Gillian Riley fasting and binge eating

Fasting & Binge Eating: Not So Fast (Post from Gillian Riley)

It seems that fasting has become the new standard of dieting, and also a central focus of the health community as well. Like most diets, it’s presented as the answer (or at least a partial solution) to many health and weight issues, and even as a potential solution for binge eating. I’m sure you know more than one person in your life who is on a fasting-type diet. I also know that fasting can be portrayed as “not a diet at all,” but as a lifestyle and way of eating that’s “more in line with how our bodies are designed.” These are complex issues, and although I would not make an overarching statement that binge eaters or recovered binge eaters can never fast under any circumstances, I think there are many compelling reasons not to.

I get a lot of questions about fasting and binge eating recovery, so I want to share a guest post from Gillian Riley, who has great advice on this topic. Gillian is the author of Ditching Diets, which I recommend on the FAQ page of this website, and I also cited Gillian’s work in my second book, the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. You can read more about Gillian Riley in her bio at the end of this post. As you read, know that Gillian doesn’t write specifically for binge eaters, but for anyone who struggles with poor eating habits, yo-yo dieting, and overeating. However, what she says is also applicable to those of you who binge, and I hope you find her well-informed guest post helpful.

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NOT SO FAST (by Gillian Riley)

When it was published in 2013, I bought a copy of the bestseller The Fast Diet to see what it was all about. In case you don’t know, it was published as a result of the interest in the BBC Horizon documentary about Intermittent Fasting (IF), written by the program presenter Dr Michael Mosley and journalist Mimi Spencer.

I believe that fasting is beneficial, but not necessarily advisable for everyone, so I wanted to read the book to discover new information and research, but also, I was curious to see if it contained any words of caution. There are words of caution about fasting; a paragraph on page 124 warns those with Type 1 diabetes not too fast, those with an eating disorder, children, and those who are already very slim. And anyone with any medical condition should consult a doctor first.

If you bought a copy of my book, Eating Less, between 1998 and the first half of 2005, you’ve got an edition that contains a chapter on fasting once a week. As well as instructions on how to fast in a non-addictive way, I describe some good reasons not too fast. In later editions, I took out all mention of fasting, partly because people weren’t paying any attention to those reasons. Perhaps it’s time now to put them back in (if I could) but here’s how they appeared in those first editions of Eating Less:

  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are desperate to lose weight, or if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you have a tendency to overeat either before or after a fast.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you go on a fast as a way to take control of your overeating.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are not in the best of health, if you’re coming down with an illness or recovering from one, or if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you don’t normally eat a high-quality diet at other times.

This has some similarity with Mosley and Spencer’s cautions, but also some differences. In particular, my caution not to fast if you don’t normally eat high-quality food would seem to contradict their advice to “eat what you like most of the time”. However, Mosley and Spencer say,

“You could pig out on your non-fast days…but you won’t do that. In all likelihood, you’ll remain gently, intuitively attentive to your calorie intake, almost without noticing. Similarly, you may find yourself naturally favouring healthier foods once your palate is modified by your occasional fasts. So yes, eat freely, forbid nothing, but trust your body to say ‘when’.”

So they seem to be saying that it’s fine to eat anything at all on non-fast days, but once you’ve started fasting you’ll end up eating healthy food anyway.

Now, I’m a great advocate of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach to everything, so if IF works for you, that’s wonderful. But all too often people struggle with such advice – and they blame themselves. They conclude, “for everybody else, fasting two days a week is not only fairly straightforward, but also sorts out all the rest of their crazy eating on the other five days. What’s wrong with me that I can’t even begin to do this?”

Maybe it’s not that fasting isn’t a good idea, but that there are other important steps for you to take first. To return to my cautions:

  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are desperate to lose weight, or if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia. Note that both authors of The Fast Diet took on fasting entirely for health reasons. The health benefits of fasting – such as dipping into ketosis from time to time and the fascinating process of autophagy – are well established (1, 2). There’s also impressive research showing a beneficial impact on brain health (3). But Mosley and Spencer seem oblivious to the fact that many people will be motivated to fast primarily to improve their appearance, and this makes a massive difference.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you have a tendency to overeat either before or after a fast – and – It’s not a good idea to fast if you go on a fast as a way to take control of your overeating. It’s clear that neither of the authors have ever had an addictive relationship with food – what many people call ‘food issues’. The research they cite on the success of IF from the University of Chicago studied just 16 obese people over 10 weeks. (4) I’m sure you know of people who complied with various protocols for at least 10 weeks and then regained their weight in the longer term. They were able to ‘be good’ and ‘follow the rules’ for a while, but this simply doesn’t last for the majority. I’m not saying that fasting is a bad idea; I’m saying it might not provide a complete and permanent solution for everyone who generally overeats.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are not in the best of health, if you’re coming down with an illness or recovering from one, or if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia. I’m no expert on these health issues, but I’m not at all sure that fasting is good for those with Type 2 diabetes and especially hypoglycemia. This is why those with diabetes are exempt from fasting on religious occasions such as Ramadan.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you don’t normally eat a high-quality diet at other times. This of course depends on what you call a high-quality diet, but my view would be low on the starchy carbohydrates such as grain-based foods and sugars. It’s important for your body to be very well nourished through eating the most nutrient-dense foods, so that it doesn’t go into ‘scarcity mode’ during a fast. In addition, fasting works much better in every way if your body has developed the ability to burn fat for energy, rather than only carbohydrate. If you normally burn only carbohydrate, you may struggle much more with hunger and low energy during a fast. (5)

I’ll add that if you exercise a great deal, if you regularly sleep badly, and/or if you are under quite a bit of stress, these also mean that fasting may not be right for you at the present time.

I suspect all this is sounding a bit negative, and the last thing I want to do is to dissuade you from fasting if it’s going to work for you. By all means give it a try. Notice and manage your addictive desire to eat and you can certainly find that it fits in very well with everything you’ve learned in my books and webinars.

The Fast Diet does advise against fasting for those with an eating disorder, and I agree with this. I’d take it further, though, because there are a great many people who have a tendency towards disordered eating who would do well to sort that out first, before considering a fast of any kind.

BIO

Gillian Riley is an author and webinar host who has been teaching her course on “Taking Control of Overeating” since 1997, at first in groups in London, England, and for the past three years online.
Her clients describe themselves as yo-yo dieters or ex-dieters. Instead of recommending what, how much and when to eat, Gillian teaches how to develop an entirely new attitude towards food, eating and weight loss. This way of thinking turns the diet mentality on its head, leading to a sustainable control of overeating.
Details on her free introductory webinars and one-week free trial of the membership site – starting January 26, 2020 – can be found at: https://eatinglessonline.com
NOTES

1. “Targeting insulin inhibition as a metabolic therapy in advanced cancer.” Fine EJ, Segal-Isaacson CJ et al (2012) Nutrition 28(10):1028-35
2. “The effects of calorie restriction on autophagy.” Chung KW, Chung HY (2019) Nutrients Dec 2;11(12)
3. “Meal size and frequency affect neuronal plasticity and vulnerability to disease: cellular and molecular mechanisms.” Mattson MP, Duan W, Guo Z (2003) Journal of Neurochemistry 84(3):417-31
4. “Dietary and physical activity adaptations to alternate day modified fasting: implications for optimal weight loss.” Klempel MC, Bhutani S et al (2010) Nutrition Journal 9:35
5. “Effects of a high-protein ketogenic diet on hunger, appetite, and weight loss in obese men feeding ad libitum.” Johnstone AM, Horgan GW et al (2008) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87:44-55

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I also did a video podcast episode with Gillian Riley (Episode 64: Stop Yo-Yo Dieting and Take Control of Overeating) where we discussed many topics related to developing a healthy relationship with food:
Watch the video interview with Gillian Riley on Youtube
Listen to the audio-only version on the Brain over Binge Podcast

Holiday binge eating

Holiday Binge Eating: Learn to Deal with Weight & Food Talk

It’s difficult to deal with binge eating at any time of year, but the holidays can bring extra challenges. One of those challenges is dealing with holiday events where people frequently talk about food, weight, and diets. These seem to be favorite topics of conversation for some people, and when I was a binge eater, hearing friends and relatives talk about their diet plans, weight loss strategies, and workout programs often made me anxious. You probably know people who can’t seem to participate in a holiday meal—or any meal for that matter—without talking about how fattening they think certain foods are, or what foods they are or are not eating because of their diet, or how guilty they feel for eating this or that. You probably also know people who comment on or criticize their own body or others’ bodies, or give unwanted weight loss advice, or think that it somehow makes sense to tell you what you should or shouldn’t be eating.

Because the holidays bring more temptation surrounding food and more concerns about weight gain, these conversations seem to ramp up. I want to give you some ideas for dealing with this, so that you can stay on track in binge eating recovery during the holidays—and in many situations where you encounter food and weight talk. Know that holiday food and weight talk does not cause holiday binge eating, but it’s helpful to learn to manage your own reactions and responses.

Dismissing Food and Weight Talk and Urges To Binge

Giving up dieting and weight obsession is very important in recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder, because it allows you to nourish your body and get out of the survival state that drives bingeing. When you are letting go of dieting, learning to eat normally, and trying to accept your weight, it can be unsettling to hear about people doing the very things you are making an effort to avoid. For example, let’s say you are at a holiday meal and you are trying to enjoy eating everything in moderation and not feel guilty about eating certain indulgent foods, and then a friend or family member says they aren’t eating those same indulgent foods because it’s not compliant with their “diet”—this can make you question yourself and feel shaken or even ashamed.

The most simple solution for this is to treat the food or weight comment you hear like you treat the binge urges: Just dismiss it.
[If you are new to the Brain over Binge approach, you can learn about dismissing binge urges by downloading the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF.]

Dismissing a thought or feeling is to view it as unimportant, meaningless, and not worth your attention. You can dismiss any thought or feeling encouraging you to binge or to engage in other harmful behaviors—like dieting or being overly focused on weight. These thoughts arise inside of you, but you can use the same strategy to disregard comments from others. You don’t have to give the other person’s diet comment any value or consideration. This doesn’t mean you have to be rude to that person, but you can politely ignore the comment or kindly change the subject, and move on. This sounds easy, but I know that sometimes it may not feel easy in the moment, so I’m going to dive a little deeper to help you remain unaffected by food and weight talk, and avoid holiday binge eating.

Be Mindful of Your Own Reactions

The reason why dismissing someone’s food or weight comment may feel difficult is because that comment may immediately lead to an emotional, mental, or physical reaction in you. You may find your own food thoughts increasing in that moment; you may have feelings of anxiety arise; you may feel angry at the person for bringing up the topic; you may feel guilty if you are eating something that goes against the person’s weight or food advice.

You may even begin questioning your recovery or wondering if it’s possible to have a healthy relationship with food, when even people without eating disorders are dieting and making weight a big focus of their lives. You may start to have some food cravings when you hear dieting talk, because the thought of dieting may be strongly associated in your brain with overeating or binge eating.

In other words, what may seem like a mundane comment to the person saying it can lead to some unwanted, obsessive, anxious, or impulsive thoughts in you. It’s not usually what the person says that bothers you the most, it’s your own reactions.

[If you are someone who struggles with incessant food thoughts on a daily basis, 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.”] 

Like I said in the beginning of this post, it’s important to know that food and weight comments do not cause binge eating, and you remain in control regardless of what someone else says. I also want you to know that a person’s food or weight comment is not the direct cause of your uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and I’ll explain what I mean by this…

If other relatives or friends heard that same comment, they would be left with different feelings and reactions, or they would be completely unaffected. In the past, that same comment could have lead to a different reaction in you, and in the future, it will give rise to a different reaction in you. But at a specific point in time, when the comment hits your ears—and is processed by your particular belief system and experiences—your thoughts can start to race in a way that feels unwanted and intrusive, and goes against the peaceful relationship that you want to have with food.  You don’t have to spend time trying to figure out why this is the case, because that can lead to you feeling like something is wrong with you, and it’s not the most efficient way forward. It’s simply that your brain is temporarily conditioned to react this way to food comments, but you have the ability to change it.

You Don’t Need to Avoid Holiday Food Talk to Avoid Holiday Binge Eating

Whether it’s during the holidays or at any time of year, avoiding all food and weight talk is not really an option. Even if you could somehow avoid every person that might say something unhelpful, I do not think this would benefit you. Food and weight talk is extremely common, and not only would it be impractical and probably impossible to avoid it altogether, it would severely limit your choices of what to do, where to go, and who to see.

Furthermore, thinking that you need to avoid food talk in order to recover from binge eating disorder or bulimia encourages a mindset of powerlessness. When you tell yourself you are not capable of dealing with food talk, then food talk will be much more upsetting to you, and the conditioned reactions you have to it will be become stronger. Furthermore, if you think that food and weight talk will lead you into harmful behaviors, then it probably will. On the other hand, if you can learn to dismiss harmful food talk when it occurs, you can become confident that you can handle any comment in any situation—and that you can avoid holiday binge eating and any behavior that would hinder your recovery.

Have Compassion for the Other Person

In order to get in a better mindset to deal with food and weight comments, you must first understand that everyone has their own thoughts driving what they say or do. Most people do mean well; but what they say about food and weight comes from what is making sense in their own mind in that moment, based on a multitude of their own experiences, emotions, and opinions. It’s unlikely that the person is saying something about food or weight to intentionally hurt you; they are simply making a comment, or just trying to make conversation.

When food is the center of an event, it can seem to make sense to talk about it, so that’s what people often do, and you don’t need to make it more meaningful than that. If the event didn’t include food, but instead took place around a big table of flower arrangements, people would likely feel compelled to start conversations about flowers. The problem is that food is often an emotionally charged topic, so the conversations about it don’t always feel as positive or pleasant as conversations about flowers might feel.

We are all guilty of sometimes not considering how our words may affect others, or saying something without really thinking, so try to have compassion for the person making the food or weight comment. It could be that they’ve simply gotten into the habit of talking about diets and weight during meals, so those thoughts automatically come up for them and they don’t filter their thoughts before they speak. Whatever the case, being upset with the person isn’t practical or helpful. Keeping an attitude of compassion for that person keeps your emotions from running high and makes it easier to dismiss their words.

It’s Not About You

Regardless of the exact reason the comment was made, know that it’s not about you. Someone saying that he or she is not eating sugar this Christmas does not mean you should also consider avoiding sugar this Christmas. Someone saying that they need to lose weight after the holidays does not mean you should consider that as your goal as well. Someone else criticizing their body size does not mean you need to turn attention to your own appearance. For help with body image issues, you can listen to Episode 40: Body Image and Binge Eating.

I’m going to add a helpful little disclaimer to any holiday food talk that you might hear: What people say about food and weight is often not accurate, and doesn’t always line up with what they actually do. The person who says sugar is off limits may have had cookies the day before, or may decide to have a delicious dessert later at the party. The person who says she is going to lose weight may never change one eating habit.

It’s common for people to claim to eat healthier or less than they really do. They aren’t intentionally lying about their eating habits or weight loss plans, but people often express what they aspire to, as if it’s fact. If you are someone who is recovering from an eating disorder, you’ve likely learned how harmful diets are, and you know that the percentage of people who actually stick to them is very low. It’s very unlikely that the people who are making dieting comments at a party are the exceptions to diet failure.

Even if the person making the food comment is really dieting and losing weight exactly like they say they are, it still doesn’t have to affect you. It’s simply the path that person is on right now—a path that may change tomorrow or in the future, but it’s not your path.

Be Curious

In addition to compassion, try viewing food and weight comments with curiosity as well. This can help reduce any anxiety you feel. If, in a moment of holiday food talk, you can think, “hmm, I wonder why they feel that way?” or… “I wonder what that’s about?” it can make a big difference in your mindset. You don’t need to say these words out loud, and you don’t need to actually answer these questions; it’s simply about switching from an anxiety-filled reaction to a curious one.

You can also use curiosity to help you with your own emotional, physical, and mental reactions. Being a curious observer of your own mind helps you get some distance from your thoughts and reactions and not take them so seriously. You don’t need to try to figure anything out; you don’t need to know exactly why your reactions are what they are; but being curious about your own thoughts and feelings is a much better way to manage them than being fearful of those thoughts and feelings or criticizing yourself for having them.

Don’t Engage the Food Talk

I find that in most cases, it’s best to avoid engaging this type of food, weight, and diet talk in any way. During recovery, it’s helpful to take the focus off of these things, and talking about someone else’s diet and weight is contradictory to that. It’s not that you can’t talk about it, but it typically doesn’t serve a useful purpose and it’s a distraction from your goal of having a healthy relationship with food.

If you strongly feel the other person’s diet is ill-advised, then you might consider addressing the topic with them at another time in a private setting. But in the context of a holiday event or meal, just try to kindly bring the focus back to something other than food. It gently sends the message that you aren’t really interested in diving deeper into that conversation, without you needing to be critical of the other person. Ask about the person’s family, their job, their house, their hobbies, or anything that is important to them.

Let Your Reactions Subside, and Get Back to Enjoying Yourself

Many emotional, mental, and physical reactions are automatic, which means you can’t necessarily control what comes up inside of you in response to food and weight talk. But, you’ll find that the reactions subside on their own, without you having to do anything. You can allow any uncomfortable feelings and thoughts to be present, without giving them a lot of attention or meaning, and this helps the thoughts and feelings to simply run their course and fade away. This is the same process you can use to deal with urges to binge. Learn more about not reacting to binge urges in Episode 6: Dismiss Urges to Binge: Component 3 (Stop Reacting to Urges to Binge.

As your reactions subside, you’ll find yourself naturally coming back to a less-anxious and more-peaceful mindset, where the other person’s words and your own feelings and thoughts are no longer bothering you. Then, you are free to continue enjoying the holiday event or having other conversations that don’t involve food or weight.

Keep this in mind as you attend holiday events and aim to avoid binge eating during the holidays: Comments from others or harmful thoughts that arise in your own mind are messages that you can choose to take or leave. Just because someone says something about food, weight, or dieting does not mean you have to believe it or give it any significance in your life. You can simply let comments and your own reactions come and go, and move on. Other people’s words do not hold the power to get you off track in recovery. You can stay connected to what you need to do to end the binge eating habit for good.

If you need some extra motivation to avoid holiday binge eating, or avoid binge eating at any time, you can listen to this free coaching audio from the Brain over Binge course preview:  What is Your Motivation for Dismissing Urges Today? 

Brain over Binge Course Preview

Dont binge when you break a resolution

Don’t Binge When You Break A Resolution

If you have a goal to stop binge eating in the new year, I want to give you some advice that I hope will help you keep that resolution.

My advice is twofold:

1.) Prioritize stopping binge eating   

2.) Don’t connect stopping binge eating to your other resolutions.

Let’s talk first about prioritizing your goal of ending the binge eating habit.

Stop Binge Eating First Before Working on Other Eating Resolutions

Of the unhealthy eating habits you may have (we all have some!), binge eating is probably creating the most pain in your life, and it’s the biggest factor holding you back from pursuing other goals or simply being more at peace. With that in mind, I would suggest setting aside your other eating-and-weight-related goals and keeping your focus on stopping the binges. This helps you avoid putting too much pressure on yourself to eat exactly “right,” and helps you avoid judging your eating too much or falling into an all-or-nothing mindset. Once you don’t binge anymore, and you are confident that you won’t binge in the future, you can make other healthy improvements to your eating, if that’s what you want.

If making sure you don’t binge is your top priority, then if you eat foods that are unhealthy, you can still be excited that you didn’t binge. If you overeat, instead of being upset with yourself, you can be proud that you didn’t follow your overeating with a binge. If you find yourself grazing when you are upset, you can praise yourself for not going into a binge during or after the grazing. If your weight does not change in the way you want it to, you can celebrate the fact that you can be binge-free at any weight, and know that a number on the scale doesn’t change your commitment to walk away from your harmful binge eating habit.

Prioritizing stopping binge eating also means committing not to diet.

If you’ve been following my blog and podcast, you know that restricting your food intake is a way to end up binge eating. Two of my recent podcasts focused on helping you avoid restrictive dieting in the New Year (and always): Episode 30: No Resolutions to Diet and Episode 33: Challenging Your Motivations to Diet.

You might have some anxiety about making stopping binge eating your most important resolution, because you may be thinking…”What if I do binge? Does that mean I’ve failed at my top priority?” Absolutely not. Acting on an urge to binge does not mean that ending the habit is suddenly less important to you, and it certainly doesn’t mean you should give up. Because quitting is your top priority, then if you do binge, you are in great position to learn from what happened, and move forward. You can look at what thoughts led you to follow the urge, decide what you will do differently next time, and commit to continuing to prioritize your goal of quitting.

To illustrate this, I want you to imagine that your priority is to learn to play guitar. If you think about this goal, it’s apparent that you would not quit if you played some wrong notes. The process of learning is your priorityBecause your goal is important to you, you can seek support when you need it, and make adjustments as you see fit, and you can do the same with binge eating until you are completely binge-free. With the guitar goal, you may decide you need a private instructor, and with binge eating, you may decide you need a one-on-one coach (and I highly recommend Binge Code Coaching if you need that type of extra help).

Don’t Binge After Breaking a Resolution Not to Binge, or After Breaking Other Resolutions

If you do break your resolution not to binge with a binge, that doesn’t give you a reason to keep repeating the destructive behavior. A binge does not need to turn into binges. When I was bulimic, my response to a binge was often this: “well, now all is lost, so I might as well keep going,” and I’d end up binge eating for days at a time. I know this experience is common; but when stopping binge eating becomes your top priority, you can minimize the impact of any slips that you do have. For a podcast about getting back on track after a binge, listen to Episode 17: What if You Binge During Recovery? 

It’s also important not to break other resolutions with binges, and this brings me to my 2nd piece of advice for stopping binge eating in the new year, which is: Don’t connect stopping binge eating to your other resolutions.

Many of you will take my suggestion to make stopping binge eating your only goal as it relates to your eating and weight, but if you are like some of the women and men who I’ve worked with, you may be thinking something like this: “Yes, stopping binge eating is my top priority…but I also need to eat healthy…and lose this extra weight…and I should stop eating gluten…and I think I need to quit sugar…and I want to commit to only eating when I’m hungry…and I need to end all overeating as well.”

As much as I can tell you to put aside those goals for now, I know that they may still be in the back of your mind.  Even if you plan to work on those goals in the healthiest, least-restrictive way possible, and you are committed to eating adequately, those other goals can still become connected in an unhealthy way to your goal of stopping binge eating (and therefore interfere with your goal of stopping binge eating).

What tends to happen is this: You break your other eating resolutions—as most people do sometime in January—and then you have thoughts saying, “you’ve failed, so you might as well binge.” So, instead of just breaking your other resolutions, you break those resolutions and go on to binge. Maybe you’ve experienced this before, but let’s say you resolve to avoid gluten, and then the first time you eat some bread, you think something like this: “See, this is evidence that I don’t have any self-control, so I might as well give up, eat everything, and start over tomorrow.” Then the next time you eat gluten, this cycle repeats.

Or, let’s say you resolve to eat only when you are hungry, and then the first time you decide to have dessert after an already satisfying meal, you feel that “all is already lost” and that “there is no reason to dismiss urges to binge”. Then, the next time you eat when you aren’t hungry, you do the same thing, so that you end up frequently breaking your resolutions with binges.

What if you simply broke your healthy-eating resolutions, and stopped there?

What if you ate gluten, but still stayed committed to avoiding binges? What if you always dismissed binge urges after eating when you weren’t hungry? What if you didn’t lose a single pound in the new year, and never used that as a reason to binge? Breaking your resolutions would cause so much less damage, and in many cases, absolutely no damage, and you’d stay on a path to a better life—even with all of your imperfections.

Think of the millions of people who simply break their resolutions and don’t go on to do something more harmful afterward. It’s difficult to give up a food or food group altogether, or to follow exact parameters for eating, which is why not many people manage to consistently eat in an ideal way. Plus, eating in an ideal way is different for each person, so you don’t want to create a scenario where your ability to binge or not binge depends on your ability to follow or not follow difficult food rules—rules that may not even be right for you personally.

If any of your friends told you that they broke their New Year’s resolution to eat healthy or to avoid a certain food, would you tell them that “all is lost” and they “might as well binge”?  Of course not!  But, somehow binge eaters tend to believe this same logic when it comes from their own thoughts. These type of thoughts are neurological junk from the lower brain—the part of your brain that is trying to maintain your binge eating habit.  If you can learn to dismiss these binge-encouraging thoughts, you are well on your way to erasing the habit.

I’m not saying you can never decide to make healthy changes in the way you eat; but, I am saying that whether or not you are “successful,” you never have to binge.  And that is a huge success!

It’s the same with any type of resolution, even if it’s completely unrelated to eating. I think it’s wonderful to create goals for yourself in other parts of your life, so that you can turn your focus away from food and weight obsessions. However, even if you don’t measure up to the vision you have for yourself in the new year, and even if you never accomplish what you intend to, you never have to follow thoughts that say “you might as well binge,” and you can become binge-free for good.

I wish you all the best in the new year! Thanks for continuing to read the blog, listen to the podcast, and receive the newsletter!  

If you are here for the first time, you can download my free PDF, The Brain over Binge Basics, which will also subscribe you to the monthly newsletter that includes my most recent blog posts, podcast episodes, and other recovery resources all in one place, delivered to your inbox each month.

For even more guidance in recovery, you can learn about the Brain over Binge Course.

Lose weight after binge eating recovery?

Are You Hoping to Lose Weight After Binge Eating Recovery?

Are you wondering how to lose weight after binge eating disorder? 

Are you hoping you can stop bulimia without gaining weight, or even shed some weight after recovery?

You are not alone if you have these questions and more—weight is a common concern for recovering binge eaters.  In this post, I want to help you with your questions and give you healthy ways to think about weight as you recover and after recovery. I want you to start trusting your body and stop worrying about weight gain, or about how to lose weight after binge eating disorder and bulimia.

Before I go further, I want to say that I’m not a nutritionist, a personal trainer, or an MD.  This post is not to be taken as medical advice about how to lose weight or gain weight after binge eating recovery (or at any time), or how to have an ideal diet. Please know that these are my own opinions about the issue of weight as it relates to stopping bulimia and binge eating disorder, and this does not substitute for nutritional advice. Also know that weight is a big topic, and if you want to dive deeper, you can read my post—Addressing Weight Issues in Binge Eating Recovery.

Recovery from Binge Eating is Not About Weight Loss

When it comes to weight, the reality is—everyone is different, and binge eaters come in all shapes and sizes. In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I explained that even if I never would have lost a single pound, recovery still would have been 100 percent worth it. Binge eating brought so much misery to my life, and the weight gain was only a small portion of that misery. Sure, it was good to eventually get back to my regular size after recovery, but that was by far not the greatest benefit.

Although the issue of weight will affect everyone differently, I think that wanting to lose weight and actively trying to do that while also trying to stop binge eating can prevent any progress in recovery. Also, if you are focused on trying to stop bulimia or binge eating disorder without gaining any weight, it can have the same effect of harming your recovery efforts. If you struggle with bulimia/purging, it’s possible you may fear recovery because you think that giving up purging will inevitably lead to weight gain, so you may feel tempted to tightly control your food intake during recovery.  This is going to make recovery more difficult, and make it harder for your body to heal and eventually find it’s natural and healthy weight.

I strongly feel that anyone who wants to quit binge eating—regardless of how much they weigh or how much they desire to weigh— should try not to focus on weight loss or on preventing weight gain during recovery.

There are two primary reasons why I feel this way:

1. Weight Can Take Care of Itself After Binge Eating Stops

For me personally, and so many others, stopping the binge eating is all that’s needed in order to lose weight after recovery and return to a weight that’s normal and natural for the person’s unique body. When binge eating, food restriction, and purging stops, metabolism can start working the way it should and therefore, there is no need to try to shed the extra pounds. Weight is only higher than normal because of the binge eating, and when you take the binge eating away, your body adjusts. I believe this is the case for the vast majority of people with BED and non-purging bulimia, and even most bulimics who self-induce vomiting—because a large percentage of the calorie consumed during a binge are still absorbed.

Some people seem to think that extra weight from binge eating just stays there until you do something (diet/exercise) to make it come off, but that’s usually not true. Some patience may be needed while the body regulates itself, but if weight is elevated over your natural range due to binge eating, pounds should come off by stopping binge eating alone—and here is an explanation for why that happens:

Caloric expenditure increases with body weight (people with larger bodies typically burn more calories per day than people with smaller bodies, when controlling for activity level). The reason is because it requires more energy to carry extra weight as you go through your daily activities, and extra surface area on the body also means more energy lost as heat. For example, one study showed that slender people used 2,481 calories per day, and obese people used 3,162.*  This fact can help you understand why weight gained from binge eating can naturally come off after recovery, and let me explain that using myself as an example:

I was about 20 pounds above my natural weight when I stopped binge eating. My normal diet at the time was about 2,300 calories, but with the binges added (approximately 4 binges per week, around 8,000 calories each), it upped my weekly caloric intake by 32,000 calories. If I spread that out over 7 days for this example, my daily average food intake was around 6,870 calories. Exercise was my form of purging, and I was putting in many hours at the gym to try to compensate for the binges, but my purging didn’t come anywhere close to burning all of those calories. Even if I would have been dieting restrictively between binges—which I was doing in the earlier years of my bulimia—eating let’s say, only 1,000 non-binge calories each day, the daily average with the binges added would still be 5,570 calories.  It’s important to see that restriction and purging aren’t erasing the binge eating problem from a calorie standpoint, and the dangerous behaviors are harming your health.

To sum up what I’ve been talking about: binge eating increases daily calorie intake, and quitting binge eating reduces calorie intake, and the difference is usually significant.  I realize this is common sense to an extent, but what I want to address now is how this leads to weight loss.

Going back to myself as an example, I probably still eat somewhere around 2,300 calories per day now (I don’t count anymore), and my weight stays the same; so why did that same amount of food lead to about 20 pounds of weight loss after bulimia recovery?  It was because of the fact I mentioned previously—more body weight means more calories burned.  When I stopped binge eating and was still above my natural weight, I may have been using around 2,600 calories during a normal day’s activities, but I was eating less than that (2,300 calories), which lead to gradual weight loss. I want to say here that I realize using simple calorie math is oversimplifying things because weight loss is not a simple calories-in/calories-out equation, which I’ll explain more later in the post. However, I still think it’s important for you to see that eating normally after you stop binge eating can allow your body to release the binge weight. This is not the same as putting yourself in a purposeful calorie deficit to try to lose weight after recovery; this is just how people naturally lose weight after consuming too many calories for too long. The body can gravitate back to it’s normal size, because the larger size can only be maintained with an overabundance of calories.

So, while there is something you need to do (binge) to maintain a larger size, there is often nothing you need to do to slowly gravitate back to normal. The extra binge weight is not permanently stuck there until you diet it away, and trying to diet it away would have the adverse effects of slowing your metabolism and increasing your urges to binge. No, the binge weight won’t come off overnight, but it’s healthier in the long run to lose it naturally and gradually, and it will help you avoid repeating the diet and binge cycle in the future.

I want to say a little more to people who purge because you may think you are “getting rid” of those binge calories by self-induced vomiting. You may be even more focused on trying to stop bulimia without gaining any weight, or you may have hard time believing that recovery could lead to gradual weight loss (if you are above your normal, healthy weight). *If you are currently below your normal weight range or think weight gain is inevitable after recovery for another reason, then please see my post Weight Gain from Binge Eating Recovery?  Like I’ve already mentioned, a majority of the binge calories are still absorbed even if purging occurs, and studies have shown that calorie absorption may begin much earlier in the bulimic’s body and metabolism is suppressed so that the body becomes more effective at storing the calories—which are the body’s natural ways of protecting itself. Your daily calorie intake with bulimia is likely still much greater than the number of calories you’d consume through a normal diet—with no binge eating or purging. For more on how to stop purging, you can listen to Episode 54: Stop Purging in Binge Eating Recovery: Interview with Ali Kerr.

2. If Weight Doesn’t Take Care of Itself, You’ll Be in a Much Better Position to Tackle the Problem.

As I said earlier in this post, weight loss is not a simple calories-in/calories-out equation, so it’s possible that the binge weight doesn’t come off in a predictable way after recovery.  If you are over your natural weight and don’t gradually lose weight after binge eating disorder or bulimia—even after you are very patient about it—I still feel it’s very important to avoid focusing on weight loss during and after recovery. In Episode 53 of my podcast, What Can Hold You Back in Bulimia Recovery, Part 2: Weight Obsession, Katherine Thomson does a great job of explaining why this is the case. Letting go of a focus on weight does not mean you will be ignoring the problem or giving up on your health; it means you will be focusing on your healing and on allowing your body to regulate. Once you are confident in your ability to avoid binges, there may be some healthy changes you want to make to help your body reach it’s natural weight; but this never has to involve a diet or food restriction. You can address any weight issue you have in a way that shows compassion for your body and honors it.

If you are someone who does not gradually lose weight after binge eating stops, I want you to be aware that your lower brain might use a lack of weight loss as fuel for the binge urges. If you don’t see the scale dropping (and I wouldn’t even recommend getting on one during this time), you may hear thoughts like, “you are not losing weight so you might as well binge.” Rationally, you know how ridiculous that sounds, because obviously binge eating will only bring you further away from ever finding a solution to your weight issues; but in the moment, it can seem like a convincing thought. Always remember that you can stop binge eating for good even if you are not the weight you want to be.

We all come in all different shapes and sizes, and what’s a healthy weight for one person might not be a healthy weight for another, even if those two people are the same height. It’s possible to be fit and healthy even if you technically overweight, and BMI isn’t the best indicator of health. However, if you are well above the weight your body is naturally inclined to be due to a harmful and painful habit (binge eating), weight loss after recovery would be a welcome, healthy change.

I am not against healthy and gradual weight loss without dieting, but I feel strongly that advice to simply restrict calories or entire food groups is completely misguided and does more harm than good—especially in those susceptible to binge eating—and just doesn’t work in the long run. For example, I think the typical 1200-1400 cal/day weight loss diet for a woman is starvation. Low-calorie diets lead to a slower metabolism, malnourishment (which some claim is one of the causes of obesity), and more weight gain in the long run. It’s also simply unrealistic to think you can maintain a 1,200 calorie per day diet to lose weight and then keep that weight off for life.

So how does someone lose weight after binge eating disorder or bulimia without restricting calories, if that weight loss doesn’t occur naturally?

First of all, when I say “don’t restrict,” I don’t mean eat whatever you want whenever you want in an excessive manner. I mean eat adequately, eat to nourish yourself well, eat what your body needs. Of course, overeating happens from time to time even in normal people, and that’s completely fine, but overall daily intake should be within a normal range. *If you are someone who has trouble figuring out how to eat, know that my course includes ample information and guidance to help you determine a way of eating that works for you.

That being said, I know that excessive eating and overindulging isn’t always to blame, and I definitely think there are a myriad of other problems that can contribute to not losing weight after binge eating recovery or in general (for example: hormonal imbalances, insulin resistance, food allergies/sensitivities, thyroid problems, not enough activity, not enough water, not enough sleep, too much stress…etc).

If you go from binge eating to eating in a normal way, and you don’t eventually lose weight; then I believe it makes sense to look into what might be preventing that from happening. Reasons for not losing weight can be multifaceted, and science currently has an incomplete understanding of why some people can lose weight easily and for others, it’s a struggle; but I don’t think the complexity should prevent us from looking for answers.

I believe that making some reasonable and healthy changes to food choices (without letting it become an obsession and still allowing for flexibility) can be helpful, and is a much better approach than simply slashing calories. Focusing on eating a lot of nutrient dense, nourishing foods can lead to more weight loss in the long run without ever putting the body in “starvation mode.”  Some people might find that changing diet composition to add more protein and fat helps them feel better and lose extra weight, while others find that adding more plant-based foods and high quality carbs help them achieve the same results. I am also a big advocate of healthy, enjoyable, non-stressful exercise as a way to move the body toward a healthy weight.

In my opinion, the goal for anyone trying to lose weight, whether they have a history of an eating disorder or not, should be to gain better health, not to simply see a number go down on a scale. I think when people are truly focused on becoming healthier, it becomes an effort to nourish the body well, to feel better, to gain energy for living, and to prevent disease. It ceases to be about how many pounds they can lose or what size jeans they can fit into. And usually, if you focus on becoming healthier (and you are above the weight range that’s right for your own body), the weight will come off naturally.

Focusing on health can also help you let go of weight obsessions if you are someone who desperately want to be super-thin, because it helps you realize that trying to maintain an unnaturally low weight is harmful. Focusing on health can also allow you to appreciate food for it’s nourishing qualities, without worrying about how many calories the food contains or if the food may possibly lead to weight gain.

But making these gentle, healthy, nourishing shifts that can lead to gradual weight loss is not possible when binge eating is still occurring—because when you fundamentally feel like you don’t have control of what or how much you eat at times, it’s hard to implement and be consistent with any positive eating changes. So, the best strategy is to focus on stopping the binge eating habit first and allow your body plenty of time to heal, and then address weight issues that remain after recovery. Improvements in health, weight, and your attitude toward your weight are just some of the positive changes that recovery can free you up to make.

To help you end the binge eating habit I’ve created a downloadable guide that gives you the basics of the Brain over Binge approach. You can also learn more about my course for more answers to your questions about weight (the course contains 84 Q&A audios and 115 total audios to guide you). 

*Leibel RL et al.  Changes in energy expenditure resulting from altered body weight. N Eng J Med. 1995 Mar 9;332(10):621-8