Overindulging in food

Indulging in Food, Part 3: Getting over Overindulging

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

Is Your Indulging a Problem?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do strong cravings primarily drive your indulgences?

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

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

Are you obsessing over your indulgences?

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

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

Are the consequences of indulging too great?

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

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

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

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

How to Get Over Overindulging in Food:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More help:

If you want extra guidance as you work on the recovery goals of the Brain over Binge approach, here are some resources for additional support:

Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $10.99/month. Includes over 120 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating. (Monthly price going up on 1/1/2022 for new members.  All existing members will keep paying the $10.99/month rate)

Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.

One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private session with coach Julie. She will help you change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.

indulging in food binge eating recovery

Indulging in Food, Part 2: It’s Okay, You are Okay

This is the second part of a 3-part series on “indulging” in food. In my part 1, I talked about the fact that there is no consensus on what it means to indulge. I gave you two tips for how to think about indulging: First, remember that indulging is not the same as binge eating, and second, avoid overly restrictive definitions of indulging (because a lot of perfectionism and guilt can arise when you define indulging too narrowly).

In this post, I’m going talk about what indulging may mean to you personally; and more importantly, I’m going to try to help you see that it is okay to indulge and it does not mean something is wrong with you.

I don’t think it’s necessary to come up with an exact definition of what indulging means to you. Eating behaviors can’t always be neatly categorized. Eating is a balance; it can change from day to day, and certainly from person to person; and you get to make it work for you. You may already have your own thoughts about what indulging looks like in your life. Maybe you think about a holiday dinner, or having a meal at your favorite restaurant, or being on vacation and eating a variety of delicious foods you don’t normally eat, or maybe you think of having an extra serving of a food you love when you are already rather full. You may automatically think of eating sugary foods, like having a doughnut or two at the office, or a larger than usual piece of cake at a birthday party. It’s possible you think of healthy foods as well, like eating a big serving of your favorite organic vegetables, or a large, juicy grass-fed steak cooked just the way you like it, or succulent seasonal fruits that you love.

As long as you know indulging is not the same as a binge, and is not defined as “any time you eat imperfectly,” that gives you a wide range from which you can view indulgent eating. If you were to check the dictionary, the definitions of “indulge” are varied. Here are just a few: to allow oneself to enjoy the pleasure of….to yield to an inclination or desireto satisfy or gratify. Using only the textbook definitions, you could theoretically indulge in any eating opportunity, because you could think of it being more about the experience of pleasure and satisfaction than the amount or type of food. During any normal meal or even a small snack, you can certainly allow yourself to take pleasure in it, and you can feel satisfied and gratified. Eating is pleasurable and food should be enjoyed.

However, when leaders in the field of eating disorders say, “it’s okay to indulge sometimes,” they typically mean it’s okay to get more-than-normal satisfaction and gratification from eating. So, in the context of promoting recovery from binge eating, bulimia, anorexia, and EDNOS, indulgence usually refers to eating experiences that are at least a little outside of what you’d consider normal food pleasure. And, that’s the general standard I’m using when talking about “indulging” in this blog series.

Using that perspective, if we were to come up with a broad, overarching view of indulgent eating, it would be something like this: Taking more pleasure in food than you normally do, or more pleasure than you’d consider normal (and this description is given with the assumption that it’s okay to take pleasure in your food whenever and whatever you eat.)

If you want to explore what indulging means to you personally, take a look at what you believe normal eating is for you (and if you aren’t eating normally yet, look for examples in other people who you consider to be normal eaters); and then, if you decide to take more pleasure in food than that baseline of “normal,” that’s what you can see as indulging. If “normal” is enjoying most meals and snacks, experiencing pleasure in eating reasonable amounts (of both healthy foods and some unhealthy foods as well); then indulging could be thought of as enjoying too much of  certain foods that are either healthy or unhealthy…but you’ll probably be more likely to think it’s indulgence when the foods are unhealthy.

For example, you might eat one average-sized scoop of ice cream for dessert sometimes and you consider that normal eating pleasure, so indulging might be having a two-scoop serving with toppings, which leaves you a little too full. Normal food pleasure might be going to a restaurant and enjoying every bite of your favorite meal, and indulging might be having an appetizer and wine before the meal, still enjoying your meal, and possibly even having dessert afterward.

I realize words like “too much” or “normal,” and even “healthy” and “unhealthy” are open to interpretation, but that’s okay, because how we eat and how we indulge in food is highly individual, and having the freedom to decide what it means to you is empowering.

But, why does any of this matter to binge eating recovery?

Because I want you to take the advice that “it’s okay to indulge” to heart. I want you to believe it, and to believe it requires understanding it. I want you to know that quitting the binge eating habit never means quitting the pleasure of eating, and it also doesn’t mean giving up indulging in food. If you think it does, it makes recovery seem much more difficult, because it requires you to live up to unrealistic standards and it fosters a rigid mindset around food.

From a purely nutritional perspective, is indulging an ideal form of eating? Probably not. Is indulging optimally healthy when we look at it only from a physiological standpoint?  Again, probably not, because even if you are indulging in healthy foods, too much of anything usually isn’t nutritionally ideal. But might indulging sometimes be good for your mental health and stress level, and benefit you more overall than always having tight control over your portions and the types of foods you allow yourself? Absolutely, especially if you are learning to overcome a “dieting” mindset.

Not only is it okay to indulge, YOU are okay if you indulge. Indulging in food is not a sign that you are off-track in recovery from binge eating. 

Because binge eating activates a more-than-normal pleasure process in your primitive brain, and gives you a temporary reward, in some ways it may seem similar to indulging. So when you are trying to quit binge eating and you find yourself indulging, your inclination may be to think that you are not okay, and that indulging is just another sign that something is wrong with you, and you will never be normal around food. That is not the case.

When you indulge, simply recognize it, be aware of it, label it as “indulging” if that helps you, and then just continue your recovery – always keeping your intention and commitment not to binge. You can even get excited when you avoid following an indulgence with a binge. Turn your mindset from “I didn’t eat perfectly, I indulged…something is wrong with me” to a more empowering thought like, “Yes, I may have indulged…but I’m breaking the connection between normal indulgence and binge eating.”

Another benefit of believing it’s okay to indulge and you are okay when you indulge is that it helps cement the fact that you are not restrictively dieting. It helps your body realize you are going to feed it and food pleasure is allowed. This can reduce the binge urges that are rooted in the survival drives, which are activated by deprivation.

Like I mentioned at the end of the last post, I’m not saying indulging too much is a good thing; I’m not saying you should never try to curb indulgence if it’s causing a problem for you (which I’ll talk about in the next post).  But, I am saying that when you do indulge, it’s very helpful to avoid self-criticism and avoid thinking you are flawed and broken, and instead remember that it’s okay and you are okay.

Go to Indulging in Food, Part III

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More help:

If you want extra guidance as you work on the recovery goals of the Brain over Binge approach, here are some resources for additional support:

Brain over Binge Course – Self-paced online lessons (plus an app) for only $10.99/month. Includes over 120 tracks to listen to that give you the information and answers you need as you end binge eating. (Monthly price going up on 1/1/2022 for new members.  All existing members will keep paying the $10.99/month rate)

Group Coaching – Get help from coach Julie and support from others who are overcoming this habit. Includes a forum that is open 24/7, group coaching calls, mindfulness resources, plus course access.

One-on-one Coaching – Book a 45-minute private session with coach Julie. She will help you change your thinking, uncover what is holding you back, and get on a path to complete freedom from food issues.

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.