Never destined to binge

You are Never Destined to Binge

Do you ever have thoughts that say, “you know you’re going to binge eventually, so you might as well just do it now”?

If you do, you are not alone.  I had a client refer to these type of thoughts collectively as the binge inevitability mindset, and I think it’s an accurate way to describe this form of neurological junk.

Your lower brain’s job is to drive you to binge now; it has no conception of the future and is not involved in your long term plans. The lower brain just produces its programming–including the automatic thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that drive you toward a binge.

Lower Brain “Predictions” are Not Truth

The lower brain doesn’t actually know that you’ll binge in the future, so this binge inevitability mindset is, of course, faulty logic.  There is no wise entity in the primitive part of your brain, especially not one that can predict your future actions.  In fact, the lower brain has no actual control of what actions you take in the future.  You, in your higher brain, have ultimate control of whether or not you binge.  You can choose to act or not act on lower brain thoughts and urges, so the thought saying “you will inevitably binge” has absolutely no basis in fact.

Where Binge Inevitability Thoughts Come From

You likely had binge inevitability thoughts for the first time during your early days of binge eating.  The binge urges made you feel out of control, so that it didn’t actually feel like you had a choice and it did feel like you were destined to binge.  If you did not understand your binge urges, and how to detach from them, then it made sense that you thought future binges were inevitable.

Because binge inevitability thoughts got you to take action and binge (which is what the lower brain sensed that you needed), the lower brain learned, and those thoughts became conditioned as part of the habit.  Now, your lower brain keeps mindlessly and automatically producing those thoughts.  If you believe those thoughts and follow them, the thoughts will keep coming indefinitely; and then the idea that you are “destined” to binge becomes self-fulfilling.

A Binge is Never Inevitable 

If you can recognize this binge inevitably mindset when it comes up, you can learn to separate from it. You know now that you are never destined to binge. You were not born binge eating, and you don’t binge in every moment and in every situation.  You binge when you follow your urges to binge, and if you know how to avoid following your urges to binge, you won’t binge.

An urge does not represent an unavoidable force.  It’s only the product of temporarily faulty brain wiring, which you have the capacity to change–in a real, physical way using neuroplasticity.

Fighting Urges Makes Binges Seem Inevitable

The binge inevitably mindset may come up more often when you are trying to fight urges to binge.  If you are trying to argue with the urge, or trying to will the urge away, that urge can feel so bothersome that you think you will eventually tire out and just give in.

If you are in that habit of fighting urges, then even as soon as the urge appears, you may have a thought like this: “you might as well binge now to avoid the struggle, because you’re going to give in later anyway.” Although the thought is certainly neurological junk, it is more likely to seem true if you are engaged in a fight with the urges, or you are trying to avoid an exhausting fight.

Fighting the urges is not an effective strategy and actually strengthens the urges.  The goal is to be aware of the urges and the habitual way they show up, and not fight them. When you allow the urges to be present without arguing or turning attention toward them, it no longer feels like a tiresome battle. And then you can more clearly recognize any thoughts saying that “you’ll eventually binge” as false.

When it feels easier to experience the urges without acting on them, it’s easier to see that you aren’t destined to binge.  Try to simply notice the urge, acknowledge it, not be upset that it is coming up, and then gently–without the struggle or fight–go on with you life.

You Get to Choose

Believing thoughts that say “a binge is inevitable” creates a feeling of helplessness, powerlessness, and defeat, and that state of mind is not conducive to dismissing urges. Remember that you always have the power of choice when binge urges arise. If you choose to follow the urge, you will inevitably binge. If you choose not to follow the urge, you inevitably won’t binge.  Empowering yourself in this way puts you on a path to create your own destiny.

To learn more about creating an empowered mindset when facing urges,
and how to stop acting on them, you can download my free eBook The Brain over Binge Basics.

Improve Self-Control and Stop Binge Eating Under Stress

Improve Self-Control and Stop Binge Eating Under Stress

I received a request for a blog post about how to improve self-control and dismiss binge urges when you are under stress. Stress can deplete the self-control functions in your higher brain, especially if you have stressful responsibilities that seem to require heroic self-control—like caring for an aging parent, nursing a sick spouse, being with young children all day, a highly demanding career, or dealing with difficult co-workers. At the end of the day, or whenever you tend to binge, you may not feel like you have the energy left to say no when the binge urges arise.

It may seem like you automatically and mindlessly follow the urges, so that you begin to wonder if you actually have any self-control in the moments when you need to avoid a binge. The prefrontal cortex—the part of the higher brain that gives you the capacity to overcome habitual and instinctual drives form the more primitive part of your brain (the lower brain)—can become weaker in times of stress.  This doesn’t mean you don’t have any self-control. You can work to improve self-control so that it’s available to you when you have urges, and you can learn to stop binge eating under stress.

In this post, I’m going to give you two suggestions to help, which I also included in the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. The goal of both of these suggestions is to help give your higher brain the ability to do it’s job, so that you can use self-control when you need it to overcome urges to binge—even when you are feeling overwhelmed, overworked, or exhausted.

1. Use Basic Self-Care (not Self-Indulgence) to Improve Self-Control

Having demands on your life and your time, and having a strong desire or unavoidable need to help others, does not have to affect your ability to recover. However, if you are currently struggling to say no to urges, it could be that your higher brain/prefrontal cortex is drained of energy. Research shows that self-control is like a muscle and can get tired when we are under stress or under-nourished; so that in these situations, the brain is primed to let survival mechanisms and habits—good or bad—run the show. [1]  This does not mean you have to get nine hours of sleep per night, take a vacation, or buy expensive vitamin supplements in order to avoid binges. It only means this:

If you are currently unable to dismiss the urges, make sure you are not sabotaging your higher brain by neglecting your most basic needs—a decent amount of sleep, a little relaxation, and adequate food intake.

Being tired, overwhelmed, and exhausted won’t be a problem for you (as it pertains to recovery) in the future when your new habit is to not binge. Even though you may not be at your best if you don’t sleep well or have worked a long, stressful week, binge eating won’t cross your mind. Since recovery, I’ve had long stretches of time where I got vastly insufficient sleep—mostly due to my four babies who were terrible sleepers. For many months at a time, I got about 2-4 non-continuous hours of sleep per night, and not once did binge eating cross my mind. There are times in life when self-sacrifice is necessary and something you gladly accept, and that won’t change just because you have a history of binge eating.

What I’m suggesting here is a focus on basic self-care as a short-term tool (of course, taking care of yourself is always a good idea), in order to help your higher brain during the time when dismissing urges is a new skill and therefore takes up more energy reserves in the higher brain. Once you get better at dismissing the urges, it won’t be as demanding on the higher brain, so even if you don’t sleep, or your kids or boss drive you absolutely crazy that day—you’ll still have the energy reserves to easily avoid binges under stress. Then your urges will gradually fade, and won’t come up even if you do choose to devote all of your time and energy to others, and even if circumstances temporarily prevent you from meeting your basic needs.

If you are going through a time in your life right now that you feel is depleting your self-control, my advice for you would be to analyze the situation and try to find areas of opportunity for sleep, rest, and nutritional improvements. Even if you can carve out an extra half-hour for sleep each night or a ten-minute nap during the day, and try to make sure you don’t skip meals—that will benefit your prefrontal cortex. Remind yourself what you are still capable of dismissing urges, no matter the situation or stress level, but forgive yourself if you don’t avoid binges every time. Be patient and congratulate yourself on the times you are successful and build from there. Try to find small moments of self-awareness in the midst of the difficulty of your life, and that will help you feel more centered and connected to your higher brain when urges arise. (This podcast episode may also help you: Episode 42: The Power of Mindfulness in Binge Eating Recovery).  

2.   Short Meditation Sessions to Boost Your Ability to Stop Binge Eating Under Stress

Another way to help you feel more grounded and able to use your higher brain is adding very short meditation sessions to your day. Even five minutes of meditation every day will give you increased self-control and self-awareness—important benefits for someone trying to quit a bad habit. There are many ways to meditate, so you can find something that works for you, and I’ve included a short description of a useful meditation technique below, which you can use as a starting point. I am not suggesting meditation as a form of relaxation or feeling better, although it can certainly serve that purpose as well. I am suggesting that you meditate as a form of strength training for the higher brain—so that it will be more resistant to stress-induced energy depletion.

Your goal during meditation will be notice when your mind wonders and bring it back to a focal point—the breath is an easy focal point, but you can also focus on something physical like the feeling of your feet or hands, or focus on a certain word or phrase that you repeat over and over. This act of drawing the mind back from distraction and habitual thought activates the higher brain. Something I wish I would have known when I was a binge eater is that you aren’t meditating “wrong” if your mind keeps wondering. When unwanted thoughts pop up, that’s your opportunity to put your higher brain to use, redirecting your focus, and therefore changing your brain.

You may have to refocus 100 times during a short meditation when you first start, but if you keep practicing, you will get better—both at meditating, and at awareness of automatic thoughts in general, which will carry over through the day. Meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, and builds stronger connections in the area of the brain responsible for self-control, which will benefit you in times when your life is demanding. Research indicates that self-control and ability to focus increases after just three hours (not all at one time) of meditation, and one can see visible brain changes after eleven hours. [2]  Just 5 minutes once or twice per day will add up quickly, and you may start experiencing positive benefits and increased awareness right away. I realize if you are busy or exhausted, taking 5 minutes to meditate is going to seem like a waste of time, but if you can get over that mental barrier and just do it, you will start to see the benefits.

If you need a little guidance getting started, try the following simple meditation, adapted from The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., an expert in the science of self-control. [3]

  1. Sit still and stay still. You can choose to sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground or you can sit on the floor with your legs crossed. During the meditation, try to resist any impulses to move (for example, see if you can ignore itches and urges to change your position). Sitting still is important because it teaches you not to follow your impulses automatically.
  2. Turn your attention to your breath. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. In your mind, say “inhale” when you breathe in, and “exhale” when you breathe out. Whenever you notice that your thoughts are wandering, bring your mind back to focusing on your breathing. This activates the prefrontal cortex and quiets the stress and craving centers of your brain.
  3. Notice how it feels to breathe and how thoughts wander. After a few minutes, stop mentally reciting the words “inhale” and “exhale,” and focus only on the sensation of breathing. Your thoughts might wander a bit more without these words. When you notice that you are thinking about something else, just bring your attention back to breathing. If you find it very hard to focus, you can say “inhale” and “exhale” for few rounds.  This part helps to train both self-awareness and self-control.

I hope that using these two simple suggestions will help you start to feel more in control and able to avoid binges.  If you want even more help with binge eating recovery, you can check out my Course.

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[1] The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal (pg. 57)

[2] The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal (pg. 25)

[3] The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal (pg. 25)

self-control in binge eating recovery

Overeating, Part II: Don’t Overdo Self-Control

(Part I)

To recover from binge eating, you are not aiming for heroic control of everything you put in your mouth; and this is very important when it comes to discussing overeating. Ending binge eating is not about ending all overeating, but many binge eaters want to address their overeating behaviors as well. In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide and in my course, I suggest that people who believe they overeat should first consider how they define overeating, because it’s possible they are not overeating at all. To better explain this, here is a paragraph from the “Overeating” Chapter of the Recovery Guide:

“Many people think that they are eating too much when they are in fact eating normally – just not dieting anymore. Individuals who have a history of starving themselves might view what are actually normal portions as excessive; and since people with eating disorders can be perfectionists, there may be an element of “being too hard on yourself” involved in what you perceive to be overeating.  For example, if a dieter is trying to restrict calories to 1,500 per day and “overeats” one day to reach 2,200 calories, they haven’t truly overeaten at all, just eaten more in line with their calorie needs.”

In other words, make sure you aren’t holding an unrealistic standard for yourself.  Breaking resolutions to stick to overly restrictive eating plans is not overeating.

Let’s say you are someone trying to maintain a too-low calorie intake; for example, 1,300 calories per day. If you go over your “allowed” amount of calories and think you overate, you may hear faulty thoughts telling you that you “have no self-control and you might as well binge and then start over tomorrow.” Remember that voice making excuses for binge eating is from the lower brain; those thoughts are not logical or rational and don’t need to be given any value or attention.

Of course it makes no sense to binge because you have eaten more than your restrictive diet allowed. But, if you continue down the path of not giving your body enough food, the binge urges will persist and giving into them will be inevitable. The best course of action is to abandon the restrictive diet, not abandon your resolve to stay binge-free. 

You may be thinking that your overeating is more than just breaking a strict diet. If you determine that you are truly overeating (and not simply being too hard on yourself), here are some thoughts for you:

If you are someone who is still binge eating and trying to end that habit, my advice is to acknowledge any overeating you engage in, but don’t focus too much attention on correcting the overeating right now. I think that tackling too much at once may actually prevent you from overcoming your main problem of binge eating, and here’s one explanation of why, which also explains why trying to strictly control everything you put in your mouth is not helpful:

Recent research shows that too much self-control is not good for you. The following is from The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal:

“Just like some stress is necessary for a happy and productive life, some self-control is needed. But just like living under chronic stress is unhealthy, trying to control every aspect of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior is a toxic strategy. It’s too big a burden for your biology. Self-control, like the stress response, evolved as a nifty strategy for responding to specific challenges.  But just as with stress, we run into trouble when self-control becomes chronic and unrelenting. […] You will have to choose your willpower battles wisely.” (pg. 49)

When recovering from binge eating, I think it’s best to use the “nifty strategy” of self-control primarily for binge eating and not worry much about overeating or any other eating imperfections. If you start trying to dismiss every non-hungry craving, or try to detach from every thought encouraging you to eat a few more bites, you will wear yourself down. This doesn’t give you a pass to overeat all of the time; it only means to avoid putting so much pressure on yourself to get your eating exactly right. If you find yourself having a few more bites (or another serving) when you are already comfortably satisfied, it’s okay. Just move on, and put your focus on dismissing the binge urges.

To help you put aside your overeating concerns for now, it may help you to write those behaviors down. That way, you know aren’t ignoring any eating behaviors that you feel are problematic.  You are fully acknowledging them, but you are disconnecting them from your binge eating recovery. Keep your list in a place where you can come back to it after binge eating stops. You may find that some of the overeating habits go away on their own with the cessation of binge eating, and you also may find that what you considered “overeating” simply isn’t a big deal after recovery and there is no need to address it. Conversely, you may find that some of the eating issues do indeed interfere with your life after binge eating stops and you need to work on them. Welcome to the world of normal eating!

Another benefit of having your overeating habits or any other problematic eating behaviors written down, is that you’ll be less likely to fall for those lower brain thoughts that tell you that you “might as well binge” because you aren’t eating perfectly. You can detach from those harmful thoughts, remembering your list and that you will work on resolving overeating or any other eating problems after recovery, if you deem it necessary when that time comes.

So, instead of getting upset at yourself for overeating, and instead of binge eating in response to overeating, try this:

If you find that you’ve eaten in a way that isn’t ideal (but is not a binge), then just add it to your list, and acknowledge that it’s something you may need to address at some point in the future when you are binge-free. Don’t over-think it; don’t dwell on it; don’t put yourself down because of it; and most importantly: don’t think that you are destined to binge binge because of it.

(Go to Part III)

Alcohol binge eating

Should I Drink Alcohol While Trying to Quit Binge Eating?

When I struggled with binge eating, it seemed like alcohol often ruined my progress in recovery. I’d have days when I felt like I was doing pretty well—my eating was relatively normal and I felt like maybe I would make it through the day without a binge. Then, I’d get invited out to have drinks, and it seemed like my desire for recovery faded, so that by the time I got home, I didn’t hesitate to follow my urge to binge.

To avoid acting on the urge to binge, you have to use your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain responsible for self-control and rational decision-making. The problem is: Alcohol directly affects the prefrontal cortex and reduces your ability to make sound decisions.

Does This Mean Everyone Trying to Quit Binge Eating Should Abstain From Alcohol?

Not necessarily, but I think it’s an important decision that each person in recovery from bulimia or binge eating disorder needs to make. I hope some information in this post will help you decide how you want to handle alcohol as you are breaking the binge eating habit, and you can also listen to my podcast episode on this same topic of alcohol and binge eating.

I want to first share my personal story of alcohol use during binge eating recovery, and then give you some advice to help you decide what is right for you.

When alcohol seemed to interfere with my progress, I had not yet discovered the brain-based information that I shared in my books. I still had the mindset that I was diseased or powerless over my desire to binge, and that I needed to solve my underlying emotional issues and learn to cope with problems more effectively before I could say no to binges each and every time. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try to resist urges to binge, but it usually felt like a losing battle, and that was especially the case when I drank alcohol.

At the time, the things I thought I needed to do to avoid a binge—like journaling about my feelings, or engaging in healthy self care, or reducing my anxiety, or trying to get my emotional needs met —- just didn’t feel doable when I was drinking. I simply didn’t have the mental capacity to engage with any of those activities, which rarely helped me avoid a binge anyway. Under the influence of alcohol, I was much more likely to say screw it, and go right into the harmful binge eating behavior without even trying to avoid it.

Once I changed my approach to recovery, and realized I had the power to stop acting on my urges regardless of my mental or emotional state, then avoiding binges while drinking suddenly became possible. (If you are new here and want to learn about the Brain over Binge approach, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.) Because of this new and empowering mindset, I felt confident that I wouldn’t binge, even after drinking.

However, I was not a frequent or heavy drinker. At the time I recovered in 2005, I was only having one or two beers or glasses of wine a couple times per month. Since it only took a few months for my binge urges to decrease significantly, this only gave me about six times to experience the effects of alcohol on my binge urges and my ability to avoid acting on them. So, I do not have significant personal experience with the combination of alcohol and binge urges when using this brain-based approach; but looking back, I do not remember it being any harder to avoid binges when I was drinking.

I believe this was due to the simplicity of my new approach to recovery. I no longer felt like I needed to deal with my emotional issues, or stress level, or problems to avoid a binge.  I only needed to see the binge urges for what they were — automatic, faulty messages from my lower brain that no longer meant anything to me — and then just move on with my life. I had the mental capacity to do this even when under the influence of alcohol. I saw those binge-promoting thoughts in the same way that I saw other outrageous thoughts that popped up when I was drinking. Alcohol only reduces self-control functioning in the brain, it does not eliminate self-control completely. I knew there were many things I could trust myself not to do even while drinking, and binge eating became one of those things.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Ability to Avoid Binges?

In talking to others who have more experience with alcohol while trying to stop bulimia or binge eating disorder, I’ve found that alcohol can cloud thinking and reduce self-control so much that the binge urges feel very compelling. This only makes sense due to the way alcohol inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which I also call the higher brain.

With each drink, the prefrontal cortex is impaired a little more until you feel like you have little control over your voluntary actions. This can make you more likely to act in habitual and survival-oriented ways. Since binge eating is a habit and a survival response, this means that alcohol primes you to use the neural pathways in the lower brain that drive the binge eating habit, instead of the newly developing pathways in the higher brain that are working on recovery.

You may also feel less motivated toward recovery when you are drinking.  This is because the prefrontal cortex also gives you your identity and allows you to think about long term goals and plans. When this more sophisticated part of the brain isn’t at full strength, you tend to act in ways that are out of character, and you tend to focus more on immediate gratification, and you temporarily don’t care about the consequences of your behaviors. You put what you truly want (recovery) aside and fall into a screw it mindset when you are being driven by the more primitive part of your brain.

Furthermore, alcohol strengthens those primitive parts of the brain that drive habitual behaviors.  In other words, it has the opposite effect on the lower brain and the higher brain.  Drinking causes a release in dopamine, which arouses pleasure and reward circuitry in the lower brain. It basically makes you more pleasure-seeking, and since the lower brain senses that binge eating is a form of pleasure, this could mean an increase in your urges to binge. However, this is not the case for everyone who struggles with bulimia or binge eating disorder. You may find that alcohol and the feelings it gives you are pleasurable on their own, without triggering a desire for the temporary and harmful pleasure of a binge (which always results in pain).

How Should You Deal with Alcohol as You Recover from Binge Eating?

Even if you know you have power over your urges, even if you understand that you don’t have to act on them (listen to Episode 4 for more on how to stop acting on urges to binge), drinking may tip the balance in favor of your lower brain so much that you find yourself binge eating. In the moment, you may feel like you don’t even care about recovery, and you may believe the thoughts that say, just one last time, and you can quit tomorrow. Drinking may even take away the sting of regret you usually feel right after the binge; but, when you wake up the next day, your rational brain will return and you’ll remember your desire for recovery and wish you had not binged.

On the other hand, you may be someone who can avoid the I don’t care mindset that sometimes gets drunk people to do things they regret. This could be due to a difference in personality types or a difference in the way alcohol affects each person physiologically. You may be someone who feels confident in your ability to say no to binge urges, no matter how many drinks you have.  Or, you may be somewhere in between, and find that you only feel in control up to a certain point. After 2 drinks, you might feel like you can easily avoid the harmful lower-brain-driven behaviors, but after 4 drinks, a binge starts to seems much more compelling.

Even though I personally felt like I could avoid a binge even if I was drinking, I didn’t put it to the test with larger amounts of alcohol. Not drinking a lot wasn’t something I resolved to do to help recovery —- I just wasn’t into drinking very much at the time. There were previous times, in college, when I did have more than a couple drinks, and can’t say for sure whether the new brain-based perspective that eventually helped me recover would have prevented binges during those times or not. I’d like to think that binge eating was so off limits in my mind that I still would have been able to say no, just like I always said no to driving after drinking.

I encourage you to think about the experiences you’ve had with alcohol and binge eating, and decide on a plan that works for you. Think about the way alcohol makes you feel in relation to your urges to binge, and your motivation toward recovery. Considering how alcohol affects the brain, it’s best to proceed with caution when you drink. You may even decide to give up alcohol completely until you’ve significantly weakened the binge eating habit or ended it altogether. Alternately, you may decide to simply limit your alcohol intake until you feel much more confident in your recovery. You can always make changes over time as you make progress in stopping the binge eating habit.

*This post is for recovering binge eaters whose drinking is already within reasonable limits. This post is not for people who feel like they have a problem with alcohol. If your drinking feels out of control, please seek appropriate help.

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

Fear in binge eating recovery

Facing Fear in Binge Eating Recovery (and Life!)

There’s an often confusing contradiction that appears in people who struggle with binge eating and want to recover, and that is—binge eaters sometimes fear recovery. I definitely experienced this and didn’t understand why. Even though I knew I didn’t want to remain a binge eater, there was something scary about not knowing what might be on the other side of recovery.

The unknown can bring up fear in many different situations, and you may find yourself facing a variety of fears in binge eating recovery. You may be afraid of what may happen to your weight, you may fear learning to eat certain foods in moderation, you may fear giving up the distraction of binge eating and letting go of whatever temporary pleasure it may bring (even though you know binge eating is causing you so much pain).

A Lesson in Overcoming Fear

I want to share a personal experience I’ve had recently that relates to overcoming fear, and I hope you can apply what I talk about to whatever you are afraid of as you recover from bulimia or binge eating disorder. This experience is not food related, but it will help you understand how the brain can unlearn fear, and that can empower you to face your own fears.

For about five years, I was afraid of driving on expressways (interstates/freeways, whatever you may call them). I rarely drove on expressways, and by rarely, I mean maybe twice a year. I had no problem riding with someone else driving, but every time I tried to drive myself, I experienced panic and anxious sensations. I found it easier on my nerves just to stick to slower roads. When I lived in Phoenix, AZ, this was not much of a problem, because it’s possible to get anywhere in the metro area without ever getting on an expressway, even though may take much longer.

Our family moved to a new city about seven months ago, and that’s when I decided it was time to change. Both my mother-in-law and my mother don’t drive on expressways because of fear, and their current problems date back to when they were about my age. Maybe it’s a self-preservation instinct in a young mother to become more fearful; but whatever the cause, I didn’t want this fear to stick around and limit my travel options now and in the future. We are lucky enough to be living closer to my family now, and my goal was to be able to pack up and drive to visit them whenever I wanted—without my fear getting in the way.

During the seven months since our move, I’ve overcome this fear about 90 percent. I take expressways nearly every day; I’ve driven eight hours to get to Tennessee, six hours to get to New Orleans and back twice; I’ve gone through Atlanta rush-hour interstate traffic a few times. I now feel I could conquer nearly any driving situation, and although I still get nervous passing big trucks, I still go too slow in the rain, and I still don’t like going over tall bridges, I feel so much more free.

The Fear Response Can Become Linked to Certain Situations (or Foods)

I know it was an irrational fear, even though there is certainly some real danger in driving. Most people drive on expressways without fear or with minimal fear, just as the majority of people eat without fear. For me, the fear response became temporarily linked in my brain to driving, and it’s possible that for you, the fear response has become linked to certain foods or ways of eating, or linked with your attempts to overcome your eating problems.

I’ve been thinking about the way that I’m conquering my driving fear, and how it could help someone overcome fears in binge eating recovery. In Brain over Binge, I explained how binge eating is usually ego-dystonic—meaning not in line with what you actually want when you are thinking rationally. I think that it’s often the opposite with anorexia and restrictive dieting, in that those behaviors are often ego-syntonic—meaning it feels like what you are doing is in line with what you actually want.

When I was stuck in the fear of the driving, my avoidance of the expressways felt ego-syntonic. I felt like it was what I truly wanted. I felt like it was fine to take the slower roads because I believed my kids and I were safer by staying off of the expressways. Even though that may have been statistically true, my fear limited me very much and caused me to waste a lot of time I could have spent doing other things. But, I didn’t have much motivation to change, and I became rather complacent.

Each time I avoided an expressway, I cemented the pattern until it became a strong habit. It became something I simply didn’t do, and for years, I rarely even entertained the option of taking an expressway. It was only when we moved, and visiting family required interstate driving that I snapped out of my complacency and felt a desire to change. I realized that what started out as a fear response linked to driving had turned into a an ego-syntonic behavioral habit.  But, based on my new situation and goals, the desire to avoid expressways suddenly felt ego-dystonic.

Thoughts Fuel Fear and Urges to Binge

I realized that all of the thoughts that convinced me to keep avoiding expressways were well-ingrained and had become automatic, just like my urges to binge had done in the past. Because of my experience ending the binge eating habit, I knew that the habitual thoughts and feelings discouraging me from driving on expressways were not going to stop just because I now wanted to drive on expressways. Like with the urges to binge, I knew those thoughts and feelings would only go away if I stopped believing them and stopped acting on them.

I didn’t bother trying to go back and figure out where the fear originally came from or what else I could change in my life to help make that fear subside. I knew what would make the fear go away: simply driving on the expressway day after day. I had some doubts about whether it would work as well as it did with ending the binge eating habit, because I certainly don’t believe that the way I stopped binge eating is the solution to every problem (for more information on how I stopped acting on my binge urges, you can download my free PDF).

Act in Spite of Fear, and the Fear Can Simply Fade Away

The first few times I entered the on-ramp of an expressway, I felt extremely anxious. But, I knew that despite the feelings of fear welling up in me and the thoughts telling me to pull over, I could control my motor movements—I could check my mirrors, press the gas pedal, and merge left even if my hands were trembling a little.

I just want to stop here and say that I realize some people with phobias experience a much more extreme panic reaction and may feel like they have no control of their motor movements, so I am not saying that everyone can simply face their fears head on without professional help. But, I still believe it’s possible to decondition fears over time, with practice and support when necessary.

As I practiced driving in these situations, I reminded myself that my reactions were automatic, and I tried to detach myself from them, focusing instead on the motor movements I needed to perform to drive the car. The fear started to subside even more quickly than I thought it would. Within a couple of weeks, I was using the less-busy expressways in our city with ease, and with much, much weaker fear reactions. I began challenging myself by driving longer distances, on busier stretches of interstate, through traffic, and even straight over the Great Smoky Mountains (which was not expressway, but still something I would have never done just a year ago). Yes, there was anxiety, and there still is in certain situations, but I’ve come a long way in a short time, and taking the interstate feels normal to me again. I sometimes wonder why I was ever so scared.

Giving Up Restriction May Feel More Scary than Giving Up Binge Eating

When it comes to recovering from an eating disorder, I think this discussion may apply more to giving up restrictive dieting than it does to giving up the binge eating itself. You may want to lose weight or maintain a low weight, and therefore fear eating normal amounts of food or certain types of food. In order to avoid the anxiety and fear that eating (and thoughts of gaining weight from eating) causes, you may try to stick to a strict diet, which becomes habitual, and also leads to urges to binge that are impossible to resist because you are not eating enough food.

If you’ve become so used to trying to restrict, it may feel scary to sit down to a normal-sized meal. Regardless of the reason you started dieting in the first place, dieting has become your habit and eating normally has become linked to the fear response. Because it feels scary to stop dieting, you may keep avoiding normal eating just to avoid those uncomfortable anxious thoughts and feelings. But, avoiding your fear over and over only perpetuates the problem and makes the harmful habits stronger.

Once you realize that you need to eat enough food in order to quit the binge eating habit, and in order to have freedom and health in general, you’ll have motivation to change. (To learn more about the importance of ending dieting, listen to Episode 9: Avoid Restrictive Dieting to Stop Binge Eating).

However, just like with my driving, wanting to change doesn’t make the habit automatically go away. You will need to eat normally despite the anxiety and fear response you experience around food.  You have to know that you can still control your motor movements to pick up the food and put it in your mouth. This takes a lot of courage initially, probably more so than me merging onto the expressway the first several times; but it is well worth it. As you repeat the act of eating normally, the more normal it becomes until the desires to restrict fades, and normal eating becomes your new habit.

It’s common for people to think that restrictive dieters or anorexics have an abundance of self-control because they avoid eating. But the error in this logic is this: what looks like self-control to an outsider is actually far from it. It takes much more self-control for an anorexic or restrictive dieter to eat normally in spite of her anxiety and fear than it does for her to keep restricting. Once the restrictive eating is a habit and there is a fear response linked to normal eating, then avoidance of eating for the dieter or anorexic is just like a binge eater following urges to binge, and just like me avoiding the expressway when I was afraid. An anorexic feels automatically driven to restrict in the same way a bulimic feels driven to binge—her restriction is not a sign of willpower.

You Can Experience Fear of Stopping Binge Eating, and Still Stop Binge Eating

If you have fears about giving up binge eating itself, the same concepts I’m talking about here can apply. You can realize that it’s possible to experience fear of giving up the habit without allowing that fear to lead you in the wrong direction. As you continue not acting on binge urges, in spite of the fear, the less the fear will arise until being binge-free becomes your new normal. Then, you’ll wonder why you were ever scared of letting the behavior go.

Deconditioning the link between your fear responses and your behaviors can take time and practice. Sometimes—even if you are doing well—situations can catch you off guard, and you may find yourself anxious about giving up dieting or binge eating. But if you can remember that you maintain control of your motor movements, and focus on that, it can help you keep performing the actions that move you toward recovery, regardless of what messages you might be receiving from your brain.

There was a time while I was re-learning to drive on the expressway when my fear caught me by surprise. Because of a wrong turn, I ended up having to go over a very tall interstate bridge that I had not planned on taking. As soon as I realized where the road was leading me and there was no way out, I started to panic. I was shaking and felt terrified, but I also knew I had to keep control of my motor movements, as I had 3 young kids in the backseat depending on me.

I was caught off guard in a situation I’d never had to handle before during this process, and it wasn’t easy; but because I focused on what I could control, instead of the fear, it became doable. This is how athletes are able to compete in pressure situations—by focusing on the exact motions they need to perform, instead of their anxiety.

People have conquered much bigger fears than driving on the interstate and learning to eat normally, and that’s not to minimize your problem; but I do think it’s important to remember that everyone experiences fear. I’m not saying you have to go face all of your fears right now, but I do want to encourage you by telling you that it’s okay to be scared and that being fearful doesn’t need to get in the way of recovery. I understand that it’s easy to become complacent in avoiding the things that cause anxiety. The thought of facing a fear may initially feel intimidating, but it’s well worth it to change harmful habits or challenge yourself to accomplish new things.

*Update 2020:
Since this post, I have taken many road trips, the longest of which required me to be behind the wheel of my car for 46 hours over 11 days. The panic sensations I used to experience are gone. My old fear of driving seems so distant now and makes me grateful for the plasticity of the brain. I hope this post encourages you to get out of your comfort zone in recovery or in other areas of your life. I also want to add that I recently
interviewed the author of the book, F*ck Fear (Richard Kerr), and I think you will benefit from hearing his extremely helpful perspective in Episode 65:  Managing Anxious Feelings During a Crisis, in Everyday Life, and in Bulimia Recovery

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As you are changing your harmful eating patterns, it can be helpful to have some guidance along the way. I’ve created Course that you can listen to daily, in order to stay focused on becoming binge-free.

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.

Paleo binge eating

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

I understand what it’s like to be confused about what to eat, and to feel like maybe if you just have the right meal plan, or if you eat all of the right foods, you can finally stop binge eating. Many people have asked what I ate at the time that I recovered, and today I’m going to share those details.

Since this post will address my diet and paleo eating, I want to say right away that I did not eat paleo when I stopped binge eating, and in fact, my diet was quite the opposite of paleo. Paleo is becoming a popular way to eat to pursue better health, weight loss, and even binge eating recovery. But, for reasons I’ll explain in this post, I do not believe paleo eating is a cure for binge eating disorder, bulimia, or any form of binge eating.

What I Ate During Binge Eating Recovery

I didn’t share exact details in my book, because I didn’t want people to feel like they should follow my way of eating. Everyone has different needs, and I certainly didn’t recover because of my specific diet. I am using the word diet in this sense to mean way of eating, and not a form of restriction.

My diet at the time I recovered in 2005 was not very healthy compared to today’s standards, especially if you believe that paleo eating is the healthiest. For example, when I recovered, whole wheat and whole grain food items were mostly considered healthy, and now some experts think they are at the root of many health problems and diseases. Also, low-fat dairy seemed to be considered healthier than full-fat dairy, and now many experts claim the opposite, or that dairy isn’t healthy in any form.

What I considered a pretty good diet then isn’t what I consider healthy today; and sometimes I am not even sure what I consider healthy (you can see my What is Healthy? post for a discussion about this). Nevertheless, I want to share what I ate in hopes that it will help you realize that you don’t have to eat perfectly, and that it’s important to eat enough.

Most of the time, I ate 3 meals plus 3 or 4 snacks per day, likely averaging about 2300 calories per day. I usually stayed in the range of 2000-2500 calories, sometimes slightly more, sometimes less. I didn’t count calories at the time, nor do I today; but I was pretty knowledgeable about calories, as most people with a history of eating disorders are, so I knew generally how much I was getting. I was very active at the time, because I was on my feet all day working in a special education classroom with kids who had severe and profound disabilities, and I exercised about 5-6 times a week for 20-30 min.

Even though I ate pretty regular meals and snacks, the meal/snack times and what I ate were very flexible. Sometimes I’d inadvertently miss a meal, sometimes I’d eat more that usual at a meal, and sometimes not as much. Below, I’ve included a small sample of some of the meals/snacks that I ate, and if you want to learn more about my overall thoughts on food intake, you can read my post, How Much Should I Eat?. Note that any measurement I give in this sample is just an average because I didn’t measure my food.

Breakfast:

  • Bowl of cereal (about 1 ½ cups dry cereal and 1 cup of 1% or 2% milk) and fruit. The cereal was usually something low-sugar/whole grain like Bran Flakes, but sometimes I’d chose a more sugary option.  or…
  • 2 whole grain waffles with about 2 tbsp peanut butter, and fruit. or….
  • Whole grain bagel with about 2 tbsp Cream cheese, and fruit. or….
  • 2 eggs (scrambled, fried, or hard-boiled) with 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast and butter, plus some fruit. or….
  • Bowl of oatmeal (2 servings based on the label) with a little low-fat milk and some fruit.

*The fruit that I ate with my breakfast was something like an apple, banana, grapes (maybe 15 or so), or an orange.

Snack #1:

  • 8 oz container of flavored yogurt or….
  • Granola bar or….
  • Protein bar or….
  • Low-fat cookies (about 4) or….
  • Cheese or peanut butter-filled cracker sandwiches (I believe 6 came in a pack)

Lunch:

  • Turkey and cheese sandwich (2 pieces whole grain bread, about 1 tbsp mayonnaise, 1 piece of cheese, a few slices of deli turkey), with chips (about 15) and a vegetable (usually a small can of green beans; or fresh celery or carrot sticks) or…
  • 1 can of soup (lentil, chicken noodle, black bean, tomato) with wheat crackers (about 8) or 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast, fruit- Lean pocket (usually 1, sometimes 2), vegetable, wheat crackers (5-10) or chips.

Snack #2: Generally the same choices as snack #1 above.

Dinner:

  • Whole wheat pasta and meatballs (about 1 1/2 cup cooked pasta, 2 medium meatballs, marinara sauce), with a serving of vegetables like corn or green peas, and a roll with butter.
  • Pork chops with gravy, brown Rice (1 1/2 cup cooked), a serving of vegetables, and a piece of garlic bread.
  • Tuna salad sandwich (2 slices of wheat bread, 3/4 can of tuna, mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, with chips (about 10-15).

Snack #3:

  • My late night snack was usually a bowl of cereal (about the same serving size as when I had it for breakfast). It was usually a cereal I thought was pretty healthy at the time; but I’d have a sugary option probably once every couple of weeks.

Desserts:

  • I had dessert an average of 2 times a week (usually after dinner). Desserts were something like 1 cup of ice cream, 1-5 cookies, an average size piece of cake, ½ of a chocolate bar, or just a couple of hard candies after a meal.

Eating out:

  • My husband and I were not the greatest cooks, and we did eat out a lot. We ordered pizza about once every two weeks for dinner, and I would usually eat 2 to 3 slices, depending on the size of the slices. We got fast food at least once per week for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I ordered either a breakfast sandwich, or hamburger or fish sandwich with fries (usually small, but sometimes a bigger size if I was more hungry).

Drinks:

  • I drank mostly water at the time, but I’d often have a cup of orange, grape, or apple juice sometime during the day, and I drank a diet soda a couple times a week. I also drank coffee each day with 1% or 2% milk in it. I had one or two alcoholic drinks (beer or wine) a couple times per month.

The Opposite of Paleo

Considering that I thought whole grains/whole wheat were healthy, this seemed like a decent diet to me. It allowed me flexibility, foods that I liked, and variety. But, as it turned out, my diet was nearly the antithesis of the way of eating that many experts now claim is healthy, and that’s paleo eating.

The paleo diet has been popularized especially in the past couple years by books like The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf (2010), and The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain (2010). The paleo theory basically argues against consumption of all wheat, grains, legumes, dairy products, sugar, and processed oils. In the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about this way of eating, and the implications for binge eaters.

When I first heard the theory that whole grains and whole wheat are not healthy, it honestly caught me off guard, because I’d spent so much time believing they were good for me. I could completely understand why someone would say that sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods were unhealthy, but whole grains? It also shocked me that legumes and dairy (foods I assumed were healthy for many years) are excluded from the paleo diet. I did some research, and realized there is compelling evidence behind the idea that these foods are not the best choices for our health.

Is Paleo a Healthy Way to Eat?

The basic theory is that humans are not genetically adapted to digest grains, dairy, legumes, and the other foods that the paleo diet eliminates, and these foods act like toxins to our systems. There is still a lot of controversy about this theory, and I’m not saying I’m 100 percent sold on the idea. There are studies and experts who refute it, and some say it’s just another fad diet.

Personally, I still eat grains and beans, albeit less and especially less wheat; and I’ve been eating more meat, eggs, fresh veggies, and a lot more fat (in the form of coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.) I still eat dairy as well; but now I always buy full-fat dairy.

If grains are a culprit in a lot of health problems in our society; I find this news pretty hard to take. One walk through the grocery store shows that most food manufactures promote “whole grain” food as a healthy option, or as a positive addition to any food. It’s one thing when you eat sugar or processed food and you know it’s not the best for you, but also okay in moderation; but it’s quite another when you eat something for years and years thinking it’s healthy, and you find out it probably wasn’t healthy after all.

A more bothersome part about this is that I’ve fed a lot of whole grains and beans to my children, basically since they started eating solid food, thinking I was doing something good for them. I bought a book about preparing healthy and natural baby food when my first born began eating solids. The book was more vegetarian in nature, and it recommended starting a baby’s day with a breakfast of homemade porridge, consisting of whole grains and beans blended together. When I think of all the whole grains and beans I bought in bulk from the health food store, and all of the nights I stayed up late cooking beans and grains for my babies, and how I went through a lot of extra trouble to lovingly feed them something I thought was healthy; I feel terrible to think all of it may have been in vain, or even toxic to their systems.

Again, it’s one thing to give your kid a cookie or candy knowing it’s primarily for pleasure and that they aren’t getting nutrition from it; but it’s quite another when you find out the majority of the “healthy” food you’ve fed your kids might not have been healthy at all. But enough of me venting about my personal feelings on this matter; now I want to turn to talking about how paleo eating relates to recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Paleo as a Fix for Binge Eating?

Special diets as cures for binge eating and bulimia are nothing new. In Brain over Binge, I talked about the addiction model of treating binge eating. Addiction treatment is based on the idea that the foods a binge eater typically binges on, which are usually foods high in sugar and carbohydrates, are physically addictive; and to recover, the binge eater must abstain from those addictive foods, often indefinitely.

One of the pioneers in the addiction model of treating binge eating, compulsive eating, and food addiction was Anne Katherine, author of Anatomy of a Food Addiction. In her book, Katherine recommends avoiding what she believes are the culprits of a food addiction – sugar and refined carbohydrates. She recommends “converting to whole wheat eating,” and says that “nearly every beloved flour product can be replaced with a sugar-free, 100 percent whole-wheat product.” This book also recommends converting to other whole grains, like eating brown rice instead of white rice.[i]

Now, some are taking it one huge step further, by making a paleo diet a requirement, or at least an important step in recovery. While paleo eating might be helpful to some people in some ways, I would hate to see a situation where binge eaters are told they must give up many food groups in order to live free of binge eating. To make these types of sweeping changes in the way you eat is very difficult. I know several extremely health conscious people, and none of them follow a perfect paleo diet. Quite simply, asking binge eaters to only eat paleo foods in order to fix binge eating is asking too much, when even normal eaters can struggle greatly with eliminating foods from their diets.

The Problem with Paleo as a Potential Solution to Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder

The reality is, grains are everywhere and we have learn to live with them. If we choose not to eat them, I believe it has to be just that – a choice – not a requirement for recovery. Avoiding certain foods for health reasons might be a beneficial choice for certain people, as long as the person is making sure they are eating enough calories and getting enough nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. However, as far as being helpful in recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder, I think there are several reasons why a paleo diet is not the answer, and I’ve explained those reasons below:

  1. Avoiding certain foods with the belief that one bite of those foods will spiral into a binge can be self-fulfilling. What happens if the former binge eater decides to eat grains again one day? Does this mean she or he is destined to relapse? Feeling like you can control yourself around any food seems to be the safer option.
  2. Binge eaters can binge on anything. Even though carbohydrates are the most common binge foods, the reality is that binge eaters can and do binge on all types of foods. If you don’t break the binge eating habit, the primal brain will continue looking for opportunities to binge, and will find them on any eating regimen, including the paleo diet.
  3. A paleo diet does not take away the desire for the temporary pleasure of a binge. Binge eating alters the reward system in the brain and it becomes a habit of pleasure (which ultimately leads to pain). Just because the paleo diet says to eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates does not shut off the urges to binge on those foods. If a paleo diet is going to alter body and brain chemistry to eventually reduce cravings for certain “addicting” foods, it still doesn’t guarantee that the desire to binge will go away.
  4. Telling a binge eater to eat a paleo diet fails to address behavioral conditioning. The habit becomes wired into the brain so that the brain can produce cravings for binges automatically, regardless of what the person is eating.
  5. A paleo diet does not address the lack of self-control binge eaters feel.  A sense of lack of control over eating is fundamental to all cases of bulimia and binge eating disorder; so telling a binge eater that the solution to their problem is to use a ton of self control to avoid many foods simply doesn’t make sense.

Can Paleo at Least Help Eliminate Some Cravings and Urges?

Getting past these problems, if binge eaters could manage to eat a paleo-type diet for a long time, would it eliminate urges to binge?

If the person did not binge during this time, then I believe the urges would lessen or go away, but not due to the paleo diet itself. Not acting on the binge urges weakens the habit in the brain, and the urges fade, whether or not you are eating paleo. So, it’s not the paleo diet that eliminates the binge eating habit; it’s not binge eating that eliminates the binge eating habit.

If a person eats paleo, and binges on paleo foods, then they still have a binge eating habit. If a person eats a diet including all foods, and binges on none of those foods, then they do not have a binge eating habit. I realize this is obvious, but I think it’s important to point out that a certain way of eating is not the cure; the cure is to stop acting on the binge urges. (If you are new here and want to learn how to avoid following your urges to binge, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.)

Then the question becomes: Is it easier to stop acting on urges to binge if you are eating paleo? I think the answer is possibly, for some people. If eating grains, sugar, and carbs typically leads to binge urges for you, then eating a paleo diet could potentially create a situation where you have less urges to deal with. That’s assuming you can stick to a paleo diet, but based on the problems I discussed above, it’s very difficult.

On the other hand, feelings of deprivation and restriction are some of the main drivers of urges to binge, so the elimination of certain foods may have the opposite effect of giving you more urges to deal with. Additionally, given that many binge eaters claim that stress brings on their urges to binge, it’s possible that the time, effort, and money it requires to eat a paleo diet might end up leading to more frequent urges. This is not to say that you need to eliminate stress or that you can’t try to eat healthy.  I’m just pointing out that binge urges arise in many different situations and in response to eating many different foods, and it’s not always predictable.  That’s why I believe it’s important to view the urges as the problem, not the situations or foods.

I didn’t eat a paleo diet, and neither have many others who have recovered; yet we managed to end the binge eating habit for food. Maybe if I would have eaten no sugar, dairy, wheat, grains, or legumes, I would have had less urges to deal with…or maybe more? Either way, looking back, I’m glad I recovered the way that I did; because now no food is dangerous to me. I can eat whatever I want without having to worry about it leading to urges to binge or to relapse. Furthermore, I don’t have to worry if and when science makes new discoveries that change what we currently know about nutrition, and gives us a whole new set of guidelines to be healthy or remain food-addiction free.

Brain over Binge is Not a Way to Stick to Diets

I want to end this post by telling you that the Brain over Binge approach is for ending binge eating, not for resisting every urge to eat something unhealthy or something that’s not paleo.  When you recover, you are saying no to urges to binge; you are not saying no to hunger signals, or all cravings, or all desires to eat in a way that may not be ideal. (I’ve talked about this thoroughly in Episode 12: Dismissing Urges to Binge is Not a Dieting Strategy, and Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?).

 

[i] Katherine, Anne. Anatomy of a Food Addiction: The Brain Chemistry of Overeating. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 1991. P. 189-190

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