I want you to escape the daily pain that bingeing brings. I want you to stop eating in an out-of-control way that makes you feel sick and ashamed. I want you to get your life back, so that you can pursue what is important to you. I also want you to eat in a way that works for you and makes you feel nourished and satisfied.
I do not want you to make it your goal to eat perfectly. I do not want you to think that stopping binge eating also means learning how to stick to a strict eating plan. I do not want you to feel like you have to avoid all unhealthy foods, or say no to yourself every time you want to eat something just for pleasure, or stop acting on all desires for food that is not in line with a certain diet.
My goal is to teach you how to dismiss urges to binge and eat adequately; my goal is not to teach you to how to stick to a diet. This post is inspired by Episode 49 and Episode 12 of my podcast, and I hope it helps clear up the intent of the Brain over Binge approach.
Binge eating recovery includes giving up restrictive dieting
If you are familiar with my blog, podcast, or books, you know about the strategy of dismissing binge urges, which is the practice of separating yourself from the lower brain’s desire to binge (listen to Episode 5), and not acting on the thoughts and feelings that encourage binge eating (listen to Episode 7).
You can also learn more about dismissing urges to binge in my free 30-page guide, the Brain over Binge Basics.
What I teach is for ending binge eating, and although I do believe that similar methods can be used to help with other problematic eating habits, I want to make it clear that the Brain over Binge approach is never about learning how to stick to a restrictive diet. It is never about helping you follow rigid weight-loss plans, or helping you eat less than you physically need—because that would be extremely harmful to your recovery.
A big part of my approach is about helping you give up restrictive dieting and implement nourishing eating habits that work for you. I also believe in learning to allow yourself all types of food in moderation, and avoiding the harmful mindset that can develop when you have “forbidden” foods. (You can learn more about giving up the dieting mentality in Episode 48). I realize that not everyone can eat all types of food due to certain health conditions, so another way of saying this is that I believe in eating in the least restrictive way that’s possible for you.
Dismissing too many eating urges is harmful
Over the years of working with binge eaters, I’ve found that some people want to ignore my advice about eating enough, and only want to focus on dismissing urges—and this does not work and prevents recovery. Some people even want to take it a step further and start dismissing not only binge urges, but urges to eat anything that is not in line with a strict diet plan. When used in this way, dismissing urges becomes a dieting strategy in and of itself, which is the opposite of my intention.
The only way that dismissing binge urges works to get rid of binge eating for good is if you’re also eating adequately. If you are dismissing too many desires to eat, then you’ll remain in a food-deprived, survival-instinct-driven state that fuels binge eating.
Now, I know that creators of some diets or weight loss plans might step in here and argue that their eating plans are adequate and not overly restrictive. It’s possible for that to be true in some cases—meaning that the way of eating required for a certain “diet” actually does meet your physical needs and nourishes you well. But that’s not the type of diet I’m talking about, and it’s also not the issue I’m raising today. This post is about clarifying the intention of the Brain over Binge approach; it’s not about evaluating the merits of each and every diet plan that is out there.
Not sticking to a diet is not binge eating
Even if you could argue that a certain “diet” is technically an adequate and nourishing way to eat, my approach is still not meant to be a way for you to dismiss every urge to veer from that plan. I don’t think it’s necessary to have perfect eating habits, and in many ways, trying to get your eating habits exactly right is counterproductive in recovery. This is why Brain over Binge is not and should not be used as a “how to stick to a diet” strategy—that is contrary to the message I want to send.
Dismissing urges is not a way to avoiding eating any food that’s not “keto,” or “paleo,” or “vegan.” It is not a way to stop eating anything at all when you are fasting, and it is not a way to say no to all processed foods or any foods you think are unhealthy.
Eating sugar is not bingeing, eating carbs is not bingeing, eating meat is not bingeing, eating junk food is not bingeing—unless of course, you are bingeing on these things. Likewise, eating when you think you shouldn’t be eating, or when a diet plan says you shouldn’t be eating is not bingeing—unless of course you are bingeing at those times.
There is certainly value in not acting on all of the food cravings that you have. There are benefits of being able to observe your thoughts about eating and then to choose which thoughts to act on and which to ignore. There are benefits of being able to decide to eat foods that make you feel good. My approach is never about giving up on health. It’s never about eating anything you want, anytime you want, without regard for the effect food has on you. It is absolutely appropriate to not follow your every desire for food.
Furthermore, if there’s a certain way of eating that works well for you and is adequate and satisfying, then it may make sense to dismiss thoughts that cause you to veer too much from that way of eating—and this is especially true if you need to eat a certain way for medical reasons. I realize this may seem like a subtle distinction, but deciding to eat in a specific way to take care of yourself is very different from following a restrictive diet and then trying to dismiss urges to eat anything off of that diet. For example, someone with a dairy sensitivity who chooses to dismiss thoughts of eating dairy is not the same as someone who implements a strict calorie deficit and then tries to dismiss urges to eat any additional calories.
Get rid of the binge problem, don’t aim for perfect eating
To further explain why stopping the binge eating habit does not include learning how to stick to a diet, I’m going to end with an excerpt from the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide (from the Healthy Eating chapter). I hope that reading the following few paragraphs helps you better understand the purpose of the Brain over Binge approach, and the purpose of separating your higher brain from your lower brain—in a way that promotes recovery, not dieting.
“It’s common for binge eaters to mistakenly merge the part of themselves that wants to binge with the part of themselves that wants any unhealthy food. They begin to apply the lower brain/higher brain idea to the consumption of all junk food by viewing their lower brain as their “unhealthy eating” brain and their higher brain as their “healthy eating” brain. I don’t think this is useful, especially when first trying to quit binge eating, because it can lead to an “all or nothing” trap. When you start trying to view all of your cravings for anything unhealthy as neurological junk, it can be overwhelming.
It can lead you to believe that if you follow a desire for a dessert or some processed or convenience food, then your lower brain has already won, so you’ll be primed to believe any thoughts that say you “might as well binge.” You don’t actually have a good brain and a bad brain, because both the lower and the higher brain are necessary for a rich human existence. Your lower brain, with its pleasure centers, is indeed behind most of your junk-food cravings, but everyone has those. The lower brain also causes you to crave and take pleasure in delicious, healthy food as well, as desire for food is rarely a purely rational experience. Recovery is about trying to get rid of the “glitch” in your reward system, not banish the system altogether.
Craving french fries doesn’t make you abnormal or weak, and it certainly doesn’t mean your animal brain controls you. If you choose to follow those brain signals and have the fries, great—enjoy them! If you choose not to, then that’s fine too—have some organic carrot sticks with almond butter instead, and enjoy those! Don’t think that if you choose the french fries, you are giving in to a binge urge. Likewise, don’t think that if you decide on the carrot sticks, depriving yourself of the fries will lead you to binge. It won’t. There will be other opportunities for fries. The methods and advice in this book are for quitting binge eating, not for sticking to very strict, healthy-food-only eating plans and banishing all cravings for anything unhealthy.” (pgs. 262-263)
I encourage you to find a balance in your eating that works for you, but remember, you never have to eat perfectly!
If you want extra guidance in learning how to eat normally, you can get the Brain over Binge Course for $18.99 per month.
I want to address the question of whether or not to keep trigger foods at home while you are trying to stop binge eating. Trigger food is a popular term in eating disorder recovery conversations that usually refers to the foods that tend to make binge eaters feel out of control and binge. If you’ve read Brain over Binge or listened to my podcast, you know that I don’t believe any food can cause binge eating—because the urges to binge are the only direct cause. So, when I refer to trigger foods in this blog post, I mean foods that commonly to lead to your urges to binge, or foods that you typically eat large amounts of when you follow the urges, or foods that are simply linked to binge eating in your mind.
Distancing yourself from trigger foods doesn’t cure binge eating
If keeping trigger foods out of the house was the cure for bingeing, then that would make recovery pretty straightforward—but if you’re anything like I was as a binge eater, you just find a way to get the food anyway or find something else to eat too much of. Home isn’t the only place to binge, and trigger foods aren’t the only foods that you binge on. Also, it’s not realistic to expect to be able to control all of the food that comes through your door—because roommates, children, parents, partners, relatives, or friends who share or visit your home also need to eat, and they may have different ideas about what food to have on hand.
Even though keeping trigger foods out of the home is not a cure for binge eating, it’s still one factor to consider when approaching recovery. I believe that it is an individual decision, and there isn’t one right or wrong way. If you think about it, the decision of what foods to have at home is one that all people need to make, even if they don’t have a history of an eating disorder. When you look at this choice as just a basic part of living—something you’ll need to do for the rest of your life—it can take off some of the pressure you may be feeling right now.
Will the trigger foods make me binge more?
I realize that the additional consideration during recovery is that you may be worried that certain foods will lead to increased binges, but if you remember that all the trigger foods can do is lead to increased urges, you take your power back. You give yourself the freedom to choose what foods to have or not have at home, and you can learn to dismiss the urges that are linked to those foods. (If you are new to the concept of dismissing urges, you can get my free eBook, the Brain over Binge Basics to help you get started).
It’s okay if you don’t feel ready to have any and all types of food at home right now, but with time and practice, you can gain confidence that you can be around any food and eat any food—without binge eating. On Episode 76 of the podcast, my guest shared her own experience of reintroducing trigger foods into her life, and I think you will find it helpful.
Food temptation is a universal experience
It also helps to realize that feeling tempted by certain foods at home is common, and although the urges to binge will fade, feeling drawn toward food pleasure will never go away completely. Normal eaters often say that they don’t like to have, for example, a dessert item in the house because they believe they’ll eat too much of it, or they ate too much of it last time it was in the house. The reality is that sometimes it’s just easier for anyone—with or without a binge eating issue—to simply not have something tempting in close proximity, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I explained that these choices extend beyond food, and I drew a comparison to my choice at the time to not buy paper towels, because when I did, I used too many of them. My kids were very young at the time, and made so many messes, and paper towels were way too convenient. If I didn’t have paper towels in the house, I put myself in a situation where I had to take the time to wash rags and keep them ready for use. Now that my kids are older and there aren’t as many spills, I do buy paper towels again, but I don’t overuse them.
Giving up binge eating and dieting makes foods less “triggering”
The paper towel example could also help you see that your decisions about what to keep in the house can change over time, and if you decide to avoid buying a certain trigger food right now, you don’t have to avoid buying it forever. One day, you may decide you want that food in your house again, and you’ll learn to overcome the temptation, or it simply won’t be as appealing to you once your binge eating habit has stopped. Foods that seem so tempting today could become foods you don’t even think about in the future—this is a wonderful benefit of giving up the dieting mindset and learning to eat everything in moderation.
I wrote a detailed post to share how this happened for me regarding my biggest trigger food—sugary cereal—and how I can now have boxes of it in my house and not even want any (read the post: How I Stopped Binge Eating Cereal and Craving it Too). It’s an amazing experience when you first realize your trigger foods are no longer triggering, and that they hold no power over you. It gives you so much freedom to be able to be around any type of food and know it won’t lead to a binge. But, everyone gets there in their own way and on their own timeline, and it’s okay if you’re not there yet.
Just make the best decisions that you can right now as far as what to keep in the house to support yourself in recovery, knowing that you can make adjustments, and add new foods over time. Eventually your urges to binge will fade and go away completely, and all of the things that once triggered them—including certain foods—will no longer lead to urges. You’ll be left with some standard temptation and cravings like all normal eaters, but it will be so much more manageable. You’ll find yourself doing things that you never thought were possible—like forgetting you have leftover cake from a birthday party in your house, or throwing out half of a batch of cookies you baked last week with your kids because you never ate them.
Dismissing urges to buy the binge foods
I want to take a step back and also talk about buying the foods at the store, because that’s ultimately how they get to your home. Even if you make a firm decision about what foods you want to have in your house, and that doesn’t include many of your trigger foods, your lower brain might try to change your mind at the grocery. You might feel urges to buy a lot of binge foods—just in case. This is all part of the habit—you’re simply used to buying them, so habitually, you feel like you need to keep buying them. An example I thought of, which I’ve experienced myself, is a parent whose child gets older and out-grows the baby items that they used to need frequently; but the parent still finds herself automatically going down the baby food or diaper aisle.
You can think of urges you have in the store as just your lower brain telling you what it thinks you need—based on your past shopping and eating behaviors—but now that you have changed, you don’t need to follow those messages anymore. Dismissing urges to buy the binge food is good practice for dismissing urges to actually binge. You don’t have to get upset with your brain for encouraging you to buy certain things, just try to observe your thoughts and gently remind yourself that you no longer binge. You don’t have to tell yourself that you can’t or shouldn’t have certain foods—because you can learn to buy and eat anything you want in moderation, provided there are no allergies or other health issues. However, if you only want to get the food to binge on it, then you can react to the urge to buy it like the parent of an older child would react to an urge to buy baby food—you can just shrug it off, maybe smile a little, and say, “Oh, I don’t actually need that anymore.”
In your case, it might not be that you don’t need any amount of a certain food, but you may simply need much less now that you are eating in a normal way. You don’t want to create a situation where you’re saying no to yourself too often for food you actually like and want in your house. You ultimately want to find a balance of foods that are going to nourish you, and foods that you buy purely for pleasure. Again, this is something you’ll need to do for the rest of your life as part of taking care of yourself and the people who share your home and food.
If you can keep a grateful mindset for all of the food you have the ability to buy and keep in your house, it can help the food feel like a gift instead of something to fear—and this can help your decisions surrounding food feel easier.
If you want extra guidance, you can get the Brain over Binge Course for only $18.99 per month.