If you’ve read Brain over Binge, you know how much trouble I had with cereal during my dieting and binge eating days. But now, many years after recovery, I don’t eat much cereal at all, and it’s not a struggle to avoid it. I never would have believed that was possible when I was a binge eater, because cereal seemed to control me. It often consumed my thoughts until I ate bowl after bowl of it during binges. I never thought it would be possible to simply walk away from cereal without feeling extremely deprived; but to my surprise, it happened quite naturally. I want to share more about this healthy change with you, in hopes that it gives you some insight and ideas for how similar healthy changes may occur in your own life after binge eating recovery.
I don’t have a rule against eating cereal, but cereal has mostly lost it’s appeal, and my days of binge eating cereal are long gone. I actually do eat cereal sometimes, but the vast majority of the time, it’s not the kind I used to crave when I was dieting—sugary cereal—which eventually became the kind of cereal I binged on frequently.
Before I dive deeper into talking about how I stopped bingeing on cereal and craving it, I want to mention that this post is the second part of a two-part series about healthy changes after recovery. You can read Part I: Moderation, Choice, and Creating Your Way of Eating to learn more about feeling in control around all types of food, deciding what’s best for your unique body and lifestyle, and being patient with yourself as you make healthy improvements to your eating habits. Both Part I and this Part II post are primarily for people who are now binge-free, or who do not actually struggle with binge eating, and instead have other problematic eating habits like overeating, grazing, or feeling addicted to certain foods.
My Healthy Change: From Cereal Binges to Not Even Thinking About Cereal
I used to eat sugary cereal often for breakfast as a kid and teen. My mother—like most 80’s/90’s moms—used to buy the “fun” cereal brands like Lucky Charms, but she also tried to balance it out with varieties that were viewed as healthier at the time, like Raisin Bran (the kind with sugar-coated raisins, which of course is far from what is considered healthy today). I ate various types of cereal in normal amounts, and I always stopped when I was comfortably satisfied without thinking about it at all. It wasn’t until I started restricting my food intake (in order to try to control my weight) that I began labeling sugary cereal as “bad,” and began trying to avoid it…and then ended up eating more of it than I ever thought possible.
At the time I started dieting (1997), dietary fat was mostly considered the villain, and because cereal was generally low-fat, my reason for thinking it was “bad” didn’t have much to do with its nutritional content or high sugar. I thought it was bad because of the way I started feeling around it. When I was restricting my food, I suddenly craved cereal and I had trouble controlling myself around it, and had trouble stopping once I started eating it. I seemed to want so much cereal, which I’d never experienced before and which scared me. I feared that eating too much of it would give me too many calories and make me gain weight, so I decided to try avoiding it altogether, which made me crave it even more.
I shared in Brain over Binge that my first binge was on sugary cereal—8 full bowls of it. In hindsight, it’s easy to see exactly what happened, and what turned me from a normal-cereal-eater to someone who could binge on 8 bowls of cereal. The short version is that I was starving. I wasn’t eating enough, and because of that, the appeal of the cereal skyrocketed. Calorie deprivation increases the reward value of food*, especially food that is highly palatable (which usually means it’s high in sugar and carbs and/or fat). My strong cravings for cereal made sense from a survival perspective—my brain was just trying to make me eat large amounts of the foods it sensed would help me survive the “famine” I’d created for myself by dieting.
Before I was in a calorie-deficit, I could totally forget we had cereal in the house, and in my life today, it’s the same. But, when I was in that calorie-deprived state, I would often wake up in the morning and go to bed at night obsessively thinking about the cereal in the pantry. Then, once I binged on cereal once, it quickly became a habit. Eating bowl after bowl of cereal became a regular part of my binges, and during binge urges and binge episodes, it felt like my body truly needed that much cereal.
At certain times during my binge eating years, I read information about foods being addictive or people being powerless, so I tried to give up cereal (and other foods) from time to time. However, this never worked, and seemed like such a baffling approach to tell someone who feels so out of control around a food to simply never eat that food. If I couldn’t stop my cereal binges, how was I supposed to give up cereal altogether? Maybe that approach would have worked for me if cereal suddenly no longer existed on earth; but in my world of living in a college town with roommates, there was no way to fully escape cereal.
I also tried moderation approaches with sugary cereal, which made more sense to me, but proved to be frustrating as well—because I actually did learn to eat sugary cereal in moderation…and I still binged on it. At the time, I didn’t understand that it was the binge urges that caused the binges, not the sugary cereal. (If you are new to this approach and want to learn more about binge urges and how you can avoid giving in to them, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics).
Looking back, it makes sense that I could only eat sugary cereal in moderation when I did not have binge urges. But, if I had an urge to binge before, during, or after eating the cereal, it was very likely that I’d follow that urge and binge on the cereal.
I Stopped Bingeing on Cereal When I Stopped Acting on My Urges to Binge on Cereal
Once I learned how to stop acting on my urges to binge, which I talk about thoroughly in Episode 7: Dismiss Urges to Binge: Component 4 (Stop Acting on Urges to Binge), those urges went away—even when I was eating my former binge foods, like sugary cereal. Then, I could eat sugary cereal in moderation again—every time—without it being difficult.
I resumed my normal life and simply ate cereal when I wanted. It was a common breakfast food for me after recovery, although I’d try to mostly buy the kinds that were a little “healthier.” (I put that in quotes, because today, processed cereals of all types are generally not considered healthy). I still ate high-sugar varieties now and then as well, primarily as a night snack. After binge eating ended and my appetite stabilized, I quickly realized that eating too much sugar in the morning didn’t make me feel good. Choosing the low-sugar varieties if I was eating cereal in the morning, and then sometimes having a high-sugar treat at night was what seemed to work for my body, and not something that I forced myself into.
As the months and years went by, nutrition research pointed more and more to the idea that sugar and processed grains cause harm to health. My carefree cereal-eating days seemed to be in question. Although I had never been under the impression that cereal was super-healthy, I didn’t think it was causing harm.
I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the idea that I could absolutely have anything I wanted in moderation, but also that some foods are— without a doubt—not healthy. At the time, my binge eating days were long gone, but I was also firmly set in an anti-diet mentality. I knew dieting caused harm; I knew I never wanted to go down that path again, but would not eating sugary-cereal be “dieting”?
The short answer is no, it would not be dieting, but it took me a little while to truly see it that way. I gradually came to believe that making healthy changes in a gentle, non-stressful way—while making sure you are nourished and eating enough—is not dieting. It’s simply trading out foods that are no longer serving you, with foods that serve you better, and it never has to mean banning foods completely.
What Helped Change My Relationship to Cereal After Binge Eating Recovery?
Fast forward to today, I can’t even remember the last time I ate the types of cereal I used to binge on. I sometimes eat types of cereal that are more natural, such as granola—still typically as a night snack—but it’s not very often. I may eat it for a couple of nights, and then forget I have the box for weeks or months, or I simply won’t want it.
How is it that I’m not craving sugary cereal like I used to? How can I (mostly) not eat sugary cereal, but also not feel restricted at all? How can I basically never eat the brands of cereal I thought about morning and night as a dieter, and no longer think about them?
Like I mentioned in the beginning of this post, my past self would have never believed this to be possible. So, I want to share some practical tips and ideas to help you if you feel like you don’t have control around certain foods, and you want to make healthy changes.
Here’s a rundown on what helped me change my relationship with cereal, and hopefully it will help you see how healthy changes can be possible for you too.
I no longer feel out of control around cereal because…
1. I know I can have cereal if I want it. I can absolutely go buy a box of cereal right now—even a very unhealthy kind like Lucky Charms—and have a bowl and enjoy it, no big deal. It’s not forbidden in my mind. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure (in moderation) is not always a bad thing. It’s fun, it’s delicious, and we all have to find that balance in our own lives between pleasure and focusing on our health.
2. I’m no longer calorie restricted. Sugar doesn’t hold that high appeal that it did when I was starving and it was so attractive to my survival instincts. It’s amazing what eating enough will do to help your cravings! It’s so important that half of my 8-lesson online course focuses on helping you learn to eat adequately, so that you have the ability to stop binge eating.
3. My decision to reduce my cereal intake came gradually and naturally. My slow shift away from cereal came partially from nutritional information I read, but also from my own insight about how the cereal was making me feel, as well as from learning to expand my tastes to other, more nourishing foods. I never felt like I was fighting against myself, or holding myself back from something I truly wanted. Also, the changes came when I was ready to make the changes, not because someone else told me that’s what I should do.
4. I don’t believe I’m powerless against cereal, or any other food. I know I can eat a normal amount of cereal without a problem, so there’s no fear around eating it. Conversely, there’s no fear that not eating it will lead me to crave it more. When I tried to give up cereal during my binge eating years, it was out of a sense of fear—because I thought that one bite would lead to 8 bowls. Fearing a food tends to keeps it on your mind, and keeps your attention focused on that food. Now, there is relaxation around cereal, and I rarely think about it. (To learn more about why giving up certain foods isn’t a cure for binge eating, and what to do if you need to avoid certain foods for medical reasons, you can read my 3-part blog series on Eliminating Foods).
5. I do not have a restrictive rule to “not eat sugary cereal.” This is similar to reason #1, but I want to expand on it by saying that when you make a genuine choice to eat in a healthier way and it feels good, you feel in alignment. You don’t feel restricted. You don’t fantasize about the unhealthy foods that you’re not eating. You simply choose (most of the time) to have other things, and don’t really miss what you aren’t having.
6. I’m simply older…and I don’t think many adults are still eating Lucky Charms for breakfast. It’s okay to walk away from childhood foods that aren’t benefiting you in adulthood. This is not dieting. You could simply call it “growing up,” or learning to take care of yourself.
I don’t want to give the impression that my eating is perfectly healthy. There are many other unhealthy foods that I still choose to eat! But, I wanted to share this personal story to let you know that giving up binge eating and giving up dieting does not at all mean giving up on health. After binge eating ends, you are free to make (or not make) any healthy changes you want, in a way that works for you, and on a timeline that works for you.
Making those healthy changes is not part of binge eating recovery, it’s simply part of life. However, as a former binge eater, you will want to make sure you make changes in a healthy way that doesn’t involve putting yourself in a calorie deficit or becoming obsessive or overly restrictive about foods.
If you want more guidance in learning to eat normally, and ending the binge eating habit, you can try a free preview of the Brain over Binge Course.
For more on this topic:
*One example of research demonstrating this: Stice, E., K. Burger, and S. Yokum. “Calorie Deprivation Increases Responsivity of Attention and Reward Brain Regions to Intake, Anticipated Intake, and Images of Palatable Foods.” NeuroImage 67 (2013): 322-330
The first urges to binge commonly appear after a period of restrictive dieting. The binge urges are a primal survival response—when you restrict food, the primitive part of your brain starts to encourage you to eat as much as possible. (You can learn more about this in Episode 2: The Cause of Binge Eating: Urges to Binge). To get rid of the binge urges, it’s necessary not only to stop acting on them, but also to get your body out of that “survival” state by eating enough food. You cannot continue to restrict food and expect to fully recover. That doesn’t mean you have to eat the exact, perfect amount at each and every meal; it just means that overall, you need to give your body what it needs.
You may have some hesitations about letting go of dieting, or you may think that you actually want to continue dieting, even though you certainly want to stop binge eating. It’s easier to see that binge eating is something you don’t (rationally) want in your life, but dieting can sometimes feel like a deliberate choice that is in line with your true desires. To stop dieting, it’s important to start to change your mindset and see that dieting is not actually what you want, and that it’s harming you and making recovery impossible. It’s important to explore your motivation for dieting and challenge the reasoning behind it, so that you can move toward freedom from binge eating.
Below, I’ve listed 4 common factors that may serve as your motivation for dieting. Know that more than one might apply to you, and that it’s possible to let go of all of these reasons.
Motivation for Dieting #1: None—It’s an Habit
It’s highly possible that your reason for dieting is devoid of any real, thoughtful motivation. It’s possibly you are just following the force of a habit you’ve created. You may have had some original motivation to diet at the outset, but then it simply stuck. Dieting became your norm, so you just keep doing it, without stopping to think if it is the right course of action.
Your thoughts about weight loss or perfect eating plans, or your desire to restrict calories may appear at predictable times and in predictable situations. For example, you may finish eating a nice meal at a restaurant and you may automatically have thoughts saying, “I need to work out extra and eat very little tomorrow to make up for this,” or “I need to start over with my diet tomorrow.”
Instead of considering if these thoughts are serving you, you automatically take them as truth, and don’t see that you actually do have other, healthier options. In this example, you don’t stop to rationalize that resuming normal eating at the next meal or the next time you are hungry will help you in your efforts to stop binge eating, and be much better for healthy weight maintenance in the long run. (For questions and issues surrounding weight, you can see my post: Addressing Weight Issues in Binge Eating Recovery.)
Treating the habitual dieting thoughts and urges to restrict food as neurological junk is a helpful way to overcome them and start eating adequately. At any point, you are capable of turning attention away from the faulty thoughts that say you should be dieting.
Motivation for Dieting #2: Positive Feelings
If you achieved a weight-loss goal in the past, it may have given you a temporary good feeling—a feeling of achievement, or pride, or confidence. This feeling is fleeting, but it can temporarily lift your mood and make you feel good about yourself. The problem is: if the weight-loss goal you achieved in the past or the weight-loss goal you are chasing now is outside of your natural weight range, it’s impossible to maintain that weight—or the good feelings that came along with it (or the good feelings you imagine will come along with a certain number on the scale). So, what this can lead to is a yo-yo effect where you are perpetually seeking that weight in an attempt to experience the fleeting moments of positive feelings.
But chasing those good feelings while you are making yourself miserable with strict diet rules, self-criticism, and binge eating, just isn’t worth it.
If you can see that the positive feeling (of happiness, pride, achievement, confidence) is what you actually want, you can see that you don’t need a certain number on a scale to get that feeling. You don’t need the self-sabotage of a diet to achieve a positive feeling, and you certainly don’t need to be a specific weight to experience happiness, pride, achievement, and confidence.
All of those same feelings can be achieved in a non-diet way—in a way that’s sustainable, doesn’t harm you, and doesn’t lead to binge eating. If you want a feeling of achievement, you can work toward that in other parts of your life. If you want happiness, you can find that feeling being with people you love—without your mind caught up in thinking about food. If you want confidence, you can learn a new skill that has nothing to do with weight loss. Good feelings don’t always have to be connected to accomplishments either, good feelings are available to you in simple ways.
An important thing to remember is that you won’t always feel great about yourself or reside in positive feelings all of the time; it’s normal to have ups and downs in your state of mind. The point is not to chase unrealistic goals or perform harmful behaviors in order to try to experience the ups, because the overall impact will be to bring you down.
Motivation for Dieting #3: Affection and Attention
The previous motivation was all about how dieting and weight loss makes you feel internally, but related to that is the external attention you may get for achieving a weight loss goal (which can also lead to the internal feelings). It’s possible that dieting and temporary weight loss has attracted positive attention toward you in the past, whether that was through admiration or romantic attraction, and you want that attention again. Maybe you’ve never had that type of attention, but you believe that if you can only look a certain way, you will receive it.
With this motivation for dieting, it’s important not only to see that you can get attention and affection in other ways, but that the attention and affection you receive as a result of dieting is mostly superficial. If you are only using your body to attract attention, is that truly the kind of attention you want? If you let your authentic self shine through, and let your personality and heart attract the attention, you’ll naturally get better quality attention.
Giving up dieting does not mean giving up on being a healthy, strong, well-presented person; it does not mean you’ll stop taking pride in yourself. It just means you will take pride in yourself at your natural size and not try to control your body in an effort to gain more attention. Think about how you could gain good-quality attention in your life—the kind that feels fulfilling—such as the attention you receive from helping others or giving of yourself, or from being a loyal friend/mother/father/sister/son…etc., or from being hard-working, intelligent, funny, and being appreciated for who you are.
Motivation for Dieting #4: Control
Your motivation for dieting could be that you like to feel in control. While there is nothing wrong with wanting to have a predictable schedule, or manage your life, or even have a plan for your eating, feeling like you need to perfectly control everything you put in your mouth can backfire (for more on this, you can read my post about not overdoing self-control). Eating is a natural, fundamental biological drive and it doesn’t lend itself well to being perfectly controlled, especially when that “control” means deprivation.
When you over-control your eating by not giving yourself enough food, your lower brain gets the message that you are starving and heightens your desire and drive to eat. So, the “control” actually leads to the opposite effect of you feeling more out of control.
If you feel like your life is unstable (everyone does to some extent just by the fragile nature of our existence), and over-controlling your eating seems appealing, try to focus on taking some control elsewhere. Try to see if there is an area of your life that you can put energy into managing better, which won’t backfire and lead you to feeling more out of control. Maybe that means seeking more career stability, or improving a relationship, or organizing your home, or developing a more consistent schedule. Doing those things doesn’t cure an eating disorder, but anything that will take your focus away from restrictive dieting helps break the habit.
Also, changing how you think about the concept of control can be helpful as well. We truly aren’t in control of everything, even most things, in our lives, and trying to pretend that we are often leads to frustration and exhaustion. There is freedom in getting comfortable with knowing you are not in control, and that may even lead you toward spirituality, or a deeper perspective of the universe.
Don’t Get Caught Up In Analysis
Keep in mind that your motivation for dieting may not be very “deep” at all. You may have simply wanted to lose some weight, and it seemed innocent enough at the time. This was similar to my experience, which I detailed in Brain over Binge. Maybe your friends or family members were dieting, and that gave you motivation to restrict your food too, and you didn’t think too much about it. You just tried it without knowledge of what would happen, and it turned out to be a bad experience that led to binge eating. You can now learn from that experience and not repeat it in the future—no further analysis necessary.
Even if you feel there are deeper and stronger motivations for why you started dieting and why you continued, that doesn’t mean you should spend too much time dwelling on those motivations, or trying to solve everything before moving forward with giving up the harmful dieting behavior. Just take an honest look at what your biggest motivation for dieting might be and then try to find a new, healthier perspective. (You can also listen to podcast Episode 48: How Do I Get Rid of the Dieting Mentality in Binge Eating Recovery?)
Dieting is ultimately a choice—one that brings consequences, and one that is detrimental for your recovery from binge eating. For whatever reason, it made sense for you at one point in time to begin dieting, and until now, it may have seemed to make sense to continue dieting. But, at any point, you can make a new choice that is more beneficial to your recovery and to your life as a whole.
I hope that this blog post helps support you in choosing to eat adequately and nourishing your body. When you eat enough food, it makes dismissing the binge urges possible and takes you a long way toward complete freedom from disordered eating.
If you need more guidance in eating adequately, the Brain over Binge Course is a powerful resource. 4 out of the 8 lessons of the course focus on adequate eating, and many of the course’s 84 Q&A audios address giving up dieting and learning to eat in a way that works for you.
You can sample course audios in the free preview:
If you have bulimia or binge eating disorder, you’ve most likely experienced weight gain from binge eating. You may wonder what will happen as you recover…will you lose the weight you’ve gained? Will you gain more weight as you begin eating normally? What will your weight be as a binge-free and diet-free person?
It’s important for you to understand that recovery from binge eating is not about weight loss or avoiding any further weight gain. Overcoming binge eating is about letting go of a harmful, health-sabotaging behavior, rising above the shame and pain it brought, and moving on with your life. However, the reality is that weight concerns are very common in recovering binge eaters, so I want to give you some help in this area.
I’ve addressed weight thoroughly for the first time in my 2012 post, “Weight After Recovery” and other posts after that (see a list of my weight-related blog posts), as well as in The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. Today, I’m also going to talk about possibility of gaining weight during and after binge eating recovery, and how you can deal with this in a healthy way.
When I Stop Binge Eating, Does that Mean I’ll Stop Gaining Weight?
Usually, yes. It only makes sense that binge eating recovery commonly involves a cessation of weight gain and eventual weight loss as the out-of-control eating episodes decrease and go away. When you stop eating abnormally large amounts of food, your calorie intake goes down to a normal level, and it follows that body weight naturally goes down to the level that is normal for your unique body.
Eventual and gradual weight loss is even common in people who self-induce vomiting or use other forms of purging after binges, because a significant portion of the binge calories are still absorbed, and stopping the binge/purge cycle still leads to an overall decrease in calories. Even if there is some bloating when you first stop purging, the body can regulate, and any weight gained from bulimia can be slowly released. (For help stopping purging and dealing with bloating, read these Tips to Help You Stop Purging, and listen to Episode 54: Stop Purging in Binge Eating Recovery: Interview with Ali Kerr.
The fact that stopping binge eating reduces calories also holds true if you are dieting restrictively between binges. If you consider your overall calorie intake from restrictive dieting plus binge eating, you’ll realize that the total is likely more, and often much more, than the calorie total of a normal diet. For example, I recommend a daily minimum of 2,200 calories to help you recover from restriction and binge eating. Someone who is restricting and eating only 1,200 calories per day, but then having 6,000 calorie binges a few times a week, is actually averaging over 3,500 calories per day.
Like I said at the start, recovery is not about weight loss, but the simple fact that quitting will reduce calorie intake goes a long way to alleviate some weight-related fears of recovery You may have previously worried that giving up restriction and purging would make you gain weight; but when you also factor in that you’ll be stopping binge eating as well, you may feel reassured to know that your overall calorie intake will go down to a normal level. You may feel more willing to eat enough food on a daily basis, which is absolutely necessary, because recovery won’t happen if you keep yourself in a state of starvation.
If I Keep Restricting, Can I Speed Up Weight Loss in Binge Eating Recovery, or Avoid Weight Gain?
No. If you keep restricting, you will keep binge eating, and keep your calorie intake higher than if you just ate normally. Some people think that they can stop binge eating without stopping dieting and other dangerous weight-control behaviors like purging; but you simply cannot recover while your body is in underfed. This is why I teach that recovery comes down to two basic goals:
- Recovery Goal 1: Dismiss urges to binge (stop giving urges attention and stop acting on them)
- Recovery Goal 2: Eat Adequately (eat enough decent quality food)
It is impossible to accomplish Recovery Goal 1 on a consistent basis without implementing Recovery Goal 2.
If you’ve read this far and still find yourself having significant resistance to Recovery Goal 2 (Eating Adequately), this could be because you believe you believe you are an exception to what I’ve explained above about binge eating recovery usually leading to a cessation of weight gain and eventual weight loss.
What if I Think I Will Gain Weight from Binge Eating Recovery?
To understand how weight gain is possible from binge eating recovery, let’s shift gears for a moment and think about anorexia recovery. It is a given that weight gain is a part of the process of restoring the recovering anorexic back to health. Weight gain is necessary and beneficial, and I believe this is also the case when weight gain is a part of binge eating recovery.
Stopping the binge and purge cycle and learning to nourish your body may lead to an overall calorie increase for you. This can be the case if you binge infrequently, if binge on smaller quantities of food, and if you restrict severely between binges. Even if you know you want freedom from the binge and purge cycle, the thought of weight gain may make you worry and make you want to avoid making healthy changes.
So, how then do you alleviate fears of weight gain from binge eating recovery? How do you convince yourself to eat enough food every day? How do you avoid giving in to the temptation to restrict?
In the rest of this blog post, I’m going to give you 5 tips to help with these concerns:
Tip 1: Realize the Futility and Danger of Your Current Path
In my own personal recovery, I was in the majority. Stopping binge eating led to an overall decrease in calories and my body gradually went back down to its natural weight. So, when giving these tips, I want you to know that I’m speaking of a challenge that I did not personally go through. Nevertheless, I believe my personal experience shines an important light on this issue that I hope you will find helpful.
The reason I did not go through the challenge of weight gain in binge eating recovery was due to the time in my disorder that I recovered. I recovered after the binge eating had already brought me well over my natural weight. If I would have recovered in an earlier stage of my bulimia—when I was still underweight from restricting and anorexia, and before my binges had gotten very frequent and very large—then I would have indeed gained weight in recovery.
I look back and wish that I would have recovered at this earlier stage when I was still below my normal weight, both because it would have saved me valuable time that I wasted to bulimia, and it would have been safer and healthier than spiraling further into binge eating.
My binges got worse and worse over time, and the quantity of food I ate during binges increased; and I put on weight in an unhealthy and shame-producing way. Gaining weight by eating normally would have been so much less stressful and less painful, and I would have gained much less weight than I eventually gained by staying bulimic.
If you fear recovery because you are still under your natural weight due to harmful restrictive behaviors, you need to realize that this won’t last. You are on a dangerous path and it will only hurt you. It’s simply not sustainable to starve yourself or purge frequently to try to fend off weight gain from binge eating. It will only make the binge eating get worse and worse, and you will eventually gain weight—and likely more weight than if you learn to let go of those unhealthy behaviors now and accept natural, normal, and healthy weight gain.
*If you are severely restricting and/or underweight, it’s important to seek medical and nutritional help to gradually reintroduce a normal diet and restore weight.
Also know that the effect that restriction has on your metabolism adds to the futility of your current path. Starving yourself and purging slows your metabolism so that it will be increasingly more difficult and even impossible to maintain your current too-low weight. Thinking about what you are doing from a long-term perspective can help you realize that you can’t keep up these harmful behaviors forever. Restriction and purging cause too much stress, exhaustion, shame, and health problems.
Additionally, for all of the trouble and pain you are going through, your calorie intake (after factoring in the binges) is likely not much lower than what a normal diet would be. You may only be managing to eat a couple hundred calories less than you’d be eating if you stopped all of the dangerous behaviors. Wouldn’t it be easier to just eat and digest the small amount of extra food? Wouldn’t any weight gain that results be worth it, in order to be free of the painful daily struggle?
Tip 2: Weight is Not All about Calories. Be Patient.
If you are underweight or under your natural weight, then of course, you will need to gain weight, just as someone in anorexia recovery would. But, you are close to what you believe is your natural weight range, know that an increase in calories does not necessarily equal long-term weight gain. Recovery might involve some initial bloating and simply more food being in your system, which the number on the scale can temporarily reflect; but that doesn’t mean that extra weight is permanent.
As your body gets used to processing a normal amount of food, and you get any necessary help with digestive issues, you allow your metabolism to start working normally again. Calorie restriction makes the body more efficient at using calories, so that it gets the most out of every calorie you give it. This metabolism-suppressing effect can make you feel trapped into always eating less and less, which is impossible, and will lead to increased binge eating. (For more on this, listen to Episode 9: Avoid Restrictive Dieting to Stop Binge Eating).
Once you eat normally for a while and your body realizes that you are no longer starving, it can start to use calories for energy instead of storing them in preparation for the next “famine” (restrictive diet). This means that, even though you may be eating more overall, you won’t be gaining weight. This regulation of metabolism can take time, so patience is required. By feeding yourself adequately, you are giving yourself a gift that will last—a normal and healthy metabolism.
Tip 3: View Feeding Yourself in a Positive Light, Focus on Adding Foods that Benefit You
When you give yourself enough food, you are doing something good for yourself, and it’s helpful to keep this in mind. Think of all the nutrients you are putting into your body, and focus on adding foods that make you feel good. Of course, it’s fine to have all types of foods, even unhealthy ones; but if you are feeling hesitant about eating more, incorporating foods you feel really good about can help you feel less self-critical. It can take you from a mindset of thinking that you are overindulging (which you aren’t!) to a more positive mindset of knowing you are doing something very good for your body. This positive mindset will encourage you to keep going down the healthy path, and not slip back into restriction.
Another aspect of viewing normal eating in a positive light is to avoid thinking that you are overeating. If you are used to trying to maintain a daily restrictive diet of 1,200 calories, then initially, eating 2,200 or more on a daily basis may feel like it’s too much. Even though you likely binge on much more than that, your digestive system simply isn’t used to consistently getting that nourishing amount of food each day.
Know that this isn’t specific nutritional or medical advice, but if eating more food leaves you feeling overly full, you can try adding the extra calories as healthy fats and other healthy calorie-dense foods. Think of butter or coconut oil for example—there are a lot of calories packed into a small volume of food so that it doesn’t leave your stomach feeling too stretched during the time when you are increasing calories and regulating digestion. Adding healthy fat also has a positive effect on your metabolism’s ability to use calories for energy.
Tip 4: Think of How You’d Want to Feed Someone You Love.
If you are tempted to restrict, think of what you’d want someone you love to do in your situation. For example, if you imagine having a daughter who had this problem, would you want her to try to get by on the absolute minimum number of calories? Would you want her trying to starve herself while trying to stop binge eating, or at any time in her life?
Or… would you want to make absolutely sure she was getting enough nourishment? Would you want to make sure her body and brain got the message that binge eating was no longer needed? You can see that if you are thinking about someone you love, you want to make sure that person is well-fed; and you deserve the same kind and compassionate treatment.
Tip 5: Be Open to the Recovery Process and to Your Natural Weight
It is possible that—at this point—you aren’t even sure what your natural, healthy weight is. You may have dieted and binged for as long as you can remember and never allowed your body to find it’s normal set weight range. If this is the case for you, eating normally and stopping binge eating will be a leap of faith as far as weight is concerned. What can help in this situation is to know deeply that wherever you eventually end up weight-wise, it will be better than where you are now—trying desperately to control your weight and then feeling so out of control with the binges.
If you can allow your body to just be and gravitate toward it’s natural weight—whatever that may be—you will be free to live your life. Will you end up being the weight you want? There is no way to know. If maintaining the weight you desire is or has been a stressful struggle and required starvation, you need to listen to your body. An “ideal” weight that is impossible for you to maintain is not your natural, healthy weight and it just isn’t worth it. Trying to fight your natural weight is a losing battle, and if you are open to accepting your body’s unique size, the binge eating recovery process will be much easier on you.
For help learning to stop the binge eating habit, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF. The Brain over Binge Course also contains thorough answers to many questions about weight and eating.
If you’re a binge eater trying to recover, you’ve likely come across the term “intuitive eating.” It has become a common term that refers to tuning in to your own body and hunger signals to guide your food choices. The philosophy of intuitive eating was originally developed by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch, and detailed in their book Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program That Works (1995). I began struggling with binge eating in 1999, and definitely remember hearing about intuitive eating as a potential cure or remedy for binge eating. I didn’t specifically read the Intuitive Eating book at the time, but I found information saying that if I learned to tune into my own body, then I would no longer need to question what I needed or eat or how much I needed to eat, and my desire to binge would also go away.
It’s important for you to know that Tribole and Resch do not present Intuitive Eating as the cure for binge eating. However, intuitive eating is talked about so much in the eating disorder community, and it’s easy to get that message from other sources. I remember thinking that if I could just get better at listening to my body, then surely it would not tell me to binge. Unfortunately, it seemed like no matter how hard I tried to become an intuitive eater, it wasn’t useful for stopping my binge eating.
Can Intuitive Eating Help in Binge Eating Recovery?
This is not to say that intuitive eating isn’t useful, but I think it’s extremely difficult to tune into your body and decipher it’s signals when it’s signals are so mixed up by binge eating—and possibly restrictive dieting and purging as well. It was so frustrating to try to listen to my body when my body and brain seemed determined to drive me toward massive amounts of junk food. I often wondered if binge eating was what my body intuitively wanted. (I wrote an entire post about feeling like you want to binge)
In the basic theory of eating intuitively, your body knows what foods are best for you, and how much you need to eat; and if you can just learn to follow that inner guidance, you’ll be able to eat in a natural way and effortlessly maintain a healthy weight for your unique body. Intuitive eating is basically about trusting your body’s innate wisdom. It involves following your tastes and cravings, but it’s not just about eating what you desire in the moment. It’s also about being connected to how certain foods make you feel, and making food choices based on how you want to feel. The result of intuitive eating should be a healthy diet that fits your lifestyle and fuels your body in the best way possible.
Intuitive eating does work for some people, even binge eaters—especially in the area of giving up the dieting mentality and food rules. There is certainly value in the philosophy of using your body’s innate wisdom rather than following a strict food plan.
Intuitive eating can be helpful—not as the cure for binge eating—but as a way to guide you in learning to eat enough and nourish yourself, provided the philosophy is understood properly. It’s mistaken to simply think of intuitive eating as an “eat whatever you want, whenever you want, for the rest of your life,” which it is often (wrongly) interpreted to be.
Intuitive Eating Presents Unique Challenges for Binge Eaters
It’s also important to be aware of some challenges that you may face as a binge eater trying to learn to eat intuitively. As I’ve alluded to based on my own experience—hunger and fullness, as well as food preferences and cravings, aren’t usually very reliable after prolonged periods of binge eating, overeating, dieting, and/or purging. Stomach stretching from large food quantities, “addiction” to certain foods, digestive problems, and other physiological imbalances caused from harmful eating behaviors can seem to dim your intuition, or make you feel out of touch with any sort of innate wisdom surrounding food.
For example, you may feel like you never truly feel full after eating—unless you binge. Or you may try to follow your taste preferences, but you only seem to crave the sugary and processed food that you binge on. Or you may fear your body’s signals of hunger because you’ve lost trust in your ability to control yourself around food (for more on this, you can listen to Episode 62: Fear of Hunger in Binge Eating Recovery).
In today’s food environment, intuitive eating can be a challenge even for non-binge eaters. Many of our modern processed and convenience foods can make the body’s natural hunger and satiety mechanisms less effective. I don’t think the appetite is 100 percent reliable for most people, which is why we also need to use our higher brain when making food choices, and you can read this post for more: Listen to Your Body?.
If you want to continue exploring this topic, and understand the challenges of using intuitive eating as you recover from bulimia and binge eating disorder, here are a few resources for you:
Gillian Riley, who wrote a guest post on my blog and did an interview on my podcast, has a free e-book: What is Wrong with Intuitive Eating? on her website. The e-book is a great summary of some of the challenges of using your intuition to guide food choices.
I’ve been talking about eliminating foods for those who need to, and for those want to lead a healthier lifestyle (see Eliminating Foods Part I and Part II). In this post, I’ll discuss the importance of ditching diets, and replacing foods you are trying to eliminate with nourishing and enjoyable options. I’ll also share information and insights with from a helpful book called Ditching Diets by Gillian Riley, which will help you understand how you can avoid letting healthy changes turn into restriction or deprivation. But first, I’m going to talk briefly about my own experience with needing to eliminate foods—which is something I addressed in Brain over Binge—and I hope it helps you see how it’s possible to give up certain foods without dieting.
An Example of Giving Up Foods and Giving Up Dieting
Since I recovered in 2005, I’ve gone through 4 extended periods of time that I’ve had to completely eliminate certain foods. My first child developed allergic colitis only several weeks after birth (which is a condition where the baby’s immune system overreacts to food proteins in the mother’s milk, which leads to irritation/inflammation, ulcerations, and even some bleeding in the colon). To treat this, I had to give up all dairy, beef, wheat, soy, eggs, and nuts for several months. When I had my second child, I hoped it wouldn’t happen again; but sure enough, when my daughter was a few weeks old she began developing the same symptoms. This time, I knew exactly what to do to help her, so I eliminated the foods again; and within a couple weeks, her symptoms disappeared. For my 3rd and 4th babies, I tried to prevent the issue by giving up all dairy—which was seemingly the biggest culprit—one month prior giving birth. My 3rd child did fine, but with my 4th (who is 8 months old at the time I’m writing this), there was about a 6-week period when I had to eat nothing but potatoes, turkey, chicken, olive oil, almonds, and some mild vegetables and fruits (and vitamins) in order to clear up his digestive tract. All my children are okay now. This was a temporary protein sensitivity in infancy, not a true food allergy or ongoing digestive condition.
Changing my eating in this way and giving up foods to help my babies didn’t cause any problem for me. It never felt like a “diet,” or like I was depriving myself. There were certainly times that I wished I could eat the foods I was eliminating, and I did feel a little sorry for myself sometimes as I watched the rest of my family munch down a pizza, for example, and I was eating my 3rd meal of sweet potatoes and chicken for the day. Although it was inconvenient to have a lack of freedom around food, and it’s not something I’d want to continue for a long period of time; it wasn’t a bad experience at all. There was always a choice to put my babies on hypoallergenic formula, but that would have been costly and not as healthy for them. I chose to change my diet, and I felt like I was doing the right thing for them.
In the same way, people who lead healthy lifestyles and nourish their bodies well with real food don’t feel “deprived” when they eliminate certain foods. They know they are doing right for their bodies, and they feel good doing it; and in all likelihood, they would actually feel deprived if they were forced to eat a diet consisting of a lot of processed, low-quality, low-nutrient food. Wanting to nourish yourself well, and therefore avoiding foods that have no benefit to you, is much different than trying to force yourself to follow a bunch of food rules and starving yourself just so that you can lose weight.
Ditching Diets, and Letting Go of Restriction While Eliminating Foods
It is possible to make healthy changes, or even eliminate a certain food completely because it creates an adverse reaction, without it turning into a rigid diet—and sometimes the difference is simply in your mindset. I recently came across a book that does a wonderful job of explaining why there is no need to think in terms of rules, restrictions, and prohibitions when it comes to taking on a healthier lifestyle. It’s called Ditching Diets, by Gillian Riley. I’ve had a few of my own readers tell me that this book is helpful to read along with Brain over Binge, especially if a healthy lifestyle is desired. Ditching Diets discusses some of the same concepts that my book does, but with a greater focus on helping you let go of the dieting mindset, and addressing addictive overeating—that gray area that doesn’t feel like a binge, but also does not feel like the way you want to be eating.
[Update: I’ve interviewed the author of Ditching Diets on my podcast: Episode 64: Stop Yo-Yo Dieting and Take Control of Overeating (Video Interview with Gillian Riley), and she has also written a guest blog post: Fasting & Binge Eating: Not So Fast (Post from Gillian Riley)
What I liked best about Ditching Diets was how Gillian drove home the idea that we all have free choice about what and how we eat, and everyone is capable of achieving freedom and peace with food—without solving emotional problems first. But, she also makes it clear that having freedom with food doesn’t mean we’ll just be eating a bunch of junk all the time because we are “free” to do so. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—once we feel our free choice and give up dieting, we will be more likely to make better and healthier choices.
I could relate to so much of what this book talked about, because I’ve experienced it. When I was dieting, I indeed felt deprived when I created a lot of food rules and avoided certain “fattening” foods. My restriction led me to eat much more of the foods I was trying to avoid and led me down the path of binge eating. However, now, I don’t have the same reaction when I choose to avoid an unhealthy food, or when I gave up so many foods while breastfeeding. Without the dieting mindset, passing up a certain type of food doesn’t make me feel like I’m missing out on something great, and doesn’t create powerful cravings. (For more about letting go of the dieting mindset, listen to Episode 48: How Do I Let Go of the Dieting Mentality in Binge Eating Recovery?)
Nourishing and Enjoyable Replacement Foods—Not Perfect Foods
As you may know from my books and other blog posts, I’m far from being a “perfect” eater. Perfect eating doesn’t even exist because nutrition science is constantly expanding and changing. I eat unhealthy foods sometimes, but as Ditching Diets does such a good job of explaining—when there is a strong sense of free choice about how you eat, and you don’t feel out of control—choosing to eat less-than-ideal foods isn’t a problem. It’s simply a choice with certain outcomes you have to be prepared to accept. Yes, I choose convenience over nutrition when my life is busy, and I accept that when I do that, my body isn’t being optimally nourished. I do strive to nourish my body well as much as I can, but it is a balancing act. Everyone must create their own balance, and it never has to be all or nothing. It never has to be perfection or binge. (If you struggle with perfectionism, read my blog post on accepting imperfection in your eating.)
If you are taking on a healthy lifestyle, I think it’s very important to make sure you have enjoyable and nourishing replacements for the foods you are not eating. When you give up a food, you also want to feel like you are giving yourself a food in it’s place—a food (or foods) that you actually like and look forward to eating. Sometimes people forget the “enjoyable” part, and then get trapped in the dieting and deprivation mindset. The goal should be to find foods you take pleasure in eating, and that make you feel good as well. This can take some experimenting. To illustrate this, I’m going to give one example from my own life of a food my family has been trying to eliminate, and how we’ve replaced it:
My kids love waffles (they like peanut butter and maple syrup on them, which I think is a bit odd:-)), and I slowly got into the habit of giving them processed, pre-packaged waffles too often. At the end of my 4th pregnancy and after my son was born, the older 3 kids ate the pre-packaged waffles every single day. I was so exhausted and sleep-deprived that I couldn’t find time or energy for anything better first thing in the morning, and it was the only easy breakfast that all of them liked. Around the end of 2012, my husband and I decided that we’d find a way to make healthy, homemade waffles so our kids could get a better start to their day. We experimented with some recipes and finally found something that worked—using eggs, coconut milk, coconut flour, baking soda, vanilla, cinnamon, and honey. The waffles are delicious! I’ve been making a big batch each week and I freeze them, so that the mornings are just as easy as when we bought the frozen waffles from the store. If you asked my kids, I’m sure they would still say they like the “waffles from the store” better, but they eat up the ones I make too. I know this is a simple example, but I want you to see that there are enjoyable, nourishing, healthier replacements for foods that you want to avoid or need to avoid.
Finally, as a reminder from my last post, try to keep making healthy changes to your eating separate from quitting binge eating. That way, if you choose to eat something like processed waffles one morning, you won’t pay any attention to any thoughts that say, “you’ve already failed, you might as well binge.” When you realize that you can avoid binges no matter what foods you decide to eat, you set yourself up for a lifetime of complete freedom from binge eating.
To jump start your recovery from bulimia or binge eating disorder, you can download my free PDF, The Brain over Binge Basics.
If you want more help in ending the binge eating habit, and more information on issues like the one discussed here, you can learn about the Brain over Binge Course.