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Alcohol binge eating

Should I Drink Alcohol While Trying to Quit Binge Eating?

When I struggled with binge eating, it seemed like alcohol often ruined my progress in recovery. I’d have days when I felt like I was doing pretty well—my eating was relatively normal and I felt like maybe I would make it through the day without a binge. Then, I’d get invited out to have drinks, and it seemed like my desire for recovery faded, so that by the time I got home, I didn’t hesitate to follow my urge to binge.

To avoid acting on the urge to binge, you have to use your prefrontal cortex—the part of your brain responsible for self-control and rational decision-making. The problem is: Alcohol directly affects the prefrontal cortex and reduces your ability to make sound decisions.

Does This Mean Everyone Trying to Quit Binge Eating Should Abstain From Alcohol?

Not necessarily, but I think it’s an important decision that each person in recovery from bulimia or binge eating disorder needs to make. I hope some information in this post will help you decide how you want to handle alcohol as you are breaking the binge eating habit, and you can also listen to my podcast episode on this same topic of alcohol and binge eating.

I want to first share my personal story of alcohol use during binge eating recovery, and then give you some advice to help you decide what is right for you.

When alcohol seemed to interfere with my progress, I had not yet discovered the brain-based information that I shared in my books. I still had the mindset that I was diseased or powerless over my desire to binge, and that I needed to solve my underlying emotional issues and learn to cope with problems more effectively before I could say no to binges each and every time. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try to resist urges to binge, but it usually felt like a losing battle, and that was especially the case when I drank alcohol.

At the time, the things I thought I needed to do to avoid a binge—like journaling about my feelings, or engaging in healthy self care, or reducing my anxiety, or trying to get my emotional needs met —- just didn’t feel doable when I was drinking. I simply didn’t have the mental capacity to engage with any of those activities, which rarely helped me avoid a binge anyway. Under the influence of alcohol, I was much more likely to say screw it, and go right into the harmful binge eating behavior without even trying to avoid it.

Once I changed my approach to recovery, and realized I had the power to stop acting on my urges regardless of my mental or emotional state, then avoiding binges while drinking suddenly became possible. (If you are new here and want to learn about the Brain over Binge approach, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.) Because of this new and empowering mindset, I felt confident that I wouldn’t binge, even after drinking.

However, I was not a frequent or heavy drinker. At the time I recovered in 2005, I was only having one or two beers or glasses of wine a couple times per month. Since it only took a few months for my binge urges to decrease significantly, this only gave me about six times to experience the effects of alcohol on my binge urges and my ability to avoid acting on them. So, I do not have significant personal experience with the combination of alcohol and binge urges when using this brain-based approach; but looking back, I do not remember it being any harder to avoid binges when I was drinking.

I believe this was due to the simplicity of my new approach to recovery. I no longer felt like I needed to deal with my emotional issues, or stress level, or problems to avoid a binge.  I only needed to see the binge urges for what they were — automatic, faulty messages from my lower brain that no longer meant anything to me — and then just move on with my life. I had the mental capacity to do this even when under the influence of alcohol. I saw those binge-promoting thoughts in the same way that I saw other outrageous thoughts that popped up when I was drinking. Alcohol only reduces self-control functioning in the brain, it does not eliminate self-control completely. I knew there were many things I could trust myself not to do even while drinking, and binge eating became one of those things.

How Does Alcohol Affect Your Ability to Avoid Binges?

In talking to others who have more experience with alcohol while trying to stop bulimia or binge eating disorder, I’ve found that alcohol can cloud thinking and reduce self-control so much that the binge urges feel very compelling. This only makes sense due to the way alcohol inhibits the prefrontal cortex, which I also call the higher brain.

With each drink, the prefrontal cortex is impaired a little more until you feel like you have little control over your voluntary actions. This can make you more likely to act in habitual and survival-oriented ways. Since binge eating is a habit and a survival response, this means that alcohol primes you to use the neural pathways in the lower brain that drive the binge eating habit, instead of the newly developing pathways in the higher brain that are working on recovery.

You may also feel less motivated toward recovery when you are drinking.  This is because the prefrontal cortex also gives you your identity and allows you to think about long term goals and plans. When this more sophisticated part of the brain isn’t at full strength, you tend to act in ways that are out of character, and you tend to focus more on immediate gratification, and you temporarily don’t care about the consequences of your behaviors. You put what you truly want (recovery) aside and fall into a screw it mindset when you are being driven by the more primitive part of your brain.

Furthermore, alcohol strengthens those primitive parts of the brain that drive habitual behaviors.  In other words, it has the opposite effect on the lower brain and the higher brain.  Drinking causes a release in dopamine, which arouses pleasure and reward circuitry in the lower brain. It basically makes you more pleasure-seeking, and since the lower brain senses that binge eating is a form of pleasure, this could mean an increase in your urges to binge. However, this is not the case for everyone who struggles with bulimia or binge eating disorder. You may find that alcohol and the feelings it gives you are pleasurable on their own, without triggering a desire for the temporary and harmful pleasure of a binge (which always results in pain).

How Should You Deal with Alcohol as You Recover from Binge Eating?

Even if you know you have power over your urges, even if you understand that you don’t have to act on them (listen to Episode 4 for more on how to stop acting on urges to binge), drinking may tip the balance in favor of your lower brain so much that you find yourself binge eating. In the moment, you may feel like you don’t even care about recovery, and you may believe the thoughts that say, just one last time, and you can quit tomorrow. Drinking may even take away the sting of regret you usually feel right after the binge; but, when you wake up the next day, your rational brain will return and you’ll remember your desire for recovery and wish you had not binged.

On the other hand, you may be someone who can avoid the I don’t care mindset that sometimes gets drunk people to do things they regret. This could be due to a difference in personality types or a difference in the way alcohol affects each person physiologically. You may be someone who feels confident in your ability to say no to binge urges, no matter how many drinks you have.  Or, you may be somewhere in between, and find that you only feel in control up to a certain point. After 2 drinks, you might feel like you can easily avoid the harmful lower-brain-driven behaviors, but after 4 drinks, a binge starts to seems much more compelling.

Even though I personally felt like I could avoid a binge even if I was drinking, I didn’t put it to the test with larger amounts of alcohol. Not drinking a lot wasn’t something I resolved to do to help recovery —- I just wasn’t into drinking very much at the time. There were previous times, in college, when I did have more than a couple drinks, and can’t say for sure whether the new brain-based perspective that eventually helped me recover would have prevented binges during those times or not. I’d like to think that binge eating was so off limits in my mind that I still would have been able to say no, just like I always said no to driving after drinking.

I encourage you to think about the experiences you’ve had with alcohol and binge eating, and decide on a plan that works for you. Think about the way alcohol makes you feel in relation to your urges to binge, and your motivation toward recovery. Considering how alcohol affects the brain, it’s best to proceed with caution when you drink. You may even decide to give up alcohol completely until you’ve significantly weakened the binge eating habit or ended it altogether. Alternately, you may decide to simply limit your alcohol intake until you feel much more confident in your recovery. You can always make changes over time as you make progress in stopping the binge eating habit.

*This post is for recovering binge eaters whose drinking is already within reasonable limits. This post is not for people who feel like they have a problem with alcohol. If your drinking feels out of control, please seek appropriate help.

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For more help with ending binge eating, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF, or learn more about my Course.

Paleo binge eating

My Recovery Diet & Thoughts on Paleo as a Binge Eating Cure

I understand what it’s like to be confused about what to eat, and to feel like maybe if you just have the right meal plan, or if you eat all of the right foods, you can finally stop binge eating. Many people have asked what I ate at the time that I recovered, and today I’m going to share those details.

Since this post will address my diet and paleo eating, I want to say right away that I did not eat paleo when I stopped binge eating, and in fact, my diet was quite the opposite of paleo. Paleo is becoming a popular way to eat to pursue better health, weight loss, and even binge eating recovery. But, for reasons I’ll explain in this post, I do not believe paleo eating is a cure for binge eating disorder, bulimia, or any form of binge eating.

What I Ate During Binge Eating Recovery

I didn’t share exact details in my book, because I didn’t want people to feel like they should follow my way of eating. Everyone has different needs, and I certainly didn’t recover because of my specific diet. I am using the word diet in this sense to mean way of eating, and not a form of restriction.

My diet at the time I recovered in 2005 was not very healthy compared to today’s standards, especially if you believe that paleo eating is the healthiest. For example, when I recovered, whole wheat and whole grain food items were mostly considered healthy, and now some experts think they are at the root of many health problems and diseases. Also, low-fat dairy seemed to be considered healthier than full-fat dairy, and now many experts claim the opposite, or that dairy isn’t healthy in any form.

What I considered a pretty good diet then isn’t what I consider healthy today; and sometimes I am not even sure what I consider healthy (you can see my What is Healthy? post for a discussion about this). Nevertheless, I want to share what I ate in hopes that it will help you realize that you don’t have to eat perfectly, and that it’s important to eat enough.

Most of the time, I ate 3 meals plus 3 or 4 snacks per day, likely averaging about 2300 calories per day. I usually stayed in the range of 2000-2500 calories, sometimes slightly more, sometimes less. I didn’t count calories at the time, nor do I today; but I was pretty knowledgeable about calories, as most people with a history of eating disorders are, so I knew generally how much I was getting. I was very active at the time, because I was on my feet all day working in a special education classroom with kids who had severe and profound disabilities, and I exercised about 5-6 times a week for 20-30 min.

Even though I ate pretty regular meals and snacks, the meal/snack times and what I ate were very flexible. Sometimes I’d inadvertently miss a meal, sometimes I’d eat more that usual at a meal, and sometimes not as much. Below, I’ve included a small sample of some of the meals/snacks that I ate, and if you want to learn more about my overall thoughts on food intake, you can read my post, How Much Should I Eat?. Note that any measurement I give in this sample is just an average because I didn’t measure my food.

Breakfast:

  • Bowl of cereal (about 1 ½ cups dry cereal and 1 cup of 1% or 2% milk) and fruit. The cereal was usually something low-sugar/whole grain like Bran Flakes, but sometimes I’d chose a more sugary option.  or…
  • 2 whole grain waffles with about 2 tbsp peanut butter, and fruit. or….
  • Whole grain bagel with about 2 tbsp Cream cheese, and fruit. or….
  • 2 eggs (scrambled, fried, or hard-boiled) with 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast and butter, plus some fruit. or….
  • Bowl of oatmeal (2 servings based on the label) with a little low-fat milk and some fruit.

*The fruit that I ate with my breakfast was something like an apple, banana, grapes (maybe 15 or so), or an orange.

Snack #1:

  • 8 oz container of flavored yogurt or….
  • Granola bar or….
  • Protein bar or….
  • Low-fat cookies (about 4) or….
  • Cheese or peanut butter-filled cracker sandwiches (I believe 6 came in a pack)

Lunch:

  • Turkey and cheese sandwich (2 pieces whole grain bread, about 1 tbsp mayonnaise, 1 piece of cheese, a few slices of deli turkey), with chips (about 15) and a vegetable (usually a small can of green beans; or fresh celery or carrot sticks) or…
  • 1 can of soup (lentil, chicken noodle, black bean, tomato) with wheat crackers (about 8) or 1 or 2 pieces of whole grain toast, fruit- Lean pocket (usually 1, sometimes 2), vegetable, wheat crackers (5-10) or chips.

Snack #2: Generally the same choices as snack #1 above.

Dinner:

  • Whole wheat pasta and meatballs (about 1 1/2 cup cooked pasta, 2 medium meatballs, marinara sauce), with a serving of vegetables like corn or green peas, and a roll with butter.
  • Pork chops with gravy, brown Rice (1 1/2 cup cooked), a serving of vegetables, and a piece of garlic bread.
  • Tuna salad sandwich (2 slices of wheat bread, 3/4 can of tuna, mayo, mustard, lettuce, tomatoes, with chips (about 10-15).

Snack #3:

  • My late night snack was usually a bowl of cereal (about the same serving size as when I had it for breakfast). It was usually a cereal I thought was pretty healthy at the time; but I’d have a sugary option probably once every couple of weeks.

Desserts:

  • I had dessert an average of 2 times a week (usually after dinner). Desserts were something like 1 cup of ice cream, 1-5 cookies, an average size piece of cake, ½ of a chocolate bar, or just a couple of hard candies after a meal.

Eating out:

  • My husband and I were not the greatest cooks, and we did eat out a lot. We ordered pizza about once every two weeks for dinner, and I would usually eat 2 to 3 slices, depending on the size of the slices. We got fast food at least once per week for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. I ordered either a breakfast sandwich, or hamburger or fish sandwich with fries (usually small, but sometimes a bigger size if I was more hungry).

Drinks:

  • I drank mostly water at the time, but I’d often have a cup of orange, grape, or apple juice sometime during the day, and I drank a diet soda a couple times a week. I also drank coffee each day with 1% or 2% milk in it. I had one or two alcoholic drinks (beer or wine) a couple times per month.

The Opposite of Paleo

Considering that I thought whole grains/whole wheat were healthy, this seemed like a decent diet to me. It allowed me flexibility, foods that I liked, and variety. But, as it turned out, my diet was nearly the antithesis of the way of eating that many experts now claim is healthy, and that’s paleo eating.

The paleo diet has been popularized especially in the past couple years by books like The Paleo Solution by Robb Wolf (2010), and The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain (2010). The paleo theory basically argues against consumption of all wheat, grains, legumes, dairy products, sugar, and processed oils. In the rest of this post, I’m going to talk about this way of eating, and the implications for binge eaters.

When I first heard the theory that whole grains and whole wheat are not healthy, it honestly caught me off guard, because I’d spent so much time believing they were good for me. I could completely understand why someone would say that sugar, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods were unhealthy, but whole grains? It also shocked me that legumes and dairy (foods I assumed were healthy for many years) are excluded from the paleo diet. I did some research, and realized there is compelling evidence behind the idea that these foods are not the best choices for our health.

Is Paleo a Healthy Way to Eat?

The basic theory is that humans are not genetically adapted to digest grains, dairy, legumes, and the other foods that the paleo diet eliminates, and these foods act like toxins to our systems. There is still a lot of controversy about this theory, and I’m not saying I’m 100 percent sold on the idea. There are studies and experts who refute it, and some say it’s just another fad diet.

Personally, I still eat grains and beans, albeit less and especially less wheat; and I’ve been eating more meat, eggs, fresh veggies, and a lot more fat (in the form of coconut oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocados.) I still eat dairy as well; but now I always buy full-fat dairy.

If grains are a culprit in a lot of health problems in our society; I find this news pretty hard to take. One walk through the grocery store shows that most food manufactures promote “whole grain” food as a healthy option, or as a positive addition to any food. It’s one thing when you eat sugar or processed food and you know it’s not the best for you, but also okay in moderation; but it’s quite another when you eat something for years and years thinking it’s healthy, and you find out it probably wasn’t healthy after all.

A more bothersome part about this is that I’ve fed a lot of whole grains and beans to my children, basically since they started eating solid food, thinking I was doing something good for them. I bought a book about preparing healthy and natural baby food when my first born began eating solids. The book was more vegetarian in nature, and it recommended starting a baby’s day with a breakfast of homemade porridge, consisting of whole grains and beans blended together. When I think of all the whole grains and beans I bought in bulk from the health food store, and all of the nights I stayed up late cooking beans and grains for my babies, and how I went through a lot of extra trouble to lovingly feed them something I thought was healthy; I feel terrible to think all of it may have been in vain, or even toxic to their systems.

Again, it’s one thing to give your kid a cookie or candy knowing it’s primarily for pleasure and that they aren’t getting nutrition from it; but it’s quite another when you find out the majority of the “healthy” food you’ve fed your kids might not have been healthy at all. But enough of me venting about my personal feelings on this matter; now I want to turn to talking about how paleo eating relates to recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder.

Paleo as a Fix for Binge Eating?

Special diets as cures for binge eating and bulimia are nothing new. In Brain over Binge, I talked about the addiction model of treating binge eating. Addiction treatment is based on the idea that the foods a binge eater typically binges on, which are usually foods high in sugar and carbohydrates, are physically addictive; and to recover, the binge eater must abstain from those addictive foods, often indefinitely.

One of the pioneers in the addiction model of treating binge eating, compulsive eating, and food addiction was Anne Katherine, author of Anatomy of a Food Addiction. In her book, Katherine recommends avoiding what she believes are the culprits of a food addiction – sugar and refined carbohydrates. She recommends “converting to whole wheat eating,” and says that “nearly every beloved flour product can be replaced with a sugar-free, 100 percent whole-wheat product.” This book also recommends converting to other whole grains, like eating brown rice instead of white rice.[i]

Now, some are taking it one huge step further, by making a paleo diet a requirement, or at least an important step in recovery. While paleo eating might be helpful to some people in some ways, I would hate to see a situation where binge eaters are told they must give up many food groups in order to live free of binge eating. To make these types of sweeping changes in the way you eat is very difficult. I know several extremely health conscious people, and none of them follow a perfect paleo diet. Quite simply, asking binge eaters to only eat paleo foods in order to fix binge eating is asking too much, when even normal eaters can struggle greatly with eliminating foods from their diets.

The Problem with Paleo as a Potential Solution to Bulimia and Binge Eating Disorder

The reality is, grains are everywhere and we have learn to live with them. If we choose not to eat them, I believe it has to be just that – a choice – not a requirement for recovery. Avoiding certain foods for health reasons might be a beneficial choice for certain people, as long as the person is making sure they are eating enough calories and getting enough nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. However, as far as being helpful in recovery from bulimia and binge eating disorder, I think there are several reasons why a paleo diet is not the answer, and I’ve explained those reasons below:

  1. Avoiding certain foods with the belief that one bite of those foods will spiral into a binge can be self-fulfilling. What happens if the former binge eater decides to eat grains again one day? Does this mean she or he is destined to relapse? Feeling like you can control yourself around any food seems to be the safer option.
  2. Binge eaters can binge on anything. Even though carbohydrates are the most common binge foods, the reality is that binge eaters can and do binge on all types of foods. If you don’t break the binge eating habit, the primal brain will continue looking for opportunities to binge, and will find them on any eating regimen, including the paleo diet.
  3. A paleo diet does not take away the desire for the temporary pleasure of a binge. Binge eating alters the reward system in the brain and it becomes a habit of pleasure (which ultimately leads to pain). Just because the paleo diet says to eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates does not shut off the urges to binge on those foods. If a paleo diet is going to alter body and brain chemistry to eventually reduce cravings for certain “addicting” foods, it still doesn’t guarantee that the desire to binge will go away.
  4. Telling a binge eater to eat a paleo diet fails to address behavioral conditioning. The habit becomes wired into the brain so that the brain can produce cravings for binges automatically, regardless of what the person is eating.
  5. A paleo diet does not address the lack of self-control binge eaters feel.  A sense of lack of control over eating is fundamental to all cases of bulimia and binge eating disorder; so telling a binge eater that the solution to their problem is to use a ton of self control to avoid many foods simply doesn’t make sense.

Can Paleo at Least Help Eliminate Some Cravings and Urges?

Getting past these problems, if binge eaters could manage to eat a paleo-type diet for a long time, would it eliminate urges to binge?

If the person did not binge during this time, then I believe the urges would lessen or go away, but not due to the paleo diet itself. Not acting on the binge urges weakens the habit in the brain, and the urges fade, whether or not you are eating paleo. So, it’s not the paleo diet that eliminates the binge eating habit; it’s not binge eating that eliminates the binge eating habit.

If a person eats paleo, and binges on paleo foods, then they still have a binge eating habit. If a person eats a diet including all foods, and binges on none of those foods, then they do not have a binge eating habit. I realize this is obvious, but I think it’s important to point out that a certain way of eating is not the cure; the cure is to stop acting on the binge urges. (If you are new here and want to learn how to avoid following your urges to binge, you can download my free PDF, the Brain over Binge Basics.)

Then the question becomes: Is it easier to stop acting on urges to binge if you are eating paleo? I think the answer is possibly, for some people. If eating grains, sugar, and carbs typically leads to binge urges for you, then eating a paleo diet could potentially create a situation where you have less urges to deal with. That’s assuming you can stick to a paleo diet, but based on the problems I discussed above, it’s very difficult.

On the other hand, feelings of deprivation and restriction are some of the main drivers of urges to binge, so the elimination of certain foods may have the opposite effect of giving you more urges to deal with. Additionally, given that many binge eaters claim that stress brings on their urges to binge, it’s possible that the time, effort, and money it requires to eat a paleo diet might end up leading to more frequent urges. This is not to say that you need to eliminate stress or that you can’t try to eat healthy.  I’m just pointing out that binge urges arise in many different situations and in response to eating many different foods, and it’s not always predictable.  That’s why I believe it’s important to view the urges as the problem, not the situations or foods.

I didn’t eat a paleo diet, and neither have many others who have recovered; yet we managed to end the binge eating habit for food. Maybe if I would have eaten no sugar, dairy, wheat, grains, or legumes, I would have had less urges to deal with…or maybe more? Either way, looking back, I’m glad I recovered the way that I did; because now no food is dangerous to me. I can eat whatever I want without having to worry about it leading to urges to binge or to relapse. Furthermore, I don’t have to worry if and when science makes new discoveries that change what we currently know about nutrition, and gives us a whole new set of guidelines to be healthy or remain food-addiction free.

Brain over Binge is Not a Way to Stick to Diets

I want to end this post by telling you that the Brain over Binge approach is for ending binge eating, not for resisting every urge to eat something unhealthy or something that’s not paleo.  When you recover, you are saying no to urges to binge; you are not saying no to hunger signals, or all cravings, or all desires to eat in a way that may not be ideal. (I’ve talked about this thoroughly in Episode 12: Dismissing Urges to Binge is Not a Dieting Strategy, and Episode 49: Can I Use the Brain over Binge Approach to Stick to Strict Eating Plans?).

 

[i] Katherine, Anne. Anatomy of a Food Addiction: The Brain Chemistry of Overeating. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books, 1991. P. 189-190

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For more help with ending binge eating, you can download the free Brain over Binge Basics PDF, or learn more about my Course.