lower brain. The lower brain sends automatic messages to try to get you to maintain a habit it senses you need, and there’s nothing you can say to yourself to make those messages go away. Actually, the more you try to say things to yourself, the more you end up arguing with the urges; and you therefore give the urges more attention and significance, which makes them stronger.
I’m going to use an analogy to try to explain this:
Let’s say you are in an argument with someone, and you are listening, getting upset, and arguing back. Your words and actions are helping to fuel the disagreement. Whatever you say, the person has a counterargument, and emotions run high. But, if you eventually realize that arguing is futile and not worth your time, you will just quit listening and letting the person’s words affect you. You will still hear what they are saying, and you will still have the experience of being in an argument, but that experience will suddenly feel very different. The person’s words will no longer make any difference to you, and you’ll no longer feel so emotionally charged. That’s detachment. That’s how you can experience the urges to binge.
You don’t need to announce that the urges aren’t worth your time. You don’t need to say “I’m not listening anymore.” Detachment is a mental shift that you can make without any dialogue with the urge thoughts. You can just let the lower brain do what it’s been conditioned to do, without reacting to it, and it will eventually fall silent.
Recovery Obstacle #2: You Are Letting Binges Lead to More Binges
After learning information about the lower/higher brain, completely changing how I understood my bulimia, and realizing that I had the power to stop acting on urges—I still binged two more times. But, I didn’t see the binges as a sign of failure or as an indication that I couldn’t be successful with my new approach to recovery. I saw that I had simply acted on urges to binge, but that it was not inevitable for me to act on binge urges that would follow. After those two binges, I didn’t feel like I had to start over, or find a new approach. I just took a look at what happened, and saw how I could prevent it from happening again. I explained this in more detail in my first book: Brain over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn’t Work, and How I Recovered for Good.
If you have a binge while you are trying to recover, don’t make it mean more than it does. It doesn’t mean you won’t recover, it doesn’t mean you can’t utilize your higher brain more effectively next time. Something helpful you can do is to mentally go back to determine what led you to act on the urge. I’m not talking about figuring out what events or feelings “triggered” the binge, I’m talking about determining how the urge itself led you into the binge. How did your lower brain get what it wanted? What binge-encouraging thoughts did you believe? When did you lose that detachment and separation from the urges?
You might feel discouraged about a binge, and that’s okay, but by analyzing what happened, you can keep the binge in perspective. You may realize it was just one enticing thought that hooked you and made you decide to follow the urge. You’ll be prepared to experience the next urge without believing the lower brain’s faulty messages.
Recovery Obstacle #3: You Feel Like You Want to Binge
In Brain over Binge, I also talked about how learning to stop acting on binge urges wasn’t truly difficult for me, but it was tricky at first. My lower brain could be deceptive, and by far the most tempting and common reason it gave me to binge was because I simply wanted to. I had thoughts telling me that it didn’t matter what part of my brain generated my urges, because I wanted to binge nonetheless. I had thoughts telling me I should definitely follow my urges because a binge was my true desire. As long as I stayed detached from those thoughts and viewed them as meaningless, they could not affect me.
This topic of wanting to binge comes up a lot in those who are trying to recover, so I’ve addressed this issue in two other posts on the Brain over Binge blog: Is “Wanting to Binge” Holding You Back in Recovery? and Do You Want to Recover?: Why It Sometimes Feels Like You Want to Keep Binge Eating.
It’s so important to be able to dismiss ANY thought or feeling encouraging binge eating as the neurological junk that it is. This includes those messages that tell you binge eating is worth it, or that it is really you that wants to binge. You don’t need to disagree with those thoughts or try to argue them away, because like I talked about earlier, that doesn’t work; but you can remain unaffected by those thoughts and feelings until they pass.
Recovery Obstacle #4: You Are Not Eating Enough
I’ve brought this up a lot on the blog so far, but I believe it’s the most common reason for struggling in binge eating recovery. If you are not eating adequately, you are keeping your body and brain in survival mode, and I truly believe that urges that arise because of food restriction are harder to dismiss than urges that arise due to habit. Eating less than you need is not compatible with the Brain over Binge approach. If you think this may be a problem for you, these two blog posts will give you some useful information as you give up dieting: Weight Gain From Binge Eating Recovery? and What are Your Motivations for Dieting?
Recovery Obstacle #5: You Need Additional Guidance in Recovery
Some people can read a book or learn the basics of a new approach, and then apply it with consistency—without any additional help. But, this is not always the case. Most people need to have a way to reinforce what they’ve learned, or need some questions answered along the way, or need additional clarity about how this approach applies to their specific situation, or need some help staying focused as they put an end to binge eating.
There are many ways you can get additional guidance, clarity, and reinforcement—and that may be outside of the Brain over Binge blog and website—but if you resonate with my approach and would like extra help and additional recovery resources, I want to tell you that I’ve created the Brain over Binge Course to serve as a powerful way to keep you on track and moving toward freedom from binge eating.
As a part of this course, I’ve recorded detailed answers to 84 questions I’ve been asked over the years, so that you can get the information, ideas, and advice that you need (at a price that I hope is affordable for anyone). To see if this may be right for you, you can listen to this Q&A audio: How much focus should I put on recovery? and other free audios in the course preview.
Here is what one course member had to say:
This course is exactly what I needed to hear! I’ve read countless books on the BED-topic (including Brain over Binge) before, without any success. The course is full of deep insights and packed with valuable and practical information. I really appreciate the rational and organized form everything is presented. I’m exceedingly thankful for the course – it has really changed my life! THANK YOU!!!
Continue to Part 2 of this blog series.