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Gillian Riley fasting and binge eating

Fasting & Binge Eating: Not So Fast (Post from Gillian Riley)

It seems that fasting has become the new standard of dieting, and also a central focus of the health community as well. Like most diets, it’s presented as the answer (or at least a partial solution) to many health and weight issues, and even as a potential solution for binge eating. I’m sure you know more than one person in your life who is on a fasting-type diet. I also know that fasting can be portrayed as “not a diet at all,” but as a lifestyle and way of eating that’s “more in line with how our bodies are designed.” These are complex issues, and although I would not make an overarching statement that binge eaters or recovered binge eaters can never fast under any circumstances, I think there are many compelling reasons not to.

I get a lot of questions about fasting and binge eating recovery, so I want to share a guest post from Gillian Riley, who has great advice on this topic. Gillian is the author of Ditching Diets, which I recommend on the FAQ page of this website, and I also cited Gillian’s work in my second book, the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide. You can read more about Gillian Riley in her bio at the end of this post. As you read, know that Gillian doesn’t write specifically for binge eaters, but for anyone who struggles with poor eating habits, yo-yo dieting, and overeating. However, what she says is also applicable to those of you who binge, and I hope you find her well-informed guest post helpful.

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NOT SO FAST (by Gillian Riley)

When it was published in 2013, I bought a copy of the bestseller The Fast Diet to see what it was all about. In case you don’t know, it was published as a result of the interest in the BBC Horizon documentary about Intermittent Fasting (IF), written by the program presenter Dr Michael Mosley and journalist Mimi Spencer.

I believe that fasting is beneficial, but not necessarily advisable for everyone, so I wanted to read the book to discover new information and research, but also, I was curious to see if it contained any words of caution. There are words of caution about fasting; a paragraph on page 124 warns those with Type 1 diabetes not too fast, those with an eating disorder, children, and those who are already very slim. And anyone with any medical condition should consult a doctor first.

If you bought a copy of my book, Eating Less, between 1998 and the first half of 2005, you’ve got an edition that contains a chapter on fasting once a week. As well as instructions on how to fast in a non-addictive way, I describe some good reasons not too fast. In later editions, I took out all mention of fasting, partly because people weren’t paying any attention to those reasons. Perhaps it’s time now to put them back in (if I could) but here’s how they appeared in those first editions of Eating Less:

  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are desperate to lose weight, or if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you have a tendency to overeat either before or after a fast.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you go on a fast as a way to take control of your overeating.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are not in the best of health, if you’re coming down with an illness or recovering from one, or if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you don’t normally eat a high-quality diet at other times.

This has some similarity with Mosley and Spencer’s cautions, but also some differences. In particular, my caution not to fast if you don’t normally eat high-quality food would seem to contradict their advice to “eat what you like most of the time”. However, Mosley and Spencer say,

“You could pig out on your non-fast days…but you won’t do that. In all likelihood, you’ll remain gently, intuitively attentive to your calorie intake, almost without noticing. Similarly, you may find yourself naturally favouring healthier foods once your palate is modified by your occasional fasts. So yes, eat freely, forbid nothing, but trust your body to say ‘when’.”

So they seem to be saying that it’s fine to eat anything at all on non-fast days, but once you’ve started fasting you’ll end up eating healthy food anyway.

Now, I’m a great advocate of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it approach to everything, so if IF works for you, that’s wonderful. But all too often people struggle with such advice – and they blame themselves. They conclude, “for everybody else, fasting two days a week is not only fairly straightforward, but also sorts out all the rest of their crazy eating on the other five days. What’s wrong with me that I can’t even begin to do this?”

Maybe it’s not that fasting isn’t a good idea, but that there are other important steps for you to take first. To return to my cautions:

  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are desperate to lose weight, or if you have a history of anorexia or bulimia. Note that both authors of The Fast Diet took on fasting entirely for health reasons. The health benefits of fasting – such as dipping into ketosis from time to time and the fascinating process of autophagy – are well established (1, 2). There’s also impressive research showing a beneficial impact on brain health (3). But Mosley and Spencer seem oblivious to the fact that many people will be motivated to fast primarily to improve their appearance, and this makes a massive difference.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you have a tendency to overeat either before or after a fast – and – It’s not a good idea to fast if you go on a fast as a way to take control of your overeating. It’s clear that neither of the authors have ever had an addictive relationship with food – what many people call ‘food issues’. The research they cite on the success of IF from the University of Chicago studied just 16 obese people over 10 weeks. (4) I’m sure you know of people who complied with various protocols for at least 10 weeks and then regained their weight in the longer term. They were able to ‘be good’ and ‘follow the rules’ for a while, but this simply doesn’t last for the majority. I’m not saying that fasting is a bad idea; I’m saying it might not provide a complete and permanent solution for everyone who generally overeats.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you are not in the best of health, if you’re coming down with an illness or recovering from one, or if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or hypoglycemia. I’m no expert on these health issues, but I’m not at all sure that fasting is good for those with Type 2 diabetes and especially hypoglycemia. This is why those with diabetes are exempt from fasting on religious occasions such as Ramadan.
  • It’s not a good idea to fast if you don’t normally eat a high-quality diet at other times. This of course depends on what you call a high-quality diet, but my view would be low on the starchy carbohydrates such as grain-based foods and sugars. It’s important for your body to be very well nourished through eating the most nutrient-dense foods, so that it doesn’t go into ‘scarcity mode’ during a fast. In addition, fasting works much better in every way if your body has developed the ability to burn fat for energy, rather than only carbohydrate. If you normally burn only carbohydrate, you may struggle much more with hunger and low energy during a fast. (5)

I’ll add that if you exercise a great deal, if you regularly sleep badly, and/or if you are under quite a bit of stress, these also mean that fasting may not be right for you at the present time.

I suspect all this is sounding a bit negative, and the last thing I want to do is to dissuade you from fasting if it’s going to work for you. By all means give it a try. Notice and manage your addictive desire to eat and you can certainly find that it fits in very well with everything you’ve learned in my books and webinars.

The Fast Diet does advise against fasting for those with an eating disorder, and I agree with this. I’d take it further, though, because there are a great many people who have a tendency towards disordered eating who would do well to sort that out first, before considering a fast of any kind.

BIO

Gillian Riley is an author and webinar host who has been teaching her course on “Taking Control of Overeating” since 1997, at first in groups in London, England, and for the past three years online.
Her clients describe themselves as yo-yo dieters or ex-dieters. Instead of recommending what, how much and when to eat, Gillian teaches how to develop an entirely new attitude towards food, eating and weight loss. This way of thinking turns the diet mentality on its head, leading to a sustainable control of overeating.
Details on her free introductory webinars and one-week free trial of the membership site – starting January 26, 2020 – can be found at: https://eatinglessonline.com
NOTES

1. “Targeting insulin inhibition as a metabolic therapy in advanced cancer.” Fine EJ, Segal-Isaacson CJ et al (2012) Nutrition 28(10):1028-35
2. “The effects of calorie restriction on autophagy.” Chung KW, Chung HY (2019) Nutrients Dec 2;11(12)
3. “Meal size and frequency affect neuronal plasticity and vulnerability to disease: cellular and molecular mechanisms.” Mattson MP, Duan W, Guo Z (2003) Journal of Neurochemistry 84(3):417-31
4. “Dietary and physical activity adaptations to alternate day modified fasting: implications for optimal weight loss.” Klempel MC, Bhutani S et al (2010) Nutrition Journal 9:35
5. “Effects of a high-protein ketogenic diet on hunger, appetite, and weight loss in obese men feeding ad libitum.” Johnstone AM, Horgan GW et al (2008) American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 87:44-55

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I also did a video podcast episode with Gillian Riley (Episode 64: Stop Yo-Yo Dieting and Take Control of Overeating) where we discussed many topics related to developing a healthy relationship with food:
Watch the video interview with Gillian Riley on Youtube
Listen to the audio-only version on the Brain over Binge Podcast

Ditch Diets (Eliminating foods in binge eating recovery)

Ditch Diets & Focus on Nourishing and Enjoyable Foods

I’ve been talking about eliminating foods for those who need to, and for those want to lead a healthier lifestyle (see Eliminating Foods Part I and Part II).  In this post, I’ll discuss the importance of ditching diets, and replacing foods you are trying to eliminate with nourishing and enjoyable options. I’ll also share information and insights with from a helpful book called Ditching Diets by Gillian Riley, which will help you understand how you can avoid letting healthy changes turn into restriction or deprivation. But first, I’m going to talk briefly about my own experience with needing to eliminate foods—which is something I addressed in Brain over Binge—and I hope it helps you see how it’s possible to give up certain foods without dieting.

An Example of Giving Up Foods and Giving Up Dieting

Since I recovered in 2005, 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 (which is 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, beef, wheat, soy, eggs, and nuts for several months. When I had my second child, 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 eliminated the foods again; and within a couple weeks, her symptoms disappeared. For my 3rd and 4th babies, I tried to prevent the issue by giving up all dairy—which was seemingly the biggest culprit—one month prior giving birth. My 3rd child did fine, but with my 4th (who is 8 months old at the time I’m writing this), 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 (and vitamins) in order to clear up his digestive tract. All my children are okay now. This was a temporary protein sensitivity in infancy, not a true food allergy or ongoing digestive condition.

Changing my eating in this way and giving up foods to help my babies didn’t cause any problem for me.  It never felt like a “diet,” or like I was depriving myself. There were certainly times that I wished I could eat the foods I was eliminating, and I did feel a little sorry for myself sometimes as I watched the rest of my family munch down a pizza, for example, 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 them.

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-quality, 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.

Ditching Diets, and Letting Go of Restriction While Eliminating Foods

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 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 addictive overeating—that gray area that doesn’t feel like a binge, but also does not feel like the way you want to be eating.

[Update: I’ve interviewed the author of Ditching Diets on my podcast: Episode 64:  Stop Yo-Yo Dieting and Take Control of Overeating (Video Interview with Gillian Riley), and she has also written a guest blog post: Fasting & Binge Eating: Not So Fast (Post from Gillian Riley)

What I liked best about Ditching Diets was how Gillian 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 it 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 and healthier 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. My restriction led me to eat much more of the foods I was trying to avoid and led me down the path of binge eating. However, now, I don’t have the same reaction when I choose to avoid an unhealthy food, or when I gave up so many 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 great, and doesn’t create powerful cravings. (For more about letting go of the dieting mindset, listen to Episode 48: How Do I Let Go of the Dieting Mentality in Binge Eating Recovery?)

Nourishing and Enjoyable Replacement Foods—Not Perfect Foods

As you may know from my books and other blog posts, I’m far from being a “perfect” eater. Perfect eating 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, and I accept that when I do that, my body isn’t being optimally nourished.  I do strive to nourish my body well as much as I can, but it is a balancing act. Everyone must create their own balance, and it never has to be all or nothing. It never has to be perfection or binge. (If you struggle with perfectionism, read my blog post on accepting imperfection in your eating.)

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. When you give up a food, you also want to feel like you are giving yourself a food in it’s place—a food (or foods) that you actually like and look forward to eating. Sometimes people forget the “enjoyable” part, and then get trapped in the dieting and deprivation mindset. The goal should be to find foods you take pleasure in eating, and that make you feel good as well. This can 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 eliminate, 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:-)), 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, 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’ve been making a big batch each week and I freeze them, so that the mornings are just as easy as when we bought the frozen waffles from the store. 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 too. I know this is a simple example, but I want you to see that there are enjoyable, nourishing, healthier replacements for foods that you want to avoid or need to avoid.

Finally, as a reminder from my last post, try to keep making healthy changes to your eating separate from quitting binge eating. That way, if you choose to eat something like processed waffles one morning, you won’t pay any attention to any thoughts that say, “you’ve already failed, you might as well binge.”  When you realize that you can avoid binges no matter what foods you decide to eat, you set yourself up for a lifetime of complete freedom from binge eating.

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To jump start your recovery from bulimia or binge eating disorder, you can download my free PDF, The Brain over Binge Basics.  

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