[This is the Part II post of the Binge Eating Recovery During a Crisis series. Read Part I]. This is an unprecedented time, and no one is handling these sudden life changes perfectly; and no one is handling their anxiety, fear, sadness, and loneliness perfectly either. You may find yourself feeling lost, distracted, and questioning so much in your life. How can you best protect yourself and others from becoming sick? How are you going to work through quarantine and provide for your family? How is your business going to survive? How are you going to home school your children? How are you going to continue pursuing a hobby or sport that you love? How are you going to keep exercising? and…
How are you going to eat during quarantine? The answer to this question and all of the others is: imperfectly. If you are struggle with binge eating, the imperfection surrounding your eating may be giving you a lot of anxiety, and I’m writing today to help you with that.
You can only do the best you can given the circumstances. You can’t expect yourself to keep it all together and have a flawless plan for every area of your life. This is not going to be a smooth ride, and we are all going to need to continue to adapt to changes in the way we live, work, connect with others, and eat.
Anxiety about imperfect eating during isolation
Even if you were able to accept some imperfection in your eating prior to this crisis, maybe it feels different now. Maybe it feels like your eating is just too far from what you consider ideal, and too different from how you were eating just a few weeks ago, and you aren’t sure what to do.
If you struggle with bulimia or binge eating disorder, your anxiety about how you are eating may be more intense than it is for people who do not have a history of binge eating, but you are definitely not alone in feeling “off” with your eating during this difficult time. I’m sure you have noticed that many people are helping themselves cope with this situation through humor, and there are a lot of memes going around that relate to eating too much or too unhealthy while at home and isolated. Although people are joking about it, that doesn’t mean they’re not distressed by it. Even people who don’t have issues with food may find themselves out of their normal eating routines, and may find themselves grazing or snacking more, or not having any structure surrounding meals.
Most people have also found themselves eating lower quality food. When another paycheck is uncertain, or nonexistent, or business is way down because people aren’t buying non-essentials, it only makes sense that we would try to do whatever we can do to spend less, and our grocery bill is one area that most of us are trying to reduce. The reality is that cheaper food is typically lower quality food. People who were previously buying higher quality food and organic food are now opting for the less expensive options, and options with longer shelf lives in case we are in our homes for a while. For most of us, this means less fresh foods and more packaged, processed foods.
Please do not criticize yourself for this. The issue of poor quality food being cheaper is something that is problematic in society, but that multifaceted issue isn’t going to be solved right now during this crisis, and it does you no good to be upset about it at this time. You simply have to deal with what is, and feeling guilty about eating more processed foods or beating yourself up over not eating organic foods isn’t going to help.
I’m not saying to just give up on health and to only buy junk food, because there are ways to spend less and still get as much nutrition as possible. But the reality is that you probably didn’t have a plan in place for that, and it’s just not your highest priority right now, and you are definitely not alone. I’m also not saying to give up on having any structure in your daily eating, because it may indeed help you to work on having meals and snacks at relatively consistent times. What I am saying is that during this crisis, your eating will likely include a significant amount of imperfection, and that goes for binge eaters and non-binge eaters alike.
A new perspective on imperfection
Instead of being frustrated by your imperfect eating or feeling like it’s a roadblock to your recovery from binge eating, you can see it as an opportunity. It provides an opportunity to accept imperfection in your eating, and still not binge. It provides an opportunity to learn that you are not powerless around foods you may have previously tried to avoid. It provides an opportunity for you to see that you can snack often, or graze too much, or be out of your normal routine, and stay binge-free. It provides an opportunity for you to realize that you don’t have to get your eating exactly “right” to recover. In fact, you can eat very “wrong” (according to your own standards, or common health advice) and still not binge.
It’s common for people with eating disorders to think that they need to eat in a certain way to prevent binges, and this is your chance to truly see that this is not the case. If you follow my work, this is not a new concept for you, and you might even be tired of me saying that you don’t need to eat perfectly to recover from binge eating. But it’s so important, and that’s why I consistently remind you that life can get in the way of your eating plans, and it’s okay if you don’t eat healthy all of the time, and it’s fine if you choose fast food or convenience food, and it’s normal to overeat sometimes; and despite all of that imperfection, you can you can stay binge-free. This may have sounded great to you in theory, but now is your chance to powerfully experience it for yourself.
I think when I say “it’s okay to eat imperfectly,” many people believe I’m talking about slight imperfections, like maybe stopping at a fast food restaurant once per week, or eating a few bites of chocolate after dinner, or buying regular milk instead of organic milk. But I’m actually talking about much, much more imperfection than that. You can eat fast food or processed food at every meal, or eat desert after every meal, or have most of your eating be grazing, and you can still not binge. Of course, I know you aren’t going to want to eat that way on a consistent basis, because it will negatively affect your quality of life and your health over time; but if it happens, I want you to know that you retain the ability to avoid binges.
Eating imperfections will happen throughout your life, not just during quarantine
It doesn’t take a crisis of the magnitude we’re dealing with now to throw off eating habits, or to influence your food buying decisions. Even after this crisis passes, life will continue to throw problems your way that seem to interfere with how you want to eat. If you can learn now, during this crisis, that imperfect eating does not have to lead to binge eating, you will set yourself up to be able to withstand any change in your eating habits in the future, and roll with it, and never let it send you back into binge eating.
I’ve been wanting to share this for a while, but I simply haven’t gotten around to it. I often say how I personally do not eat perfectly, and that’s true every day; but in 2019, I had the longest stretch of low quality eating that I can remember. I went through a divorce last year, and although I know this is not even remotely close to what many people have to deal with in their lives (and what many people are dealing with during this crisis), it was still very difficult in it’s own way. The process was long and draining, and it was stressful emotionally, mentally, and physically. I found that I had so much to deal with and so much on my mind (and I wanted to focus so much on my children) that I just didn’t want to put much effort into my food choices.
It seemed like I just didn’t have enough energy to go around. I ate whatever was fastest and easiest and cheapest, and a lot of times that looked like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fast food, or leftover mac and cheese from the kids’ dinner the night before. It wasn’t all poor-quality food. I did make an effort to keep some easy, healthy foods around too, like nuts, carrot sticks, and apples; and I took vitamins and drank healthy protein shakes. I also tried to cook for my kids, but they are super-picky and I just didn’t have the energy to push them to try new things during this time, so even my “cooking” wasn’t much of an improvement over convenience food.
I wouldn’t say that I overate during this time-frame, at least not in any way that I’d consider out of the range of normal. I knew in the back of my mind that this way of eating was temporary, and that I was just trying to get through the days in the best way I could; and indeed, late last year I started craving healthier foods again and putting more effort into cooking and nourishing myself (although now, with the coronavirus crisis, we are back to easier and cheaper foods).
During the divorce process when my eating was less-than-ideal, I never once felt like I was using those lower quality foods to help me cope emotionally, and I never thought that those foods were making me feel better in any way (listen to Episode 39: Emotional Attachment to Binge Eating for more about the relationship between food and emotions). I never felt like it was comfort eating or emotional eating, and I primarily ate when I was hungry and stopped when I was full (but not perfectly!). The type of eating that would have actually provided comfort would have been for someone to make a delicious, healthy meal for me. I just didn’t prioritize doing that for myself.
I knew I retained the ability to put in the extra effort to buy and prepare better food, but my choice to have convenience food seemed worth it to me at the time, to save energy. I knew rationally that the added effort to eat better would have possibly provided a net gain in my energy, but it simply didn’t happen…because like I keep saying, I’m not perfect:-). I’m sharing this because you might find yourself feeling the same way during this crisis.
I’m so far removed from the binge eating habit that any thoughts related to binge eating never crossed my mind. What did cross my mind however, was how thankful I am that almost 15 years ago I disconnected stress and binge eating, and I also disconnected imperfect eating and binge eating, so that now stress and imperfect eating don’t send me back into bingeing. I’m thankful that long ago, I stopped believing that recovery depended on my life’s circumstances, or on my stress level, or on my emotional state, or on my eating choices. If I still believed recovery depended on those things, 2019 would have been a prime time for relapse, and now 2020 as well because I’m right back to more stress and lower quality eating.
If you’ve binged during this crisis…
I want to say here that if you’ve acted on binge urges during this coronavirus crisis or during another difficult time in your life, I don’t want you to criticize yourself for it, and I don’t want you to think it means you won’t recover. Those of you who read my books know that even after I stopped linking my emotional problems to my binge eating problems, and even after I shifted to the brain-based perspective that led to my freedom from binge eating, I still acted on two more urges to binge. And, I acted on those urges when things were relatively normal in my life, aside from typical daily problems.
I was thinking today about how my recovery might have looked differently if a big, stressful event like my divorce or the coronavirus crisis would have happened around the time I learned to stop acting on urges to binge. Due to conditioned, habitual patterns, my binge urges did appear more often in times of stress than non-stress (listen to Episode 13: How to Stop Binge Eating Under Stress for help with this), and my binge urges did appear more when I ate more junk foods, although I definitely still had urges when I was otherwise happy and when I was eating well.
There were other problems during the time of my recovery that gave me practice disconnecting binge eating from difficult life circumstances, negative emotions, and imperfect eating; but if a life-altering crisis would have occurred alongside of my recovery, is it possible that I would have had an increase in my urges to binge? Absolutely. And, is it possible that because of the increased urges, I might have been tempted to act on more of them before stopping the habit for good? Yes, it’s definitely possible…although I do believe that because I saw the urges for the false, lower-brain messages that they were, and because I realized the binge eating wasn’t helping me cope with anything, I wouldn’t have kept acting on the urges for long.
I’m saying this here because I want you to give yourself forgiveness and compassion if you’ve been following binge urges more during this stressful time when there’s so much imperfection in your eating. Yes, you might be facing challenges that people who recovered at other times didn’t have to face, but you can also recognize the opportunity inherent in recovering now. You can recognize the opportunity to experience your own sense of choice and control in a powerful way, as you prove to yourself that imperfect eating does not need to lead to binge eating. Despite all of the negative feelings and thoughts you understandably have right now, you can also experience the pride and sense of accomplishment that comes when you don’t get your eating exactly right, but you also don’t use that as a reason to just give up and binge.
You aren’t giving up on the rest of your life during quarantine. Don’t give up on recovery from binge eating.
I want you to think about the rest of your life during this crisis. Your kids can’t go to school…does that mean they should just give up on trying to learn anything during this time? You might not be able to do your normal job right now, or you may be restructuring the way you work…does that mean you should just give up on your job or on trying to find other work? You can’t get together with many of the important people in your life…does that mean you should just give up on those relationships? The answer to all of these questions is of course not; you aren’t giving up on what’s important to you just because there are challenges, changes, and isolation.
If you are reading this, I know how important it is for you to become binge-free, so I want you to consistently remind yourself that imperfection in your eating does not mean you should just give up and binge.
An opportunity to see that you aren’t powerless over certain foods
If you’ve previously been of the mindset that lower-quality foods, or processed foods, or sugary foods, or too many carbs cause binge eating, this is your opportunity to show yourself that this is not the case. This is your opportunity to realize that the urges to binge cause binge eating. *If you are new to this approach, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics to learn more about the urges to binge and how to stop acting on them.
This is an opportunity to see that no food makes you powerless, and no food makes you destined to binge. It’s also an opportunity to realize that imperfect eating isn’t going to lead to your weight spiraling out of control. I realize that everyone is different and weight is dependent on many complex factors, and I cannot predict or guarantee anything as far as what may happen to your weight, but I do know that when you are not bingeing on the imperfect foods, you are so much less likely to experience weight gain.
More about weight…
If before this crisis, you were eating high quality foods, plus bingeing (on either low or high quality foods), you were likely eating much, much more overall than if you were to just eat low quality food in a normal way, without binges. So, it’s possible you could even lose weight during a time of significantly imperfect eating, provided you reduce or stop binge eating. But, what happens to your weight is not the most important thing right now, and this crisis also provides an opportunity for you to focus on what truly matters to you, and to put your weight concerns in perspective. I only wanted to mention weight here because I know that some people interpret my suggestion to accept imperfect eating as me saying to accept weight gain too because imperfect eating is going to make you gain weight. But that is not the case, and you can get more information about weight and binge eating recovery in my post, “So, How Do I Lose Weight?”
I talked earlier about how even normal eaters are making jokes about not eating well, and not exercising, and gaining weight during this time; but I want you to notice that after this crisis, the vast majority of people will look the same. Everyone has a unique weight range that their body wants to maintain, and it makes physiological adaptations to keep weight in that range. If you are doing your best to eat normal amounts, your body will naturally keep you in your general set range (or pull you back toward that set range if you’ve previously been dieting restrictively and/or bingeing).
I fully realize that this weight topic I’m briefly touching upon is complex, but please try to trust your body during this time (and always), and realize that you don’t have control over everything. You can’t control what’s going on in the outside world right now (aside from following recommendations about keeping yourself and others safe), and you can’t control what’s going on inside of you and what your metabolism might possibly do in reaction to how you are eating. But, you can avoid binges, and that can help your metabolism regulate over time and help you body find it’s own natural, healthy weight.
An opportunity to accept imperfection
There are so many things to be upset about right now, but your imperfect eating doesn’t have to be one of them. Try to see this as an opportunity to learn to dismiss binge urges even when you are dealing with eating challenges and changes, because you will have times of imperfect eating throughout your life. If you can avoid binges now—while you are home with the food, and while you are out of your normal routine, and while you are eating differently than you were before—you can avoid binges through any difficult time, and for the rest of your life.
[Go to Part III]
If you are like most people struggling with binge eating, you probably have questions. The women and men I’ve spoken with over the years—who have read my books or been in my course, or who are new to the brain over binge approach—find it comforting to know that they aren’t the only ones with a certain issue or concern. I’ve noticed common themes in what people have asked me, and I decided that it would be practical and useful to compile and record detailed answers to all of these questions.
This task took me over a year, but when it was complete, I had created 85 Q&A tracks that are now a central part of the newest version of my course, which you can start anytime. I’m adding a new track monthly to continue answering questions, but the course currently has 117 total tracks – plus other resources – to help you stop bingeing. (In total, there is over 1,000 minutes of guidance, tips, information, suggestions, and ideas).
I wanted course users to be able to simply click on a question they have, at any time of day or night, and listen to a thorough response from me. I’ve received extremely positive feedback about these Q&A recordings, but people who are struggling with binge eating disorder or bulimia—and aren’t sure whether or not to sign up for the course—have frequently asked me questions about the questions, wanting to know which topics are discussed.
So, in this blog post, I want to share the entire list of questions that are in the Brain over Binge course (see below). But first, I want to tell you a little more about why I took the time to create the Q&A’ tracks…
I was previously answering these questions frequently in group coaching for binge eating or one-on-one coaching, but I saw room for improvement. I found that I would sometimes inadvertently leave out something I wanted to say, or I found it difficult to give a detailed answer in a short message on a forum or on a time-limited group call when there were many more questions to address. I also realized that a coach’s, counselor’s, or mentor’s time is extremely valuable, and because of that, it’s not financially feasible for everyone to have a personal coach.
I decided that answering these questions in a recorded format could be the next best thing to having a personal coach, and could be much more affordable for people who need guidance.
You definitely can’t put a price on freedom from bulimia and binge eating disorder because it’s worth any amount of money; but the reality is that binge eaters are often also students, parents, or caregivers, and recovery shouldn’t have to be expensive. I wanted to make coaching more accessible in the new version of my course. (The course also includes 15 coaching tracks for encouragement, reinforcement, and motivation. You can listen to a free coaching track at the bottom of the course information page.)
With that being said, here is a list of the questions you’ll receive detailed answers to in the course. Each Q&A track is about 7 or 8 minutes long on average (some are longer, some are shorter).
You can also listen to a free Q&A track (that answers the following question) at the bottom of the course information page:
*Food is constantly in my thoughts. Even if I’m not having urges to binge, I’m incessantly thinking about eating*
How much focus should I put on recovery?
Can you explain more about the word “dismiss”? Is it the same as willpower?
What does “don’t diet” mean?
Should I exercise during recovery?
What if I’m taking medication to try to help me stop binge eating?
I’m having a hard time defining my binges. How can I decide what is a binge and what is not?
I don’t feel like I get urges. My binges feel automatic. How can I dismiss urges if I don’t experience them?
I feel like there are deeper emotional reasons for my urges. What does that mean for recovery?
What do I do about all or nothing thoughts that seem to lead to binge eating?
What if I’m unhappy with my weight during recovery?
What is the purpose of journaling in the Brain over Binge approach?
What is the role of alcohol in binge eating? Should I drink alcohol while trying to recover?
Should I continue therapy?
How do I deal with others who are dieting?
Can you talk more about the lower brain and why it’s not really me, and how to separate from it?
I don’t seem to be able to eat sugar in moderation. Should I give up sugar?
I’m overeating in a way that feels very similar to binge eating. I feel like my overeating is almost as problematic as my binge eating, and it makes me feel out of control.
How can others that I’ve confided in about my binge eating best help me?
How long will it take for my binge urges to go away once I stop acting on them?
Is it okay to do something else during urges or should I avoid distracting myself?
Is it okay to eat or drink while I’m having an urge to binge?
My urge thoughts are compelling and I often end up believing them and acting on them.
What do I do if my urges keep coming back after I dismiss them?
I feel like I can’t allow myself to get excited about dismissing an urge or having another success in recovery.
I’m planning binges in my mind long before I’ll have an opportunity to binge. What do I do about thoughts that come well in advance of a binge?
I’m still reacting strongly to binge urges. The urges make me feel panicked and stressed, and it seems like a binge is the only thing that will calm me down.
Should incorporate mindfulness or meditation into recovery?
I’m having trouble getting past the idea that my binges are enjoyable. Even if I did not have urges, I think I would still choose to binge, if there were no consequences.
My urges get worse when I’m stressed. I know the urges cause the binge eating, but the stress seems to make it so much harder.
I binge more at night more than I do during the day. How do I deal with nighttime urges to binge?
How are binge urges different from the binge triggers that I learned about in traditional therapy?
I only feel good when I’m a certain weight or when I look a certain way.
I’m grazing throughout the day and that’s leading to guilt, and binges.
How can I avoid a fear of relapse?
I do well on days that my life is relatively calm, but when I have a demanding work and family schedule, I find it so hard to dismiss urges.
How do I know if I’m having an urge to binge or if I’m just hungry?
I am working on ending the binge eating habit, but I need to lose weight. How can I lose weight without triggering my survival instincts?
My desire to restrict food feels very strong. How can I overcome this so that I can eat adequately?
I’ll eat dinner or another meal and then I just keep getting more and more food and I often end up bingeing. How do I find a stopping point when I eat?
Is it okay to eat healthy and avoid junk foods during recovery?
I’m having trouble stopping my purging behaviors. How do I deal with urges to purge?
Thoughts of compensating for the binge (by restricting or purging) are encouraging me to binge. How can I deal with these thoughts?
I’ll have a few good days, but then I seem to automatically slip back into restriction and binge eating. How can I have continued success?
How can I handle events where there is a lot of food?
I’m having a lot of trouble recognizing and deciphering my body’s signals of hunger and fullness. What should I do about this?
Fullness makes me feel anxiety and it also seems to triggers urges to binge, or binge and purge. How can I learn to deal with feelings of fullness?
I want to eat based on my hunger, but it often does not fit with my schedule or when my family is eating.
I don’t go into binges with the intention of bingeing. I tell myself I’m just going to have one bite, but then I find myself bingeing.
I fear my hunger. I worry that when I’m hungry, I’ll binge.
Should I incorporate former binge foods into my diet, and how do I go about doing this?
Late in the day, I want the immediate gratification of a binge, and I don’t even care about the consequences. How do I stay motivated at the end of the day?
Can I use a diet like keto, weight watchers, paleo, or intermittent fasting to guide my eating?
I’m bingeing or just eating in the middle of the night. How do I dismiss urges at this time?
I have a lot of anxiety about my weight.
I have a lot of black and white thinking, so I feel like when I don’t restrict, I binge.
I’m mindlessly overeating. How do I stop myself? Should I consider this behavior a type of binge?
I resist the work of recovery. Is it possible that I don’t actually want to quit binge eating?
Should I dismiss my desires to eat emotionally? How does emotional eating affect recovery from binge eating?
I feel like as I try to quit bingeing, my urges get stronger. What can I do about this?
I’ve heard that food addictions can stem from problems with my neurotransmitters. How can I overcome this?
How do I quickly overcome a setback?
How do highly processed foods affect binge eating and recovery?
What if I’m gaining weight during recovery?
How can I learn to accept my body?
I feel like my rational self wants to binge. What do I do when I feel like I’m choosing to binge?
Should I make a big resolution to never binge again? Or, should I just aim to reduce or delay binges and accept that slips are part of recovery?
I get more urges during PMS or when I’m feeling off hormonally or physically. What can I do about this?
My most convincing thought says it won’t hurt to binge “one last time.” How can I get past this thought?
Can I dismiss any thought that’s harmful to my recovery?
After stopping the binge eating habit, I’m having other obsessive thoughts and also regrets about the time I lost to binge eating problems.
I clear my plate every time, even if I feel full. How do I learn to put the fork down when I’m full?
I’m eating less than the calorie recommendation of the Brain over Binge approach. Is this okay provided I’m not feeling restricted? Also, if I’m counting my calories to make sure I’m eating adequately, how long do I need to do this?
I stopped bingeing and purging (in the form of vomiting). I thought I would feel great and healthy, but I feel less energetic, fuzzy, and bloated. Will I feel better over time, or is this the new normal I should expect?
I feel in control and successful when I restrict, and I feel guilty and fat when I try to eat adequately, which usually leads me to just giving up and bingeing.
Will there be a point when I can consider myself healed, or do I need to constantly work on recovery? What are my chances of relapsing?
When I binge, I feel like I might be subconsciously self-sabotaging my recovery. Is it possible that I’m continuing to binge because I think I don’t deserve recovery?
Can I do a gentle diet for health reasons? For example, a weight loss eating plan crafted by a nutritionist to make sure I’m not hungry.
When I want a dessert or sweets or to snack when I’m not hungry, I don’t know if it’s me or my lower brain that wants it. How can I tell which cravings to follow and which ones not to follow?
How do I deal with others who are giving me bad advice, eating in front of me in ways that are not helpful, or constantly offering me food?
During the urge to binge, I’m telling myself “No, I don’t want to binge, “ or I’m telling myself “This is just an urge from my lower brain,” or “A binge is not an option,” or “The urge has no power to make me act.” Is it wrong to do this? When I tell myself things like this, does it mean I’m fighting the urge?
I’m having trouble finding things to do instead of binge. What are some ideas of alternative activities?
I know that dieting can lead to the initial development of binge eating, but can problematic cravings also lead to the development of bingeing?
What if I need to gain weight after stopping the habit?
If you are ready to stop binge eating, you can check out the new course subscription, which gives you access to the entire course for only $10.99 per month.
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.
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.
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
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
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