People have asked what I ate during recovery. I didn’t share exact details in my book because I didn’t want people to feel like they should follow what I ate, because everyone has different needs. I certainly didn’t recover because of my diet (I am using the word “diet” in this sense to mean way of eating, not a restrictive “diet”); and my diet during that time was only questionably healthy, based on current nutritional research.
For example, nearly 7 years ago when I recovered, whole wheat/grain food items were mostly considered healthy; now some experts think they are at the root of many health problems, diseases, and obesity (see this article: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-mark-hyman/gluten-what-you-dont-know_b_379089.html). Also, low-fat dairy seemed to be considered healthier than full-fat dairy; now many experts claim the opposite (see this article: http://www.care2.com/greenliving/why-whole-milk-is-the-healthiest-choice.html) or that dairy isn’t healthy in any form (http://saveourbones.com/osteoporosis-milk-myth/). What I considered a pretty good diet almost 7 years ago isn’t what I consider healthy today; and sometimes I am not even sure what I consider healthy (see my What is Healthy? post for a discussion about this). Nevertheless, below is a general idea of what I ate when I stopped binge eating.
Most of the time, I ate 3 meals plus 3 or 4 snacks per day, likely averaging about 2300 calories per day. I usually stayed in the range of 2000-2500 calories, sometimes slightly more, sometimes less. I didn’t count calories at the time, nor do I today; but I was pretty knowledgeable about calories (as most people with a history of eating disorders are), so I knew generally how much I was getting. I was very active at the time, because I was on my feet all day working in a special education classroom with kids who had severe and profound disabilities, and I exercised about 5-6 times a week for 20-30 min. Even though I ate pretty regular meals and snacks, the meal/snack times and what I ate were very flexible; sometimes I’d inadvertently miss a meal, sometimes I’d eat more at a meal, sometimes not as much.
I’ve included a small sample of some of the meals/snacks that I ate (obviously, I’d only eat one meal from each category per day). Any measurement I give is just an average; I didn’t measure my food. Just to let you know in advance, this is quite the opposite of any sort of “paleo” diet.
– Bowl of cereal (about 1 ½ cups dry cereal and 1 cup of 1% or 2% milk). It was usually something low-sugar/whole grain like Bran Flakes, but maybe twice per month I’d chose a more sugary option like Frosted Shredded Wheat or Honey Bunches of Oats. I’d also eat fruit with most breakfasts – something like an apple, ½ or whole banana, some chunks of watermelon, about 15 grapes, an orange, a peach, or a plum.
– 2 whole grain waffles with about 2 tbsp peanut butter, fruit
– Whole grain bagel with about 2 tbsp Cream cheese, fruit
– 2 eggs (scrambled, fried, or hard-boiled) with 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast and small amount of butter, fruit
– Bowl of oatmeal (2 servings on the container) with a little low-fat milk and some banana cut up in it.
-8 oz container of flavored yogurt
– Protein bar
– low-fat cookies like Snack Wells (about 4)
– cheese or peanut butter-filled cracker sandwiches (I believe 6 came in a pack)
– Turkey and cheese sandwich (2 pieces whole grain bread, about 1 tbsp mayonnaise, 1 piece of cheese), chips (about 15), vegetable (usually a small can of green beans, carrots, or spinach; or fresh celery or carrot sticks)
– 1 whole can of soup (lentil, chicken noodle, black bean, tomato) with about 8 wheat crackers or a piece or 2 of whole grain toast, fruit
– Lean pocket (usually 1, sometimes 2), vegetable, wheat crackers (5-10) or chips
Generally the same types of snacks as above.
– Whole wheat pasta and meatballs (maybe 1 1/2 cup prepared pasta, 2 medium meatballs, pasta sauce), caned veggies like corn or green peas (3/4 cup), a roll with a little butter
– Pork Chops (2 or 3, depending on the size), Brown Rice (maybe 1 ½ cup prepared) and gravy, veggies, piece of garlic bread
– Tuna salad sandwich: 2 slices of whole wheat bread (I always bought the larger, heartier looking bread), 3/4 can of tuna, mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, and chips (10-15)
Bedtime snack was usually a bowl of cereal (same serving size as I had for breakfast, maybe a little bigger if I was hungrier). It was usually a cereal I thought was pretty healthy; but I’d have the more sugary options probably once every couple of weeks.
I probably had desert an average of 2 times a week (usually this occurred after dinner). Deserts could have been 1 cup of ice cream, 1-5 oreos or another type of cookie, an average size piece of cake, ½ of a chocolate bar, or just a couple hard candies after a meal. My husband and I used to like to get ice cream from an ice cream shop near our house, and I’d get the small or medium size cup.
My husband and I were not (and still aren’t!) the greatest cooks, and we did eat out a lot. We ordered pizza maybe once every two weeks for dinner, and I would usually eat 2 to 3 slices, depending on the size of the slices. If we went to McDonald’s, I’d get a fish sandwich, a spicy chicken sandwich, or a hamburger, and have fries with it (usually a small size order of fries but sometimes a bigger size).
I drank mostly water at the time, but I’d usually have a cup of orange, grape or apple juice sometime during the day, and I drank a diet soda a couple times a week. I also drank coffee each day with 1% or 2% milk in it. I had an alcoholic beverage such as 1 beer or glass of wine approximately once or twice a month.
Considering that I thought whole grains/whole wheat were healthy, this seemed like a decent diet to me. It allowed me flexibility, foods I liked, and variety. But, as it turns out my diet was nearly the antithesis of what many experts are claiming is healthy today – “paleo” eating (here is a summary of the diet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic_diet). This diet has been popularized especially in the past couple years by books like “The Paleo Solution” by Robb Wolf (2010), and “The Paleo Diet” by Loren Cordain (2010). The paleo diet basically argues against consumption of all wheat/grains, legumes, dairy products, sugar, and processed oils. In this post, I’m going to talk primarily about the elimination of wheat/grains (and legumes), and it’s implications for binge eaters.
When I first heard about the “grain debate” – whether or not grains (not only the refined ones but unprocessed whole grains as well) are healthy or unhealthy, it honestly caught me off guard. “What?” I thought. “Whole grains are not good for you?” From a health standpoint, I could completely understand why someone would chose to give up sugar/refined carbohydrates/processed food, but whole grains? As it turns out, legumes – another food I assumed was healthy for many years – is included in this debate too.
From a little research, it seems there is some real evidence behind the idea that whole grains and legumes are not the best for us. In short, many believe we are not genetically adapted to digest them, and they act as toxins to our system. There is still a lot of controversy about this, and I’m not saying I’m sold on the idea. There are many studies and experts who refute it (for example, see here: http://paleohacks.com/questions/82618/anti-paleo-studies#axzz1hn2MaBvO), and some say it’s just another fad diet (http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2011/09/09/is-the-paleo-diet-healthy/).
Personally, I still eat grains and beans, albeit less and especially less wheat; and I’ve been eating more meat/eggs, fresh veggies, and lots more fat – in the form of coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados. (On a side note, I still eat dairy as well; but now I always buy full-fat dairy.) If grains are a culprit in a lot of health problems in our society; I for one, find this news really hard to take. One walk through the grocery store shows that most food manufactures promote “whole grain” food as a healthy option, or a positive addition to any food. It’s one thing when you eat sugar/processed food and you know it’s not the best for you, but also fine in moderation; but it’s quite another when you eat something for years and years thinking it’s healthy, and you find out it might not have been healthy after all.
The most bothersome part about this is that I’ve fed a lot of whole grains and beans to my children, basically since they started eating solid food. I bought a book called “Super Baby Food” by Ruth Yaron when Max – my first born – began solids. This book, which was more vegetarian in nature, recommended starting a baby’s day with a breakfast of homemade porridge, consisting of natural whole grains and beans blended together. It argued against meat, and said that all protein could be received from grains/beans/nuts/seeds/eggs/dairy/veggies. When I think of all the whole grains and beans I bought in bulk from Whole Foods, and all the nights I stayed up late cooking beans and grains for my babies, and how I went through a lot of extra trouble to lovingly feed them something I thought was healthy; I feel a little sick to think all of it may have been in vain, or even toxic to their systems. Again, it’s one thing to give your kid a cookie or candy knowing it’s primarily for pleasure and they aren’t getting much nutrition from it; but it’s quite another when you find out the majority of the “healthy” food you’ve fed your kids might not have been healthy at all.
But enough of me venting,…how does this relate to recovery from bulimia/BED?
…Because I’m noticing more and more that “paleo” eating is suggested as a cure for binge eating.
Special diets as cures for binge eating/bulimia is nothing new. In my book, I talk about the “Addiction Model” of treating binge eating. Addiction treatment is based on the idea that the foods a binge eater typically binges on – usually foods high in sugar and carbohydrates – are physically addictive; and to recover, the binge eater must abstain from those addictive foods, often indefinitely. One of the pioneers in the addiction model of treating binge eating/compulsive eating/food addiction (not necessarily bulimia) was Anne Katherine, author of “Anatomy of a Food Addiction.” In her book, Katherine recommends avoiding what she believes are the culprits of a food addiction – sugar and refined carbohydrates. She recommends “converting to whole wheat eating.” She says that “nearly every beloved flour product can be replaced with a sugar-free, 100 percent whole-wheat product.” She also recommends converting to other whole grains, like eating brown rice instead of white rice.[i]
Now, some are taking it one huge step further, by making a paleo diet a requirement, or at least an important step in recovery (for example see this link: http://paleopepper.com/2011/02/curing-physiological-drivers-of-binge-eating-with-a-paleo-diet/). The author of the blog I’ve linked above also recommends giving up all fruits, which is more strict than most forms of a paleo diet. While this might work for some, I would hate to see a situation where binge eaters using the addiction model of recovery are told they must give up everything but meat/veggies/healthy fats in order to live free of binge eating. To make these types of sweeping changes in the way you eat is very, very, difficult. I know several extremely health conscious people, and none of them follow a perfect paleo diet, and all of them certainly eat fruit. Quite simply, asking binge eaters to only eat paleo foods is asking too much, when even a normal eater can struggle greatly with this.
The reality is, grains are everywhere and we have learn to live with them. If we choose not to eat them, I believe it has to be just that – a choice – not a requirement for recovery. Avoiding those foods for health reasons might indeed be a healthy choice (even though there is no absolute proof either way) as long as the individual is making sure they are eating enough and getting enough nutrients/vitamins/minerals. However, as far as being helpful in recovery from bulimia/binge eating, I think there are several reasons why a paleo diet might not be the answer, which I’ve listed below.
- Avoiding certain foods with the belief that one bite will spiral into a binge can be self-fulfilling. What happens if the former binge eater decides to eat grains again one day? Does this mean they are destined to relapse? Feeling like you can control yourself around any food seems to be the safer option.
- The pleasure problem – binge eating alters the reward system in the brain and it becomes a habit of pleasure. A paleo diet is not going to take away that desire for the pleasure of binge eating…at least not right away. It might take a while for a paleo diet – if it’s going to work in altering brain/body chemistry – to work; and the binge eater has to know how to deal with the urges for the rewarding nature of the habit until then.
- Telling a binge eater to eat a paleo diet fails to address behavioral conditioning. The habit becomes wired into the brain so that the brain can produce cravings for it automatically, regardless of what one is eating.
- The self-control issue. A sense of lack of control over eating is fundamental to all cases of bulimia and BED; so telling a binge eater to simply avoid grains (which requires a ton of self control) doesn’t seem to make much sense. When one feels they can control themselves around any food, they are free to make any dietary changes they see fit.
Getting past these reasons, if binge eaters could manage to eat a paleo-type diet for a while, would it eliminate the urges to binge? If they managed not to binge during that time, then yes, the urges would fade. If they did binge on paleo foods, then no, the urges would persist. But beyond the obvious…assuming they managed to not binge, would the urges go away quicker than mine did, and would they have less urges to deal with? Possibly. If grains/sugar/carbs are “trigger” foods, then eating a paleo diet would eliminate some triggers and eliminate some urges. But, on the other hand, feelings of deprivation are also very common triggers for a lot of binge eaters, so might the elimination of all grains/sugar/carbs create even more urges to binge? Absolutely. Furthermore, given that many binge eaters claim stress triggers urges to binge; then it’s possible that the time, effort, and money it would require to eat a clean paleo diet might end up triggering more frequent urges.
I didn’t eat a paleo diet, and neither have many others who have found recovery; yet somehow we managed to recover. Maybe if I would have eaten no sugar/dairy/wheat/grains/legumes/fruit, I would have had less urges to deal with…or maybe more? Either way, looking back, I’m glad I recovered the way that I did; because now no food is dangerous to me. I can eat whatever I want without having to worry about it leading to urges to binge or to relapse. And, I don’t have to worry if (and when) science makes new discoveries that change what we currently know about nutrition, and gives us a whole new set of guidelines to remain food-addiction free.
To end on an amusing note, my husband tried to eat a little more hunter/gatherer like for a while, to see if it would help him gain more energy and feel better. During about a three-week time frame, he was pretty strict about it; and during that time we also vacationed to Gatlinburg, TN with some friends. One of our friends bought some fudge from a candy store and brought it back to the cabin where we were staying, and offered us some. I had a couple pieces and so did he. I sort of looked at him funny (in a joking way) when he was eating it and he laughed and said, “what? she (our friend) went out and gathered the fudge, didn’t she?… It’s not about eating what a caveman would eat thousands of years ago, it’s about eating what they would eat if they were alive today.” We all had a good laugh and agreed that if the cavemen were here today, they would certainly gather some fudge.
[i] Katherine, Anne. Anatomy of a Food Addiction: The Brain Chemistry of Overeating. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 1991. P. 189-190