I’ve heard from many people who aren’t sure if they binge or not. They know they are doing something with food that doesn’t feel good, and they know they are eating too much at times, but…
Is it binge eating?
Is it compulsive overeating?
Is it emotional eating?
There is some subjectivity in labeling problematic eating behaviors, and there is often overlap between behaviors. However, it’s valuable to determine what you are specifically struggling with, because when you know what your problem is, you can better apply targeted solutions.
I’ve recently talked to my friend and colleague Cookie Rosenblum about this, and we have decided to host a free online class to help you determine if you are binge eating, compulsively overeating, or engaging in habitual pattern of emotional eating. We want to help you understand how to overcome each of these issues!
The class will be on Wednesday, November 18th at 12pmET, and you can register now.
Cookie is an expert at helping people overcome problematic overeating and emotional eating, and of course, I help people stop binge eating.
Because the term binge has become mainstream (think of “binge-watching” shows), it is sometimes applied to any behavior that seems excessive, including eating behaviors. However, binge eating is not the same as overeating, and overeating isn’t always a problem. Everyone overeats from time to time, but when it feels compulsive and too frequent, it’s definitely something to work on.
If you aren’t sure what type of eating issue you are dealing with, but you want to be free of your struggle with food, I hope you will find the upcoming online class with Cookie very helpful.
This is a one-time class and space is limited, so I encourage you to register today.
[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]
The idea of eating all foods in moderation or allowing all foods (provided there are no allergies, sensitivities, or medical conditions) is common in the eating disorder recovery community, and I’ve also promoted this idea in my blog, books, and podcast. Health-conscious people can often be skeptical about this advice, because they may imagine that allowing all foods involves eating Lucky Charms for breakfast (more on cereal in Part 2!), McDonald’s for lunch, take-out pizza for dinner, then maybe some candy for snacks, and being totally okay with eating like that every day. Eating everything in moderation can involve eating that way sometimes, and I’ve had days since I stopped binge eating when my eating closely resembled what I just wrote; but if any of us ate like that for more than a few days or weeks in a row, we’d feel awful, and set ourselves up for health problems.
This post is the first of a 2-part blog series on creating healthy changes for yourself after binge eating recovery, without ever dieting again or feeling like you are deprived or restricted. Even if you’ve never binged, you’ll learn the benefits of eating everything in moderation and how you can make eating improvements in a healthy way.
As it relates to binge eating recovery, there are no requirements when it comes to creating better health. Ending bulimia/binge eating disorder comes down to stopping the bingeing (and purging), and eating enough to nourish your body. You don’t need to achieve a certain level of health or fitness to be considered recovered or to maintain your recovery. You simply have to not binge, not purge, and eat adequately. (If you are currently still struggling with binge eating, you can get more help in my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.)
Even though you don’t have to achieve optimal health to recover and stay binge-free, I know that so many binge eaters and former binge eaters are health conscious and want to improve their health. I hope this Part 1 post and then Part 2 (How I Stopped Binge Eating Cereal and Craving it Too) will help you see that healthy changes are possible—without it feeling like a struggle, and without food rules and diets.
Where “Eat Everything in Moderation” Meets Recovery…and Good Health
All of us living in this time of increasing nutrition knowledge need to come to terms with the reality that what we eat is important to our longevity and vitality. Even though you know this, you’ve likely experienced how difficult it is to try to make healthy changes while caught up in the binge eating habit. Binge eating typically sabotages efforts to make healthy changes; and in addition, trying to make a lot of healthy changes can take the focus off of the most important healthy change you need to make—stopping the binges.
I’ve worked with many people who are trying their best to eat as healthy as possible. For example, they aren’t eating much sugar or processed foods as part of their normal daily intake. But—privately, and with a lot of guilt—they are bingeing on large amounts of those very same foods. For some of these women and men, the only time they eat unhealthy food is when they are binge eating. They often believe they are powerless to eat unhealthy foods in moderation, or believe that eating those foods in moderation will make them gain weight. However, the cycle of trying to restrict the unhealthy foods and then bingeing on the “restricted” foods is actually leading them to eat much more of those unhealthy foods than a moderation approach would.
This is why learning to allow foods is important.
If you can learn that you aren’t powerless against any food, you will build confidence that you can eat anything and not binge. If you instead continue to think one bite of sugar or wheat or fast food will cause you to be out of control, then you will never be totally free of the binge eating habit. This is the reasoning and purpose behind the eat everything in moderation approach in recovery—to empower you to realize that no food can make you binge. The purpose is not to convince you to be unhealthy.
So, when you hear me or anyone else recommend eating everything in moderation or allowing all foods, it doesn’t mean I don’t understand nutrition; it doesn’t mean I haven’t read the latest research on the keto diet, or paleo eating, or whatever the popular “healthy” eating approach of the day happens to be. It doesn’t mean I don’t understand the possibility of food addiction and that eating certain foods is more difficult for some people than it is for others. It simply means that I want you to stop thinking you are powerless. I want you to have freedom from food rules, and I want you to be realistic about the world we live in and the foods you will encounter, and the fact that no one eats perfectly.
When I encourage you to learn to eat everything in moderation, it also means that—first and foremost—I want to you to be free of binge eating. Becoming binge-free is a massively healthy change and vastly reduces the amount of unhealthy foods you consume, and other healthy changes often naturally and effortlessly flow from there. Furthermore, allowing all foods, over time, usually leads to you eating less of those foods, because it breaks the diet mentality that gives those foods such a strong appeal.
What if You Want More Health Improvements than Stopping the Binges Provides?
You need to know that, although recovery is life-changing and amazing, becoming binge-free does not automatically equal becoming “healthy”. It does not automatically equal you eating in way that makes you feel nourished day after day. It does not automatically equal sharp mental clarity, high physical energy, and the elimination of all cravings. Recovery certainly helps in a big way, but you may indeed want to make more healthy changes after you stop binge eating.
The rest of this blog post and the next is primarily for those of you who are now binge-free, but feel a pull toward improving your health. It’s possible that you feel confused about how to improve your health if you are supposed to be allowing all foods, and eating everything in moderation, and of course—not dieting. I hope the ideas I’ll share will help give you some clarity about how to create a healthier lifestyle for yourself (if that’s what you want), without feeling restricted. *Please know that these are my opinions from my personal experience and from helping other binge eaters/former binge eating, and I’m not a doctor or nutritional expert.
You Never Have to Stop Eating Everything in Moderation, but Make Sure to “Allow” a Lot of Nourishing Foods
There is not a point after eating disorder recovery where you say, “ok, I’m done with binge eating and purging, so now it’s time to stop allowing all foods.” Eating everything in moderation isn’t only a strategy for recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder—it’s a lifelong strategy. Know that you always have the freedom to eat what you want to eat, without fear of being out of control. Like I said in the beginning of this post, if you have a medical condition, or food allergies/sensitivities, you may absolutely need to avoid certain foods; and even without a specific health issue, there may be times when you choose not to eat certain foods for different reasons—but again, that doesn’t mean you are powerless. (If you are someone who needs to avoid certain foods, you can see my blog series on eliminating foods in binge eating recovery for more help).
When people think of eating everything in moderation, they often think of this in terms of allowing junk foods. But, it’s helpful to think about it in terms of allowing an abundance of healthy food too. If you were to eat junk food at every meal, then you aren’t truly allowing all foods, because you aren’t allowing the foods that truly nourish you. When you allow too much junk food, you aren’t leaving space for the foods that are natural and simple and good for your body.
The more you can allow foods that nourish you, the more satisfied you’ll feel, the more nutritionally balanced you’ll be, and the less you’ll tend to want the foods that aren’t serving you. You never have to put unhealthy food “off limits,” but adding and allowing and welcoming nourishment—without a restrictive mindset—can naturally help you move away from the unhealthy foods; and that choice won’t feel like it’s coming from a place of deprivation. You won’t feel like you are frequently saying “no” to unhealthy foods, you’ll feel like you are frequently saying “yes” to foods that make you feel good. This is often talked about in intuition-based eating approaches, and I discuss it extensively in Episode 16: Eating Intuitively: Is it Right for You in Recovery from Binge Eating.
As You Work to Improve Health, You Get to Make Your Own Food Choices on Your Own Timeline
There are so many options when it comes to how to improve your eating and your health. You are the expert on your own body and it’s important to empower yourself to make choices that are in your best interest—taking into account any medical advice or nutritional advice that you personally need to follow. If your friend is vegan and swears that makes her feel amazing, but you try eating that way and it doesn’t feel good, then trust that it’s not for you. If your co-workers are all trying to eat low-carb, or paleo, or keto, or are fasting, but you feel unbalanced when you eat that way, then listen to your own body.
Last year, I completed the health coaching program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, and a big concept was what they called bioindividuality. The term means that everyone’s biology and physiology are different, and what’s healthy for one person may not be healthy for another, based on countless factors. Some people do better with more carbs, or more protein, or less protein, or more fat, or less carbs…or with or without dairy, or soy, or wheat…or with more or less fruit or starch…and the list could go on and on. These are your decisions to make.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek advice from nutritionists or health experts, or do research on what may be healthy for you; but you have to sort through it and see what makes sense to you personally, and fits with the lifestyle you want to create for yourself. You also get to decide the timeline for implementing any healthy changes you want to make. There is no rush, there are no rules, and there is no pressure. You are crafting a way of eating and a lifestyle that works for you, and there is no end point to this process in your lifetime. You will be on this ever-changing journey for as long as you are here.
In the next post (Part 2), I’m going to share a personal story of making a healthy change after recovery. I’ll talk about my relationship to sugary cereal—the food I most craved when I was dieting, and the food that made up my first binge and countless more after that. I’ll explain how I no longer eat it much at all, and how that change came about.
Before I end today, I want to direct you to a podcast episode and other resources that relate to this topic:
Episode 31: Making Healthy Changes After Binge Eating Recovery
In this episode, I interviewed Daniel Thomas Hind (*listen to this important message prior to the episode), who helps people improve their health through a process of learning new skills and habits around food. Although Daniel does work on helping people with weight loss, he always comes from a place of making sure his clients are well nourished and not feeling deprived. One thing I want to mention about Daniel Thomas Hind’s work relates to what I said in this post about choosing how you want to eat, based on your own unique body and lifestyle. It’s important for you to know that, although Daniel personally subscribes to a paleo-type lifestyle and does teach about that, he wants clients to choose and craft their own way of eating.
The Brain over Binge Course:
My course has ample advice and information about learning to eat adequately and learning to make food choices that feel good to you. Four of the eight lessons in the course focus on adequate eating, so you’ll get plenty of guidance in this area. If you are still struggling with binge eating, you can get learn more about the course.
Binge Code Coaching:
Ali Kerr and her coaching team specialize in helping people (who are recovering from binge eating and bulimia) create a way of eating that works for them and that supports their physical needs. If you need one-on-one support as you learn to eat normally, I highly recommend Binge Code.
Go to Part 2 of this blog series.
During my years of binge eating, and what seemed like thousands of attempts to recover (before I finally found help in Jack Trimpey’s book, Rational Recovery), I looked for the reasons why I wasn’t successful. Through therapy and reading self-help information online, one of the theories I came up with was that I simply wasn’t ready to stop binge eating. Maybe there was something I needed to change in my life first; maybe there was a problem I needed to solve; maybe there was pain from my past that I needed to heal; maybe there was a stressor that I needed to eliminate from my days. Maybe once I found and dealt with whatever was in the way of recovery, then I’d be ready.
I wasn’t even sure what it really meant to be ready to stop binge eating, but that didn’t stop me from looking for reasons why I wasn’t yet equipped for recovery. Since all of my attempts to stop binge eating (before reading Rational Recovery) had failed, it only made sense that there was something getting in the way. Now that I’ve recovered, I see things differently, and I want to help you understand why you might be asking yourself, am I ready to stop binge eating? I also want to share ideas with you to help you feel capable of stopping the habit, and to help you address anything that is truly a roadblock to recovery.
What Does it Mean to Be Ready for Recovery?
I began thinking about this a lot because of an interview I did in February of 2013. I was a guest on Alen Standish’s Quit Binge Eating Podcast (this podcast is no longer available because Alen needed to focus on a health issue in his family). Alen asked a question that inspired me to start writing this blog post about recovery readiness. His question was very insightful, and in asking it, he shared some of his own personal experience and how it was different than mine. Here is what he said:
Alen: You cautioned in Brain over Binge that you are only focusing on how to stop binge eating and are not addressing any other underlying problems a person may be having in their life. In my own case I actually had to work on several areas of my own life to better round myself out before I was ready to fully take on stopping my own binge eating disorder. Your book was a large part of that, but it only worked for me because I was ready for it at that point in my life. Based on my experiences and this is just my own opinion, I find that it seems to be a balancing act that only the person suffering from the disorder knows when they are ready to just say no to their disordered eating, and from that when and where to start their recovery process and most important, how to recover. It’s a very individual thing. What are your thoughts?
Below, I’ve included my response with many additional ideas added, to help you if you are doubting your readiness to end bulimia or binge eating disorder:
First of all, I think an important thing to remember when reading anyone’s recovery story, using any self-help program, or even attending therapy, is that you can use what works for you at this particular time in your life, and discard what doesn’t. Sometimes people get caught up in trying to do things exactly right, based on someone else’s advice, and it doesn’t end up feeling authentic. If someone else’s advice doesn’t help you, it doesn’t necessarily mean you aren’t ready. It just might not be the right approach for you.
My recovery came about from me discovering useful information about the brain and an approach that resonated deeply within me. This was primarily due to reading Rational Recovery, and having my own insights afterward, as well as continuing to explore simple brain science, which I discussed in my book. Once I changed how I approached recovery, the question of whether or not I was ready to stop binge eating didn’t seem to apply anymore. I put the information and insights into action, and stopped binge eating quickly. Questioning my readiness for recovery was something I did when I wasn’t successful, and once I was successful, the question seemed to just fade away.
I knew binge eating brought me misery, and I knew I didn’t want it in my life; and this was the case since my binge eating began. In that way, I guess I was always ready to recover.
I believe it can be as simple as this: If you want to be free of binge eating, you are ready to be free of binge eating.
Rational Recovery Helped Me Let Go of the “Benefits” of Binge Eating
I also realize that it’s not that simple for everyone, especially if you’ve come to believe that your eating disorder serves a purpose in your life, or helps you cope with problems, or helps you fill some sort of emotional void (see my podcast about emotional attachment to binge eating). I know that when I believed my eating disorder gave me certain benefits, it was much easier to think that I wasn’t ready to give it up. Even thought I knew that whatever theoretical benefits or temporary pleasure I received from the binge eating wasn’t worth the cost, the idea that binge eating was a coping mechanism made it easier to keep hanging on to the behavior.
In order to feel ready to let the binge eating go, I spent a long time in therapy and on my own trying to sort out things in my life and solve other problems. Some of these problems I did sort out and solve, and some of these problems I didn’t; but there was always another problem I could find and decide that I needed to fix before I could be free of binge eating.
If Rational Recovery would have been another approach saying that it might not work if you have other problems to sort out first, I don’t think it would have helped me. I needed a no excuses approach at the time. I needed to hear that whatever benefits I thought binge eating gave me were irrational and not my true thoughts. I needed to learn that I could quit right away without having to do anything else first. In other words, I needed to hear that I was already ready to let the binge eating go.
Preparation for Recovery is Different for Everyone
I’ve shared my experience, but Alen’s experience was different and uniquely authentic to him; and your experience might be different from both of ours. I agree with Alen that recovery is an individual thing and only the person recovering can decide what they need. This is why it’s important to have alternative perspectives in eating disorder recovery, because some ideas will be a better fit for certain people at certain times than other ideas.
If you read my book, or attend therapy, or complete a self-help program and you don’t improve even after giving it proper effort and practice, this is not the time to put yourself down or lose hope. It’s the time to determine how to adjust the ideas to better suit you, or it’s time look elsewhere for ideas that feel like your own unique truth and that work for you, or it’s time to decide if there is some preparation work you need to do in order to be ready to stop binge eating.
I don’t believe recovery should be a maze or that you should jump around from one approach to another, without being consistent enough to see changes occur. Recovery can and should keep moving forward, but there may come a time when you feel like you do need to work on another area of your life in order to move forward, or keep moving forward.
How Do I Become Ready to Stop Binge Eating?
I’ve spent some time thinking about a way to merge the idea that some people, like Alen, might need to work on other areas of their life in order to feel more able stop binge eating, and my approach which focuses on stopping the behavior without needing to address other issues first. Here are my thoughts…
I believe that recovery from binge eating comes down to 2 goals:
- Learning to dismiss urges to binge
- Learning to eat adequately
If you are new to the Brain over Binge approach and want a better understanding of those two goals, you can download my free PDF—the Brain over Binge Basics.
You can use those two simple recovery goals to guide you in determining what you might need to work on, in order to make yourself recovery ready.
It’s not helpful to put too many conditions on your ability to recover, but I think it’s helpful to work on any specific issues you feel are holding you back from being successful at one or both recovery goals. You can listen to my podcast episodes about two common issues that hold people back: food addiction, and weight obsession. Basically, if you think that working on another problem or issue in your life will help you move toward the two goals, then work on that issue or problem.
Of course, you can work on whatever issue or problem you want as a way to live a better life, but try not to wrap up all of your self-improvement work into your eating disorder recovery. You don’t want to be endlessly trying to work on emotions or solve other problems, hoping that will magically make you feel ready to recover, or even take the eating disorder away. But, if you stay focused on the two recovery goals of learning to dismiss binge urges and learning to eat adequately, you can tackle recovery readiness with a much more strategic mindset. I’ll give you some examples so you can see how this could play out in your life.
Let’s say you have poor body-image, and because of that, you are determined to diet restrictively and lose weight in an attempt to feel better about yourself. That might prevent you from eating enough food, which in turn, will make your urges to binge stronger and more difficult to dismiss. If you feel unable to allow yourself a nourishing amount of food to meet your physical needs, you might need to address your poor body-image in order to move forward (for help, you can listen to this episode on body image). This doesn’t mean a positive body-image is a cure for binge eating; but improving the way you view and relate to your body will help you start feeding it properly, and therefore put you in a position to stop acting on the binge urges.
Another example: let’s say you have severe depression that prevents you from wanting a better life for yourself. You don’t have the desire to avoid binges, so you allow the lower brain (the part of the brain that drives binge eating) to overtake you, without even trying to avoid the behavior. You simply don’t have any motivation to let go of the binge eating. Again, improving the other problem (in this case, depression) isn’t a cure, but it will put you in a better position to start overcoming the binge eating. Feeling less depressed will strengthen your higher brain (the part of your brain that can change a habit), and allow you to connect with your desire to live free of your eating disorder.
To summarize what I’m suggesting: If you don’t feel ready for recovery, get to work on the issues you believe are preventing you from eating adequately or dismissing binge urges.
In contrast, what I’m not suggesting is this: If you don’t feel ready for recovery, work on the problems or emotions that you feel binge eating helps you cope with, and expect that resolving those problems will make the binges go away.
Sometimes what I’m suggesting and what I’m not suggesting can involve the same problem. If that seems a little confusing, I’ll explain, using anxiety as an example.
Let’s say you think you binge to cope with anxiety, so you try address that anxiety by relaxing more and avoiding anxiety-provoking situations. You do this hoping that decreasing anxiety will decrease your need to binge. If the binge urges habitually come when you are anxious, this approach might indeed help you avoid some binge urges (which may be helpful in some ways), but reducing anxiety isn’t truly helping you learn how to dismiss the binge urges when they come up. There are likely other situations where you have urges, and you still binge. Furthermore, it’s impossible to control every situation and feeling in your life, so when anxiety inevitably comes up, you may find yourself swept away by the urges.
The problem with this approach to reducing anxiety is that you are trying to make a problem go away in hopes that binge urges will go away too. But, this usually doesn’t work, and it’s more effective to learn to avoid acting on urges in any situation or in response to any feeling.
On the other hand, if something about anxiety is making it more difficult for you to dismiss binge urges or eat adequately, then it makes sense that you’ll need to address it before you feel ready to stop binge eating (listen to Episode 65 on managing anxiety). For example, if anxiety about weight gain is keeping you depriving your body of food, then yes, that anxiety is something to work on as a part of binge eating recovery. The distinction can seem subtle, but I think it’s important not to make recovery too complex or think you need to work on too many things to be ready.
I want to make sure you realize that I’m not telling you to just resign to deal with certain problems. You can absolutely work on whatever issues you want to work on, but as much as you can, keep that separate from binge eating recovery. Otherwise, you could keep working on other problems indefinitely, hoping that will take your binge eating away, without getting any closer to accomplishing the two recovery goals that change your brain to end the binge eating habit.
Although I believe recovery is an individual thing, I hope that keeping the two recovery goals in mind will help you zero in on what’s truly necessary for you to do to be ready to stop binge eating for good.