This is the third and final post in my blog series on indulging in food. If you have not read Part 1 and Part 2, I recommend you do that before continuing with this post, which aims to help you stop overindulging in food. In those previous two posts, I talked about what indulging may mean to you, how you can think about indulging, and I reminded you that’s it’s normal and okay to indulge in food.
Is Your Indulging a Problem?
Do you think your particular form of indulging is harmful? Do you feel like your indulging is more frequent than it should be? Do you worry that you’re eating too much when you indulge? Do you think it’s possible that you are overindulging in food?
If you are certain that you’re not defining indulging with a restrictive mindset (see Indulging in Food, Part 1: Reality Check), then this may be something to look at and address. I’m going to break down how and why indulging in food could become problematic, and I’ll give you some guidance to help you overcome overindulging. First, I’ll take you through a series of questions that will help you determine if this is an issue for you, and then I’ll explain how you can start gaining control.
Have you very recently stopped binge eating (or are you still binge eating)?
In the Brain over Binge Recovery Guide, I described a process that you may go through as you transition from binge eating to eating in a normal way—I called it a bridge to normal eating. I explained that you probably won’t go from binge eating to completely normal eating habits overnight, and that it can take time for you to feel like you are on steady ground with food. When you are a binge eater, you become accustomed to eating large amounts of food; and even when you stop the harmful binge eating behavior, you may find yourself overeating a little more than you’d like, and that includes over-indulging in pleasurable food more than you think you should. (For more on this, you can listen to Episode 47: What if I’m Overeating After I Stop Binge Eating?)
I don’t think you should waste energy worrying about this, and instead you should stay focused on becoming confidently binge-free. Your physiology will gradually stabilize and the size of your stomach can return to normal—so that normal amounts of food and normal-sized indulgences will feel more satisfying. (Please seek any needed medical and nutritional help to support you as your body and appetite regulates).
The main message here is that—if you are only recently removed from binge eating—and you think you may be overindulging in food, try to give it some time and allow yourself to heal. If the issue does not resolve over time, then you can begin to address it. The same advice applies if you are still binge eating—try not to worry about any overindulging right now and focus instead on ending the binge eating habit and allowing your body to regulate. Then, you’ll be in a better place to work on any problematic eating issues that remain.
Do strong cravings primarily drive your indulgences?
There’s a difference between deciding to go out and indulge in some ice cream with your family, and impulsively driving to the nearest fast food restaurant for a milkshake in response to strong sugar cravings. Neither situation is a binge, but if you feel like you are being overrun by your cravings, then it’s going to feel more problematic than if your decision to indulge feels rather calm and relaxed. Even if the desserts in both scenarios contain a similar amount of sugar and calories, you’ll feel more conscious and in control in the first example of getting ice cream than in the second example—when you feel more like you are being controlled by your desires.
Even though there is certainly food pleasure in both situations, they feel very different. If strong and uncomfortable cravings are the driving force behind most of your indulgent eating, then I believe this is something to work on, and you can start by using the suggestions I’ll give at the end of this post.
Are you obsessing over your indulgences?
If thinking about your food indulgences and looking forward to them takes up too much mental space, that’s another reason indulging could feel like a problem to you. Normal indulgence isn’t something that consumes your thoughts in a bothersome way. It’s something you choose to do, either in the moment or by planning it beforehand; but it doesn’t feel like an absolute priority in your life. If getting your treats feels so important that you can’t focus on anything else, and it causes you to lose sight of what is truly important to you, then you’ll definitely want to bring food indulgence back into it’s proper place in your life.
[If you are someone who struggles with incessant food thoughts on a regular basis—not just related to overindulgence—you can listen to this free Q&A audio from the Brain over Binge course: “Food is constantly in my thoughts. Even if I’m not having urges to binge, I’m incessantly thinking about eating.”]
Are the consequences of indulging too great?
Even if you don’t feel driven by strong cravings, and even if you aren’t obsessing about indulgences beforehand, you may be experiencing problems after indulging. You may be someone whose decision to have ice cream in the first example leads to uncomfortable digestive issues or an exacerbation of certain inflammatory symptoms. You may have a health condition that makes the indulgences you are choosing too physically damaging for you personally.
You can start to find replacements that are equally or nearly as enjoyable, or you may need to let certain indulgences go in the name of better health. (For help with this, you can read my post: Eliminating Foods in Binge Eating Recovery, Part III). Do not take this too far by completely banning anything that is not healthy, but if you have specific symptoms and issues with certain pleasurable foods, then you should take that into account as you approach indulging in food.
Do you find yourself saying “it’s okay to indulge” too much?
Yes, it’s true that indulging in food is okay, but if you hear this thought over and over in your head and it justifies overeating every day, or even at every meal, then it’s going to feel problematic. It’s definitely a good thing to remind yourself that indulging in food is not “bad,” and that you don’t need to be restrictive; but know that you don’t have to eat anything and everything that comes into your mind. Take an honest look at your behavior, and know that you get to decide when it is okay to indulge, and when it may not be the best idea. You get to strike a balance that works for you.
How to Get Over Overindulging in Food:
The simple advice I’m going to give you about dealing with overindulging can be organized into five D’s:
Define (what indulgences are okay to you): Take some time to think about what indulging means to you and how you want it in your life (see Part 1 and Part 2 for help with this). Your definition of normal indulging will provide guidance when you have opportunities and/or desires for certain foods, and you hear that voice in your head saying “it’s okay to indulge.” If you’ve already determined what’s okay and not okay for your personally, then it becomes clear whether or not you will follow that voice. You do not need to set exact, strict rules, and in fact, I would not recommend that at all (listen to Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?). It’s best just to have a general idea of what food indulgences you want in your life, and follow that in a flexible way.
Desire (accept food cravings and possibly address some of them): Desire may or may not be present prior to indulging. If it is, it’s not a problem—desire for pleasurable food is a normal part of life. Desires are part of the human experience. I realize that here I could probably insert an entire book about the effects that modern foods and our modern lifestyle have on cravings, and I understand that many theories abound; however, I believe it’s best to keep it simple and realize that desire has always been a part of the human condition. Even if certain modern foods are more “addicting,” we still have a choice about how much to indulge in these foods. If you want to dive deeper into this, you can listen to Episode 52 on food addiction.
It’s important to accept that desire for food is okay, but also to know that it doesn’t mean you are destined to have what you are craving (and if you do decide to have what you are craving, you are never destined to overindulge or binge.)
When you have desires, try to pause and determine the course of action you want to take. That may be to have the indulgence you are craving (and not binge afterward); that may be to have a healthier food option; that may be to do another activity. You may also want to develop an overall strategy for addressing the cravings you feel are out of the range of normal. Cravings can be dismissed like binge urges, but additionally, you may want to get nutritional or medical support with any physiological issue you feel is contributing to problematic cravings, like blood sugar and/or hormone imbalances. You can also look into improving sleep, reducing stress, and improving hydration, which can all help reduce some cravings.
Decide: This is where your power of choice comes in. It’s important to realize that you are the one deciding to eat the food, or indulge in the food, or overindulge in the food. Your cravings and desires do not control your voluntary muscle movements, even if you have some physiological imbalances that are contributing to those cravings. You can start to experience your own power to determine what you indulge in and how much you indulge.
I believe that bringing the power of choice into your eating decisions is how indulging stays in the proper place in your life. When you know you have a choice—even if strong cravings are present, and even if you do decide to have the indulgence you are craving—you can still feel conscious and in control. You have the freedom to decide to indulge anytime, and you also have the freedom to decide against it when it doesn’t feel like the right decision for you.
Deliberately enjoy the indulgence: You don’t have to eat super-slowly, or chew a certain number of times, or be completely mindful, or avoid doing anything else while you are eating; but try to slow down enough to enjoy what you are indulging in. If you are eating rapidly, or eating mindlessly in front of the TV or in the car, it will feel more impulsive and is more likely to lead to overindulging. Eating a little more deliberately goes hand in hand with deciding to indulge—it’s another way of keeping your higher brain engaged, realizing what you are doing, and proving to yourself that you are in control.
Delicious: This is a bonus “D” to remind you that you can and should enjoy eating and indulging in food. When you indulge, it’s perfectly okay to soak in the pleasure (without the guilt!). Then, when you are done, put the food aside and move on with you life.
I hope this series on indulging has been helpful to you. I hope you are able to determine the proper place in your life for indulging in food and put aside any overindulging that feels harmful to you.
If you are still binge eating, you’ll want to stay focused on ending that harmful habit before working on other problematic eating habits like overindulging in food. For help stopping the binges, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.
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.
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.
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.