*Originally published in May 2018
I don’t have a rule against eating sugary cereal, and I actually do eat cereal sometimes, but the vast majority of the time, it’s not the kind I used to crave when I was dieting (and the kind I’d binge on too). Greatly reducing my cereal intake – and almost completely eliminating sugary varieties – is one example of a healthy change I’ve made since I stopped binge eating. If you’ve read Brain over Binge, you know how much trouble I had with cereal during my dieting and binge eating days; so I want to share more about this change with you, in hopes that it gives you some insight and ideas for how similar healthy changes may come about in your own life.
This post is the second part of a 2-part series about Healthy Changes after Recovery. You can read Part I here, which talks about the role of eating everything in moderation, making choices about what’s best for your unique body and lifestyle, and being patient with yourself as you create your own way of eating. This blog series is primarily for those who are now binge-free, or who do not actually struggle with binge eating, and instead have other problematic eating habits like overeating, grazing, or feeling addicted to certain foods.
My Personal Example of a Healthy Change: Sugary Cereal
I used to eat sugary cereal often for breakfast as a kid and teen. My mom, like any good 80’s/90’s mom, used to buy the “fun” brands like Lucky Charms, but she also tried to balance it out with varieties that were viewed as “healthier” at the time, like Raisin Bran (the kind with the sugar-coated raisins!). I ate various types of cereal in normal amounts; I always stopped when I was full; and I never thought much about it. It wasn’t until I started restricting my food intake in order to try to control my weight that I learned to label sugary cereal as “bad,” and tried to avoid it…and ended up eating more of it than I ever thought possible.
At the time I started dieting (1997), dietary fat was mostly considered the villain, and because cereal was generally low-fat, my reason for thinking it was “bad” didn’t have much to do with its nutritional content or high sugar. I thought it was bad because, when I started restricting my food, I suddenly craved it and I had trouble controlling myself around it. I seemed to want so much of it, which I’d never experienced before and which scared me. I worried that eating too much of it would give me too many calories, and hence, make me gain weight; so, I tried not to eat it, which made me crave it even more.
As I shared in Brain over Binge, my first binge was on sugary cereal – 8 full bowls of it. In hindsight, it’s easy to see exactly what happened, and what turned me from a normal-cereal-eater to someone who could eat 8 bowls. The short version is that I was starving. I wasn’t eating enough, and because of that, the appeal of the cereal skyrocketed. Calorie deprivation increases the reward value of food, especially food that is highly palatable (which usually means it’s high in sugar and/or fat).* This makes sense from a survival perspective – my brain was just trying to make me eat foods it sensed would help me survive the “famine” I’d created for myself by dieting.
Before I was in a calorie-deficit, I could forget we had cereal in the house, and in my life today, it’s the same. But, when I was in that calorie-deprived state, I would often wake up in the morning and go to bed at night thinking about the cereal in the pantry. Then, once I binged on cereal once, it quickly became a habit. Eating bowl after bowl became a regular part of my binges, and during binge urges and binge episodes, it felt like my body truly needed that much cereal.
At certain times during my binge eating years, I read information about foods being addictive or people being powerless, so I tried to give up cereal (and other foods) from time to time. To me, it seems like such a baffling approach to tell someone who feels out of control around a food to simply never eat that food. Maybe that approach would make sense if the problematic food suddenly no longer existed on earth, but in my world of living in a college town, with roommates, there was no getting away from cereal.
I also tried moderation approaches with sugary cereal, which made more sense to me, but proved to be frustrating as well, because I actually did learn to eat sugary cereal in moderation…and I still binged on it. At the time, I didn’t understand that it was the binge urges that caused the binges, not the sugary cereal. Looking back, it makes sense that I could only eat sugary cereal in moderation when I didn’t have binge urges before, during, or after eating it.
Once I stopped acting on my binge urges, those urges went away, even when I was eating my former binge foods, like sugary cereal. Then, I could eat sugary cereal in moderation again – every time! It was great.
I resumed my normal life and simply ate cereal when I wanted. It was a common breakfast food for me after recovery, although I’d try to mostly buy the kinds that were a little “healthier.” (I put that in quotes, because today, most processed cereals you buy from a grocery store are not generally considered healthy). I still ate high-sugar varieties now and then as well, but primarily as a night snack. After binge eating ended and my appetite stabilized, I quickly realized that eating too much sugar in the morning didn’t make me feel good. Choosing the low-sugar varieties if I was eating cereal in the morning, and then sometimes having a high-sugar treat at night was a change that came naturally, and not something that I forced myself into.
As the months and years went by, there was a gradual increase in nutrition research and news pointing to the idea that sugar and processed grains cause harm to health. My carefree cereal-eating days seemed to be in question. Although I had never been under the impression that cereal was super-healthy, I didn’t think it was causing harm. I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the idea that I could absolutely have anything I wanted in moderation, but also that some foods are – without a doubt – not healthy.
At this point, my binge eating days were long gone, but I was also firmly set in the anti-diet mentality. I knew dieting caused harm; I knew I never wanted to go down that path again, but would not eating sugary-cereal be “dieting”?
The short answer is no, it would not be dieting, but it took me a little while to truly see it that way. I gradually came to believe that making healthy changes in a gentle, non-stressful way, while making sure you are nourished and eating enough, is not dieting. It’s simply trading out foods that are no longer serving you, with foods that serve you better, and it never has to mean banning foods completely.
Fast forward to today, I can’t even remember the last time I ate the types of cereal I used to binge on. I sometimes eat more natural types of cereal such as granola – still typically as a night snack – but it’s not very often. I may eat it for a couple of nights, and then forget I have the box for weeks or months, or I simply won’t want it.
How is it that I’m not craving sugary cereal like I used to? How can I (mostly) not eat sugary cereal, but also not feel restricted at all? How can I basically never eat the brands of cereal I thought about morning and night as a dieter, and no longer think about them?
Here’s a short rundown on why I think it was possible for me, and hopefully that will help you see how it can be possible for you too:
1. Because I know I can have sugary cereal if I want it. I can absolutely go buy a box of Lucky Charms right now and have a bowl and enjoy it, no big deal. It’s not forbidden in my mind. Pleasure for the sake of pleasure (in moderation) is not always a bad thing. It’s fun, it’s delicious..and we all have to find that balance in our own lives between pleasure and focusing on our health.
2. Because I’m no longer calorie restricted. Sugar doesn’t hold that high appeal that it did when I was starving and it was so attractive to my survival instincts. It’s amazing what eating enough will do to help your cravings!
3. Because the decision to reduce my cereal intake came gradually and naturally. My choice came from information I read, but also from my own insight about how the cereal was making me feel, and also from learning to expand my tastes to other, more nourishing foods. I never felt like I was fighting against myself, or holding myself back from something I truly wanted. Also, the decision came when I was ready to make that decision, not because someone else told me that’s what I should do.
4. Because I don’t believe I’m powerless against cereal, or any other food. I know I can eat a normal amount of cereal without a problem, so there’s no fear around eating it. Conversely, there’s no fear that not eating it will lead me to crave it more. When I tried to give up cereal during my binge eating years, it was out of a sense of fear – because I thought that one bite would lead to 8 bowls. Fearing a food tends to keeps it on your mind, and keeps your attention focused on that food. Now, there is relaxation around cereal, and I rarely think about it.
5. Because “not having sugary cereal” is not a restrictive rule. This is similar to reason #1, but I want to expand on it by saying that when you make a genuine choice to eat in a healthier way and it feels good, you feel in alignment. You don’t feel restricted. You don’t fantasize about the unhealthy foods that you’re not eating. You simply choose (most of the time) to have other things, and don’t really miss what you aren’t having.
6. Because I’m simply older…and I don’t think many adults are still eating Lucky Charms for breakfast. It’s okay to walk away from childhood foods that aren’t benefiting you in adulthood. This is not dieting. You could simply call it “growing up,” or learning to take care of yourself.
I don’t want to give the impression that my eating is perfectly healthy. There are many other unhealthy foods that I still choose to eat! But, I wanted to share this personal story to let you know that giving up binge eating and giving up dieting does not at all mean giving up on health. After binge eating ends, you are free to make (or not make) any healthy changes you want, in a way that works for you, and on a timeline that works for you.
Making those healthy changes is not part of binge eating recovery, it’s simply part of life. However, as a former binge eater, you will want to make sure you make changes in a healthy way that doesn’t involve putting yourself in a calorie deficit or becoming obsessive or overly restrictive about foods. You will want to be cautious not to develop a dieting mentality.
If you are someone who has ended your binge eating habit and wants help in making healthy changes, you can get more information in Episode 31 of my podcast, in which I interviewed Daniel Thomas Hind about this topic. If you resonate with what he talks about, you can also get more information about his coaching by filling out this questionnaire to get a free call that he offers. I am not an expert in helping people make healthy changes to the way they eat, but I know that many of you are interested in that area. So, if you want greater health, but healthy changes don’t seem to be coming naturally and gradually for you after you stop binge eating, it makes sense that you may want some outside help. I hope Daniel’s coaching gives you an option for getting that type of support.
*One example of research demonstrating this: Stice, E., K. Burger, and S. Yokum. “Calorie Deprivation Increases Responsivity of Attention and Reward Brain Regions to Intake, Anticipated Intake, and Images of Palatable Foods.” NeuroImage 67 (2013): 322-330