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Eliminating Foods in Binge Eating Recovery, Part III

I’ve been talking about eliminating foods, for those who want to do so in order to lead a healthier lifestyle (see Eliminating Foods Part I and Part II).  In this post, I’m going to discuss the importance of replacing foods you are trying to eliminate and how to avoid letting your healthy changes turn into restrictive dieting.  But first, I’m going to talk briefly about my own experience with needing to eliminate foods, something I addressed in Brain over Binge.

Since I recovered over 8 years ago, I’ve gone through 4 extended periods of time that I’ve had to completely eliminate certain foods. My first child developed allergic colitis only several weeks after birth (a condition where the baby’s immune system overreacts to food proteins in the mother’s milk, which leads to irritation/inflammation, ulcerations, and even some bleeding in the colon).  To treat this, I had to give up all dairy (and beef), wheat, soy, eggs, and nuts for several months.  When I gave birth the second time, I hoped it wouldn’t happen again; but sure enough, when my daughter was a few weeks old she began developing the same symptoms.  This time, I knew exactly what to do to help her, so I went on an elimination diet again; and within a couple weeks, her symptoms disappeared. For my 3rd and 4th babies,  I didn’t even want to risk it so I stopped all dairy one month prior giving birth.  My 3rd baby did fine, but my 4th(who is now 8 months), had some symptoms despite the elimination of dairy and there was about a 6-week period when I had to eat nothing but potatoes, turkey/chicken, olive oil, almonds, and some mild vegetables and fruits in order to clear up his digestive tract.  (On a side note, all my children are fine now.  An infant’s intestines are porous until around 6 months, which allows proteins to pass though; but when the pores start to close, their bodies gradually stop producing the adverse immune response. It’s not a true allergy, just a temporary protein sensitivity).

I talked a little in Brain over Binge about how restricting my diet in this way didn’t cause any problem for me.  It never felt like a “diet,” or like I was depriving myself (Ok, maybe I did feel a little sorry for myself sometimes as I watched the rest of my family munch down a pizza and I was eating my 3rd meal of sweet potatoes and chicken for the day:-)).  Although it was inconvenient to have a lack of freedom around food, and it’s not something I’d want to continue for a long period of time; it wasn’t a bad experience at all.  There was always a choice to put my babies on hypoallergenic formula, but that would have been costly and not as healthy for them.  I chose to change my diet, and I felt like I was doing the right thing for my babies.

In the same way, people who lead healthy lifestyles and nourish their bodies well with real food don’t feel “deprived” when they eliminate certain foods. They know they are doing right for their bodies, and they feel good doing it; and in all likelihood, they would actually feel “deprived” if they were forced to eat a diet consisting of a lot of processed, low-nutrient food. Wanting to nourish yourself well, and therefore avoiding foods that have no benefit to you, is much different than trying to force yourself to follow a bunch of food rules and starving yourself just so that you can lose weight.

It is possible to make healthy changes (or even eliminate a certain food completely because it creates an adverse reaction) without it turning into a rigid diet; and sometimes the difference is simply in your mindset. I recently came across a book that does a wonderful job of explaining why there is no need to think in terms of rules, restrictions, and prohibitions when it comes to taking on a healthier lifestyle. It’s called Ditching Diets, by Gillian Riley. I’ve had a few of my own readers tell me that this book is helpful to read along with Brain over Binge, especially if a very healthy lifestyle is desired. Ditching Diets discusses some of the same concepts that my book does, but with a greater focus on helping you let go of the “dieting mindset,” and addressing lesser forms of addictive overeating (that gray area that doesn’t feel like a binge, but also not like you’d want to be eating).

What I liked best about this book was how Gillian Riley drove home the idea that we all have free choice about what and how we eat, and everyone is capable of achieving freedom and peace with food – without solving emotional problems first.  But, she also makes clear that having freedom with food doesn’t mean we’ll just be eating a bunch of junk all the time because we are free to do so.  In fact, it’s quite the opposite:  once we feel our free choice and give up dieting, we will be more likely to make better choices.

I could relate to so much of what this book talked about, because I’ve experienced it.  When I was dieting, I indeed felt deprived when I created a lot of food rules and avoided certain “fattening” foods (and I ended up eating much more of those same foods as a result of the deprivation).  However, now, I don’t have the same reaction when I choose to avoid an unhealthy food (or when I gave up countless foods while breastfeeding). Without the dieting mindset, passing up a certain type of food doesn’t make me feel like I’m missing out on something, and doesn’t create powerful cravings.  

As you know from my book and other blog posts, I’m far from being a “perfect” eater (which doesn’t even exist because nutrition science is constantly expanding and changing). I eat unhealthy foods sometimes, but as Ditching Diets does such a good job of explaining, when there is a strong sense of free choice about how you eat (and you don’t feel out of control), choosing to eat less than ideal foods isn’t a problem – it’s simply a choice with certain outcomes you have to be prepared to accept.  Yes, I choose convenience over nutrition when my life is busy; but yes, I also strive to nourish my body well as much as I can.  This is a balancing act that everyone must manage, but it never has to be all or nothing, it never has to be perfection or binge. 

If you are taking on a healthy lifestyle, I think it’s very important to make sure you have enjoyable and nourishing replacements for the foods you are not eating.  I know this seems pretty obvious, but sometimes people forget the “enjoyable” part, and then get trapped in the dieting/deprivation mindset.  The goal should be to find foods you like to eat, and that make you feel good as well, which may take some experimenting.  To illustrate this, I’m going to give one example from my own life of a food my family has been trying to avoid, and how we’ve replaced it:

My kids love waffles (they like peanut butter and maple syrup on them, which I think is a bit odd, but they got it from their daddy:-)), and I slowly got into the habit of giving them processed, pre-packaged waffles too often.  At the end of my 4th pregnancy and after my son was born in November, the older 3 kids ate the pre-packaged waffles every single day. I was so exhausted and sleep-deprived that I couldn’t find time or energy for anything better first thing in the morning, and it was the only easy breakfast that all of them liked. Around the end of 2012, my husband and I decided that we’d find a way to make healthy, homemade waffles so our kids could get a better start to their day.  We experimented with some recipes and finally found something that worked –  using eggs, coconut milk, coconut flour, baking soda, vanilla, cinnamon, and honey.  The waffles are delicious!  I make a big batch each week and I freeze them, so that the mornings are just as easy as when we bought the frozen Eggo waffles. If you asked my kids, I’m sure they would still say they like the “waffles from the store” better, but they eat up the ones I make. I know this is a simple example, but just keep in mind that there are enjoyable, healthier replacements for foods that you want to avoid.
 
Finally, as a reminder from my last post, try to keep making healthy changes to your diet separate from quitting binge eating.  That way, if you choose to eat a couple processed waffles one morning, you won’t pay any attention when your lower brain says, “you already ate 2, you might as well have the whole box.”

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To jump start your recovery, you can download my free eBook, The Brain over Binge Basics.

If you want more help in ending binge eating, and direct coaching from me on issues like the one discussed here, you can learn about the Brain over Binge Course.

Eliminating Foods in Binge Eating Recovery, Part II

Continuing on the topic of eliminating foods (see Eliminating Foods, Part I), I want to discuss a possible obstacle you might encounter if you are trying to eliminate unhealthy foods while also attempting to quit binge eating. The reason I want to address this topic is because I’ve heard from many people who truly desire to have a very healthy diet, and don’t want any processed/”junk” foods in their life; and while this can be a worthwhile goal to have, it ends up complicating recovery for some people.

Here’s why I think that happens:

The binge eater merges the part of themselves that wants to binge with the part of themselves that wants the foods they are trying to eliminate. They begin to apply the lower brain/higher brain idea to the consumption of any junk food, by viewing their lower brain as their “unhealthy eating” brain, and their higher brain as their “healthy/clean eating brain.”  I don’t think this is useful, especially when first trying to quit binge eating, because it can lead to an “all or nothing” trap.

Everyone has food cravings, but when you start trying to view all of your cravings for anything unhealthy as neurological junk, it can be overwhelming.  It can lead you to believe that if you follow a desire for a dessert, or some processed/fast food that your lower brain has already won.  “See, you can’t control yourself,” your addicted brain will say, “you might as well binge.”  And, you might be primed to believe it because in your mind you have hard proof that you are weak – after all, you ate unhealthy food when you were committed to a good diet.

Try not to think that you have a “good brain” and a “bad brain.”  This is not the case at all.  Your primal brain with it’s pleasure centers might indeed be behind your cravings for some junk food, but everyone has this, and has to decide to what extent to follow those cravings. Craving some french fries doesn’t make you abnormal or weak, and it certainly doesn’t mean your animal brain controls you.  If you choose to have the fries, great…enjoy them!  If you choose not to, then that’s great too…have some carrot sticks with almond butter instead:-)  Don’t think that if you choose the french fries you are giving into a binge urge.  Likewise, don’t think that if you decide on the carrot sticks, that depriving yourself of the fries will lead you to binge.  It won’t.  There will be other opportunities for fries.  Try to keep this simple – make your food choices and move on, knowing that it’s only the binge urges that you are trying to correct right now.

If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I personally don’t think that eliminating all unhealthy foods while trying to quit binge eating is the best course of action; but I understand the reasons for it, and I appreciate that people want to be healthy.  If you truly want to eliminate a certain food group or all processed foods for health reasons, try to keep that endeavor separate from quitting binge eating. Then, even if you aren’t able to eliminate the foods you don’t want in your diet, you can still completely recover from bulimia or BED.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the importance of replacing foods you are trying to eliminate and not letting your attempts to eat healthy turn into restrictive dieting.

Go to Part III.

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To jump start your recovery, you can download my free eBook, “The Brain over Binge Basics”

If you want more help in ending binge eating, and direct coaching from me on issues like the one discussed here, you can learn about the Brain over Binge Course.

Want to recover from binge eating

Do You Want to Recover from Binge Eating?

After my first binge, I wanted to stop. I did not want to eat so much food again in such an out-of-control way. I continued wanting to recover through all my years of being a binge eater. However, my desire for recovery didn’t always feel so clear. In the moments before a binge, I temporarily stopped wanting recovery; I temporarily didn’t care about all of the reasons I desired freedom from the consequences of binge eating; I temporarily wanted nothing more than large amounts of food. This left me confused and doubting whether or not I truly wanted to recover.

When you can’t seem to stop the harmful behaviors, it’s easy to question whether or not you actually want to recover from binge eating. You may think that if you truly wanted to recover, then you would have overcome the problem by now. In fact, I’ve noticed that one of the most common reasons people give for continuing to binge is that aren’t sure they really want to stop.

In my book, I wrote that the first step in recovery is wanting to recover, and I think most therapists, counselors, and coaches would agree. Nothing can help you until you have a desire to move away from the behaviors that are causing you pain. Others can educate you about the risks of what you are doing, they can help support you, they can give you tools to use for when you are ready; but until you decide that you no longer want binge eating in your life, you’ll continue down the same path. You have to want to take a new path, and no one can make that decision for you.

What Does Wanting to Recover Mean?

Wanting to recover doesn’t mean you will feel absolutely certain about it in every moment, especially when you first decide to stop binge eating, and especially when you are experiencing urges to binge. Wanting to recover doesn’t mean you’ll know what your life will be like after you end the habit, or that you’ll know exactly what goals you want to pursue, or that you’re sure you’ll enjoy every moment of your binge-free life. Wanting to recover simply means that you realize, on some level, that you can’t continue down your current destructive path and you want to move on to living free of the pain of binge eating.

If you are reading this blog post, it’s almost certain that you do want to recover. I believe that anyone who is seeking recovery advice, or reading recovery material, or engaging in any form of treatment or coaching does indeed have a desire to end the habit. Again, you won’t feel certain about it all of the time, and I’ll talk about that more later in this post; but you are definitely showing a desire to get the binge eating out of your life.

If you unquestionably believed that you wanted to keep up your behavior, why would you even bother reading this?  It’s helpful to see that and then move forward with what you need to do to stop binge eating, instead of overthinking whether or not you really, truly want to recover. Getting stuck in trying to feel completely certain before taking action can be unproductive and delay recovery indefinitely.

Binge eating produces harmful, uncomfortable, and shameful effects so that the fundamental and necessary desire to end the habit usually comes naturally.  But, what often gets in the way, which I’ll address now, are those moments when you temporarily believe you don’t want to recover.

The Lower Brain Makes You Doubt Your Desire For Recovery

In the moments (or the days, weeks, months or even years) when you feel like you don’t want to quit, it’s most likely because your lower brain—the part of your brain in charge of maintaining the habit—is driving your thought processes.  Because the lower brain senses you need to binge, it will only remind you of positive aspects of your behavior, and point out the reasons why you should continue to do it.

A good test to see that the wanting to binge thoughts are from the lower brain is to ask yourself how you feel after a binge. Do you regret it? Do you wish you could go back and make a different choice? Do you feel ashamed of your behavior? If the answer is yes to any of these questions, then it was never you that wanted to binge. If you truly wanted to binge, you wouldn’t have regret afterward; you would simply do it, enjoy it, and move on without being affected much at all.

The problem is not that you don’t want to recover, it’s that sometimes the temptation of a binge takes over, and the lower brain temporarily convinces you that you don’t. Nothing is wrong with you because of this. It doesn’t mean you are weak or that you don’t have the ability to quit. It only means the lower brain and it’s motivational machinery and pleasure center are influencing your decisions, and you need to learn to put your higher brain back in charge.

In the moments before a binge, you likely experience thoughts that provide logical reasons for binge eating and make it seem appealing. For me, I think the most intriguing reason my lower brain gave me to binge was that it didn’t matter what part of my brain generated the urges, because I wanted to binge nonetheless. That was a challenging reason to separate myself from, because if I slipped back into believing I truly wanted binge eating in my life, acting on the urges would have been soon to follow.

That’s why I think it’s so important to be able to dismiss any thought or feeling encouraging binge eating as the neurological junk that it is. You can learn more about this in Episode 4: Dismiss Urges to Binge, Component 1: View Urges to Binge as Neurological Junk. You probably have thoughts that say binge eating is worth it, or that it is really you that wants to binge, or that you don’t actually want to recover. You don’t have to believe those thoughts or give them any attention.

The lower brain has been conditioned to react as if the binge eating habit is necessary for your survival, and when you don’t do it, it senses that you are threatened. It will use what thoughts have worked in the past to get you to repeat the behavior, and many of these thoughts may make you doubt your desire for recovery. Thoughts like “you don’t know what you’d do without the habit” or “this has been a part of your life for so long, you’d be lost without it” or “you don’t truly want to quit” are just some examples of common lower-brain driven, binge-promoting thoughts.

The lower brain won’t remind you of the regret, remorse, guilt, uncomfortable fullness, or the health risks of binge eating (and purging); and trying to think about those things when you are experiencing an urge is usually not effective at deterring your lower brain. Your job is only to experience the tempting thoughts and feelings with detachment and without acting on those thoughts and feelings. After the urge subsides, you’ll again realize that you certainly don’t want to binge, and you’ll remember all of the reasons why; and you’ll be so glad you didn’t temporarily believe your lower brain.

You Can Stop Binge Eating Before Fully Wanting to Recover

Someone asked me a great question recently, which was: “Do you believe in stopping acting on the binge urges before you fully want to recover?” Simply put, yes—because it’s unlikely that anyone pursuing recovery wants to recover 100 percent of the time. Everyone who ends a habit needs to deal with the resistance of the lower brain as it’s re-conditioned, and as I’ve discussed, this causes doubt in your desire to quit during urges. And, because it takes some time for the urges to go away after you stop acting on them, you’ll get plenty of practice disregarding the brain messages that say you don’t want recovery. Just don’t take those brain messages seriously, and you’ll keep returning to feeling like your true self who wants nothing to do with binge eating. This will happen over and over until the urges fade, and when they do, that nagging doubt about your desire for recovery will go away too.

One of the implications of this is that you probably won’t fully want to recover (in every moment) until after your binge urges go away. So, ultimately, it’s a matter of taking that leap to stop acting on the urges, and knowing that your desire for recovery will grow as your binge urges fade.

For me, the excitement and amazement I felt at finally being able to control my behavior seemed to quickly override those nagging desires to continue doing it. I was able to experience any feeling of not wanting to quit as part of the lower-brain driven habit. I knew that those feelings did not indicate my true feelings, so I didn’t give them attention or significance. So, it wasn’t that I didn’t have doubts pop up from time to time, it’s that I dismissed them when I did.

An important thing to remember is that no matter how much you think you want to quit, there are going to be times when binge eating seems appealing. But, you will get stronger and more sure of yourself over time, and with each conquered urge. Your desire to put this habit behind you will start to eclipse any temporary desire to binge, leaving you wondering why you ever thought you wanted it in the first place.

What if You Don’t Want to Quit Between Binge Urges?

What I’ve described so far is a typical scenario of you truly wanting to recover, but in moments of urges, you temporarily thinking that you don’t. But, what if you feel like this doesn’t apply to you? What if you experience a lack of desire for recovery even when you’re not having an urge to binge?  What if you don’t have much regret about your behavior or any real longing to live habit-free? What if, in moments of clarity, you think that continuing to binge makes sense?

If this is the case for you, I have three suggestions. First, you could try to take a big leap and quit anyway, and let me explain what I mean by this. Even though you may feel like your true self wants to binge, you could still avoid acting on that desire, knowing that it will eventually fade. No matter how much you want to continue the habit, you still have the ability to control whether or not you perform the voluntary muscle movements it takes to carry out a binge.

You can acknowledge your desire to continue binge eating, but tell yourself that it’s simply not in your best interest. Feel sorry for yourself for a while if you need to. It’s hard to realize that we can’t have what we want, whether we are talking about binge eating or other aspects of our lives. It’s human nature to have desires, but those desires can’t always be realized, and shouldn’t always be realized. This might seem like a depressing thought to you, but I believe that once some time goes by, the desire to recover that you didn’t have can appear. You’ll realize how much time and money you wasted by being caught up in the habit, and as the urges fade, you’ll realize that the pleasure you got from it was never worth it anyway. It’s like walking away from a bad relationship even though you truly love the person. It takes courage, strength, and it hurts; but you soon realize you are better off without that person in your life.

My second suggestion is to seek outside help to try to find and grow that desire to recover within yourself. Brain over Binge is intended for people who realize they have a problem and want to recover from it. If you do not feel any pull toward recovery, or if you are complacent in your behavior, then the Brain over Binge approach will not be the right fit, at least until you find that spark of your true self who wants to recover.  I’m not talking about “finding your true self” in the sense of becoming emotionally fulfilled or figuring out your life’s purpose prior to stopping binge eating, because that could delay recovery for a very long time. I’m talking about doing what you need to do to catch a glimpse of the part of yourself that wants to move on from this habit.

Know that therapy isn’t the only avenue to help you achieve a desire for recovery. Other things that can help are finding things you enjoy that are incompatible with binge eating, volunteering to help those less fortunate than you, and creating goals for the future so that you can focus your energy toward something other than the habit.  To develop a desire for recovery, you have to be open to it, you have find opportunities to see what your life could be like if you were free of your eating disorder. It takes courage to do this even in the face of doubts.

My last suggestion is to realize you do have free choice, and embrace whatever choice you decide to make. I would never recommend that someone continue to binge, but I do not agree with labeling someone as diseased or disordered when they are fully deciding that they want to keep up their habit. As Jack Trimpey says in Rational Recovery (when talking about alcohol), “self-intoxication is a basic freedom, an individual liberty.” [pg. 59].

Those of you who have read Brain over Binge know that Rational Recovery helped me stop binge eating, and I think part of the reason why was because Trimpey’s book takes a more hard-hitting approach toward those who don’t want to quit, which I needed at the time I read it. I needed someone to tell me that I could certainly keep up my behavior if I wanted to, but that I could no longer hide behind a disease label or the idea that I needed to sort out a lot of other problems before I could quit. If I were to continue to binge because I felt like I wanted to, then that would be my choice, and I would have to own it.

There were countless binge eating recovery resources that told me otherwise—that told me it wasn’t a choice and that I was justified to continue binge eating because it was serving some sort of purpose in my life, helping me cope with problems, or fulfilling my unmet emotional needs. When I believed those things, it did make me feel a little better about myself for continuing to binge, but it didn’t lead to recovery. Thinking that I was justified to continue my behavior didn’t make the behavior any less harmful. Even though it wasn’t my fault that I had developed the binge eating habit, it was my responsibility to end it, even if there were times when I felt like I didn’t want to recover.

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If you have a desire for recovery and want to stop acting on your urges to binge, you can download my free PDF.

If you want even more guidance as you stop binge eating, you can learn about the Brain over Binge Course.

Fear in binge eating recovery

Facing Fear in Binge Eating Recovery (and Life!)

There’s an often confusing contradiction that appears in people who struggle with binge eating and want to recover, and that is—binge eaters sometimes fear recovery. I definitely experienced this and didn’t understand why. Even though I knew I didn’t want to remain a binge eater, there was something scary about not knowing what might be on the other side of recovery.

The unknown can bring up fear in many different situations, and you may find yourself facing a variety of fears in binge eating recovery. You may be afraid of what may happen to your weight, you may fear learning to eat certain foods in moderation, you may fear giving up the distraction of binge eating and letting go of whatever temporary pleasure it may bring (even though you know binge eating is causing you so much pain).

A Lesson in Overcoming Fear

I want to share a personal experience I’ve had recently that relates to overcoming fear, and I hope you can apply what I talk about to whatever you are afraid of as you recover from bulimia or binge eating disorder. This experience is not food related, but it will help you understand how the brain can unlearn fear, and that can empower you to face your own fears.

For about five years, I was afraid of driving on expressways (interstates/freeways, whatever you may call them). I rarely drove on expressways, and by rarely, I mean maybe twice a year. I had no problem riding with someone else driving, but every time I tried to drive myself, I experienced panic and anxious sensations. I found it easier on my nerves just to stick to slower roads. When I lived in Phoenix, AZ, this was not much of a problem, because it’s possible to get anywhere in the metro area without ever getting on an expressway, even though may take much longer.

Our family moved to a new city about seven months ago, and that’s when I decided it was time to change. Both my mother-in-law and my mother don’t drive on expressways because of fear, and their current problems date back to when they were about my age. Maybe it’s a self-preservation instinct in a young mother to become more fearful; but whatever the cause, I didn’t want this fear to stick around and limit my travel options now and in the future. We are lucky enough to be living closer to my family now, and my goal was to be able to pack up and drive to visit them whenever I wanted—without my fear getting in the way.

During the seven months since our move, I’ve overcome this fear about 90 percent. I take expressways nearly every day; I’ve driven eight hours to get to Tennessee, six hours to get to New Orleans and back twice; I’ve gone through Atlanta rush-hour interstate traffic a few times. I now feel I could conquer nearly any driving situation, and although I still get nervous passing big trucks, I still go too slow in the rain, and I still don’t like going over tall bridges, I feel so much more free.

The Fear Response Can Become Linked to Certain Situations (or Foods)

I know it was an irrational fear, even though there is certainly some real danger in driving. Most people drive on expressways without fear or with minimal fear, just as the majority of people eat without fear. For me, the fear response became temporarily linked in my brain to driving, and it’s possible that for you, the fear response has become linked to certain foods or ways of eating, or linked with your attempts to overcome your eating problems.

I’ve been thinking about the way that I’m conquering my driving fear, and how it could help someone overcome fears in binge eating recovery. In Brain over Binge, I explained how binge eating is usually ego-dystonic—meaning not in line with what you actually want when you are thinking rationally. I think that it’s often the opposite with anorexia and restrictive dieting, in that those behaviors are often ego-syntonic—meaning it feels like what you are doing is in line with what you actually want.

When I was stuck in the fear of the driving, my avoidance of the expressways felt ego-syntonic. I felt like it was what I truly wanted. I felt like it was fine to take the slower roads because I believed my kids and I were safer by staying off of the expressways. Even though that may have been statistically true, my fear limited me very much and caused me to waste a lot of time I could have spent doing other things. But, I didn’t have much motivation to change, and I became rather complacent.

Each time I avoided an expressway, I cemented the pattern until it became a strong habit. It became something I simply didn’t do, and for years, I rarely even entertained the option of taking an expressway. It was only when we moved, and visiting family required interstate driving that I snapped out of my complacency and felt a desire to change. I realized that what started out as a fear response linked to driving had turned into a an ego-syntonic behavioral habit.  But, based on my new situation and goals, the desire to avoid expressways suddenly felt ego-dystonic.

Thoughts Fuel Fear and Urges to Binge

I realized that all of the thoughts that convinced me to keep avoiding expressways were well-ingrained and had become automatic, just like my urges to binge had done in the past. Because of my experience ending the binge eating habit, I knew that the habitual thoughts and feelings discouraging me from driving on expressways were not going to stop just because I now wanted to drive on expressways. Like with the urges to binge, I knew those thoughts and feelings would only go away if I stopped believing them and stopped acting on them.

I didn’t bother trying to go back and figure out where the fear originally came from or what else I could change in my life to help make that fear subside. I knew what would make the fear go away: simply driving on the expressway day after day. I had some doubts about whether it would work as well as it did with ending the binge eating habit, because I certainly don’t believe that the way I stopped binge eating is the solution to every problem (for more information on how I stopped acting on my binge urges, you can download my free PDF).

Act in Spite of Fear, and the Fear Can Simply Fade Away

The first few times I entered the on-ramp of an expressway, I felt extremely anxious. But, I knew that despite the feelings of fear welling up in me and the thoughts telling me to pull over, I could control my motor movements—I could check my mirrors, press the gas pedal, and merge left even if my hands were trembling a little.

I just want to stop here and say that I realize some people with phobias experience a much more extreme panic reaction and may feel like they have no control of their motor movements, so I am not saying that everyone can simply face their fears head on without professional help. But, I still believe it’s possible to decondition fears over time, with practice and support when necessary.

As I practiced driving in these situations, I reminded myself that my reactions were automatic, and I tried to detach myself from them, focusing instead on the motor movements I needed to perform to drive the car. The fear started to subside even more quickly than I thought it would. Within a couple of weeks, I was using the less-busy expressways in our city with ease, and with much, much weaker fear reactions. I began challenging myself by driving longer distances, on busier stretches of interstate, through traffic, and even straight over the Great Smoky Mountains (which was not expressway, but still something I would have never done just a year ago). Yes, there was anxiety, and there still is in certain situations, but I’ve come a long way in a short time, and taking the interstate feels normal to me again. I sometimes wonder why I was ever so scared.

Giving Up Restriction May Feel More Scary than Giving Up Binge Eating

When it comes to recovering from an eating disorder, I think this discussion may apply more to giving up restrictive dieting than it does to giving up the binge eating itself. You may want to lose weight or maintain a low weight, and therefore fear eating normal amounts of food or certain types of food. In order to avoid the anxiety and fear that eating (and thoughts of gaining weight from eating) causes, you may try to stick to a strict diet, which becomes habitual, and also leads to urges to binge that are impossible to resist because you are not eating enough food.

If you’ve become so used to trying to restrict, it may feel scary to sit down to a normal-sized meal. Regardless of the reason you started dieting in the first place, dieting has become your habit and eating normally has become linked to the fear response. Because it feels scary to stop dieting, you may keep avoiding normal eating just to avoid those uncomfortable anxious thoughts and feelings. But, avoiding your fear over and over only perpetuates the problem and makes the harmful habits stronger.

Once you realize that you need to eat enough food in order to quit the binge eating habit, and in order to have freedom and health in general, you’ll have motivation to change. (To learn more about the importance of ending dieting, listen to Episode 9: Avoid Restrictive Dieting to Stop Binge Eating).

However, just like with my driving, wanting to change doesn’t make the habit automatically go away. You will need to eat normally despite the anxiety and fear response you experience around food.  You have to know that you can still control your motor movements to pick up the food and put it in your mouth. This takes a lot of courage initially, probably more so than me merging onto the expressway the first several times; but it is well worth it. As you repeat the act of eating normally, the more normal it becomes until the desires to restrict fades, and normal eating becomes your new habit.

It’s common for people to think that restrictive dieters or anorexics have an abundance of self-control because they avoid eating. But the error in this logic is this: what looks like self-control to an outsider is actually far from it. It takes much more self-control for an anorexic or restrictive dieter to eat normally in spite of her anxiety and fear than it does for her to keep restricting. Once the restrictive eating is a habit and there is a fear response linked to normal eating, then avoidance of eating for the dieter or anorexic is just like a binge eater following urges to binge, and just like me avoiding the expressway when I was afraid. An anorexic feels automatically driven to restrict in the same way a bulimic feels driven to binge—her restriction is not a sign of willpower.

You Can Experience Fear of Stopping Binge Eating, and Still Stop Binge Eating

If you have fears about giving up binge eating itself, the same concepts I’m talking about here can apply. You can realize that it’s possible to experience fear of giving up the habit without allowing that fear to lead you in the wrong direction. As you continue not acting on binge urges, in spite of the fear, the less the fear will arise until being binge-free becomes your new normal. Then, you’ll wonder why you were ever scared of letting the behavior go.

Deconditioning the link between your fear responses and your behaviors can take time and practice. Sometimes—even if you are doing well—situations can catch you off guard, and you may find yourself anxious about giving up dieting or binge eating. But if you can remember that you maintain control of your motor movements, and focus on that, it can help you keep performing the actions that move you toward recovery, regardless of what messages you might be receiving from your brain.

There was a time while I was re-learning to drive on the expressway when my fear caught me by surprise. Because of a wrong turn, I ended up having to go over a very tall interstate bridge that I had not planned on taking. As soon as I realized where the road was leading me and there was no way out, I started to panic. I was shaking and felt terrified, but I also knew I had to keep control of my motor movements, as I had 3 young kids in the backseat depending on me.

I was caught off guard in a situation I’d never had to handle before during this process, and it wasn’t easy; but because I focused on what I could control, instead of the fear, it became doable. This is how athletes are able to compete in pressure situations—by focusing on the exact motions they need to perform, instead of their anxiety.

People have conquered much bigger fears than driving on the interstate and learning to eat normally, and that’s not to minimize your problem; but I do think it’s important to remember that everyone experiences fear. I’m not saying you have to go face all of your fears right now, but I do want to encourage you by telling you that it’s okay to be scared and that being fearful doesn’t need to get in the way of recovery. I understand that it’s easy to become complacent in avoiding the things that cause anxiety. The thought of facing a fear may initially feel intimidating, but it’s well worth it to change harmful habits or challenge yourself to accomplish new things.

*Update 2020:
Since this post, I have taken many road trips, the longest of which required me to be behind the wheel of my car for 46 hours over 11 days. The panic sensations I used to experience are gone. My old fear of driving seems so distant now and makes me grateful for the plasticity of the brain. I hope this post encourages you to get out of your comfort zone in recovery or in other areas of your life. I also want to add that I recently
interviewed the author of the book, F*ck Fear (Richard Kerr), and I think you will benefit from hearing his extremely helpful perspective in Episode 65:  Managing Anxious Feelings During a Crisis, in Everyday Life, and in Bulimia Recovery

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As you are changing your harmful eating patterns, it can be helpful to have some guidance along the way. I’ve created 15 coaching audios that you can listen to daily, in order to stay focused on becoming binge-free. Learn more or preview an audio.

What is Healthy Eating?

In this post, I’m going to address the topic of what “healthy” eating means. This a big topic that one post could not possibly cover, but I’m going to give you some ideas that I hope will help you as you overcome binge eating. Before I begin, you need to know that I am not a nutrition expert, and I do not claim to have the answers on what to eat to maintain optimal health. I’ve been recovered from binge eating for a very long time, but that does not mean I eat a perfectly healthy diet.

Eating in a healthy way and stopping binge eating are two different objectives. You can be completely free of binge eating without eating healthy foods; and on the other hand, you can eat only healthy foods and still binge.

In other words, you don’t have to eat healthy to recover from bulimia or binge eating disorder. Thinking that healthy eating is a requirement for recovery can actually make recovery much more difficult, because healthy eating can be a difficult endeavor even for someone who does not have an eating disorder. Try to start viewing healthy eating as a life improvement goal that is not specific to eating disorder recovery.

I’ve definitely made improvements to my eating habits since I let go of the harmful binge eating habit. Those improvements came rather naturally once I was no longer sabotaging my health with binge eating. I don’t eat as many processed foods as I used to, and I try to cook more and eat more “real” foods. I still would like to make more improvements in my family’s eating habits; but lately, I’ve come upon a stumbling block of trying to sort out what is healthy and what is not.

It seems like if you name any food, there is some expert who could label it unhealthy. We’ve all heard that sugar and processed foods aren’t good for us; however, more and more foods are being villainized based on some scientific study, popular theory, or anecdotal evidence. (On a side note: I don’t think it’s helpful to label foods as “bad” or “forbidden”, and I think that everything in moderation is okay, provided there are no major health problems.)

There are nutritional experts claiming that dairy, wheat, soy, meat, eggs, starches, fruit, anything that isn’t organic, certain oils, coffee, and even all whole grains and legumes are detrimental to our health. To make matters even more confusing, there are usually experts on the other side saying those same foods are fine, or even very healthy for us. Then, expert opinions can change over time and new research can prove previous advice wrong.

I personally can get a bit overwhelmed by this, and I know I’m not alone. I think ultimately, we all have to decide what foods/eating habits work for us, regardless of what the popular consensus is, or what the latest nutritional research claims to prove. I think it can be great to learn about nutrition, but I also think it’s important to keep in mind that nutrition is highly individual. What might be healthy for one person might not be for another, because of food sensitivities, allergies, health conditions, various physiological factors, or simply preferences.

If you are someone who wants to focus on healthy eating, I would suggest for you to be open to what “healthy” may mean for your personally. Don’t get locked in to what one expert or theory says. Just make the best choices you can based on your own knowledge, common sense, and feedback from your body, and know that it will never be perfect. Experiment with what you like and don’t like, aim to nourish yourself well, and know that once you stop binge eating, it will be much easier to make other eating improvements.

It’s important to remember that nutrition is not the only factor in good health, and it can be very helpful to focus on the other factors so that you don’t become obsessive about food. Turning your attention to improving relaxation, recreation, sleep, and hydration are all great ways to take care of yourself without getting overly concerned about what you are eating. For many people, going through all of the extra trouble (and spending the extra money) in order to ensure a perfectly healthy diet can cause so much stress that it offsets any benefits of the healthy eating. It’s okay if you can’t manage to always eat organic, gluten/dairy/soy-free everything; because there are other ways you can improve your health.

I think an ideal way to approach healthy eating is to keep it simple, allow for imperfections, and eat in a way that you think is healthy for you personally (without worrying much about constantly changing nutritional advice). Also, don’t let the goal of improving your health lead to unhealthy stress in your life.

To end this post, I want to share a quote from my wonderful friend who went back to school to get a master’s degree in health education and who always has great advice on this topic. She told me recently that she believes in balancing nutrition with sanity”. I think that’s a great perspective, and can help you as you make any healthy changes to your eating.

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I typically recommend for binge eaters to end the binge eating habit first before putting too much emphasis on making other healthy eating changes. If you want help in stopping the binge eating habit, you can download my free eBook The Brain over Binge Basics when you sign up for my newsletter.

My Book’s Journey: A Mission to Help Binge Eaters

I am awaiting two exciting deliveries: the delivery of the Brain over Binge books to my doorstep, and the delivery of my new baby girl. The baby should arrive in about a week (and we have yet to decide on a name!), and the books should arrive in a little more than two weeks. 

Writing this book has been a long journey for me. I began taking notes and writing rudimentary chapters in early 2006, slowly documenting my experiences and ideas. Considering this was less than a year after my recovery, it may have seemed bold.  How did I know my recovery would last?

I just knew. My bulimia was over for good, and I was fully convinced that I had a powerful story to share.  Writing that story was a great challenge, and a great joy. Some months brought much productivity; but other months brought lulls, indecision, frustration, and simply a lack of time. When my son was born, I took a six-month break from writing, and I did the same when my daughter arrived. This is why, when we found out we were expecting baby #3, I knew I absolutely had to finish before my due date.

I’ve worked hard these past nine months to make this a reality, spending many weekends writing at coffee shops while my husband watched the kids, and staying up way too late most nights. The months seemed to fly by, but I’m proud to say it is finished.

My perfectionism tells me the book could be better, that there is more I can say and better ways I can say it, but it’s time to let my words stand as they are. I had a mission in mind when I set out to write this book, and I believe I’ve fulfilled it. More importantly, I think the book holds great promise for helping others.

As for how the book will be received…Who knows?  Who cares?  It could cause only the tiniest of ripples in the field of eating disorders, or it could create a big splash. Either way, that’s not what my mission was about. It was about telling my story – embarrassing parts and all – to other bulimics/binge eaters who may want to listen and learn from my hard-learned lessons.

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Update (2018):  It’s hard to believe that this post was so many years ago, and I’ve now written a second book, (The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide), created an online course, a podcast, and had a 4th child! It’s been an amazing journey and every time someone shares their story of recovery with me, it makes all of the long nights worth it, and fuels my continuing commitment to my original mission.