Beating the Binge

I used to binge. And then I ate compulsively. I hid food. I hoarded it. I threw food out the window of my car. I would white-knuckle my way to my next meal, believing that life would never look any other way. It felt like the compulsion to “keep eating” would never be lifted.  Boy, was I wrong.

About ten years ago, a newspaper interviewed me on the topic of “Beating the Binge.” Back then, I had a few things of value to say but there were so many things I did not yet understand. As I’ve continued my own journey of recovery and counseled hundreds of clients, including many who’ve binged, I’ve gained so much more insight into this topic. Here are several key takeaways.

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Eat Enough

In my eating disorder, I had no idea how much energy in the form of calories I truly needed in a day. I thought 2,000 kcal for women must be a maximum. If I was going to lose that “stubborn weight,” then certainly I must eat less than that. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

We often misunderstand or mistake things like labels and MyFitnessPal as indicators for how much we should eat. This can lead to vastly underestimating calorie needs, which, of course, sets us up for failure. The multi-billion-dollar diet industry does a good job at sabotaging us as well.  Many of my clients who struggle with binge eating do so because of calorie or macronutrient deprivation, or both. Once they learn how to feed their bodies adequately, the bingeing often stops.

Being fully satiated on a deep physical level helps us to stop ruminating over food and rummaging through the cabinets.

For those of you who may be struggling with anorexia nervosa and binge, know this is so completely biologically normal. No, you’re not a food addict. No, you’re not an emotional overeater. Your body is simply responding to starvation.

The only way to beat the binge in anorexia is to recover from anorexia.

In other words, your body needs plenty of food, for plenty of time. These changes don’t happen in a week, or even a month. And it often takes well above 2,500 kcal as a reference. Metabolic needs in anorexia nervosa recovery are astronomically high. Comparing your needs to those of others who eat less or go many hours without food is fruitless.  Your body is healing from a traumatic wasting disease that literally burns through calories as it repairs.

Honor Your Emotional Hunger

Sometimes this hunger is felt in your throat or mouth versus your stomach. And sometimes it mimics stomach hunger closely, which can create internal confusion.

Rather than immediately reacting by eating, pause and consider it a message from your Self.* Non-physical hunger (though also felt in the body) can be a great messenger for what we need emotionally. This urge often rises to the surface when the distractions of the day cease and emotions bubble to the surface along with it. Instead of feeling all the nuances of these emotions, which can sometimes be uncomfortable or painful, the pressure to cave into cravings to soothe can be overwhelming. Once we engage in non-hunger eating, it can turn into a process addiction of feeling better through food.

Instead of eating, this is a time to be kindly inquisitive with your Self.

Tell your inner critic to stay quiet for a few minutes while you journal, reflect on what the day brought forth, and what you are truly desiring in the moment. If it’s love, food won’t do it. If it’s sleep, food won’t do it. If it’s excitement, food will only do it very temporarily.

We must begin listening to these emotional hungers and honor them. This is where psychotherapy can be so helpful; to learn tools to identify feelings and triggers to those feelings. It’s often necessary to learn alternative coping mechanisms.

*Not eating until you are certain that you are physically hungry does not apply to those who remain underweight or undernourished. In AN, you cannot rely on physical cues of hunger and fullness but must instead follow a meal plan created for you by a qualified professional such as a Certified Eating Disorder Dietitian (CEDRD).

Create Structure

Just as structure is good for kids, it’s also good for us…to an extent. Our stomachs empty about every four hours and we should, therefore, eat at about that rate, if not sooner. Waiting too long between meals tends to make us overly hungry, which can lead to faster eating, poorer choices, and fuller bellies.

Over time, when we eat rarely or sporadically, we can lose touch with those internal cues of hunger and fullness. When we’re first learning how to eat intuitively again, structure helps us get back in touch with those signals. I often recommend three meals and two to three snacks daily. If you rise early in the morning, you’ll likely benefit from a morning snack. Otherwise, the structure can look something like this:

  • 9:00 AM: Breakfast
  • 12:00 PM: Lunch
  • 3:30 PM: Snack
  • 7:00 PM: Dinner
  • 9:00 PM: Snack

Stay tuned for my next blog which will give you a sneak peek into my day of eating with ideas and recipes.

Make Yourself a Plate

When your body is ready to eat, make yourself a plate. Even if it’s a snack, make yourself a plate. Reaching into endless bags of food makes it easier to over-do-it.

And cutting those thin slivers of brownie off eventually leads to eating the entire pan. Cut off an appropriate portion, pour yourself a cup of milk and make yourself a plate. Then sit. Taste. Stay in your body.

If you notice yourself speeding up, pause. Stop eating for 30 seconds. Look around. Notice the red tea pot on the stove. The wear on the cabinets. Then continue. Staying conscious is the opposite of what happens in a binge.

Stay present. Taste and enjoy.

Treat All Foods Equally

If we categorize foods as “good” or “bad,” “allowed” or “off-limits,” we increase the value of those taboo foods. Again, sabotage is waiting for us around the corner.

It’s difficult not to fall for the myriad of nutrition messages constantly streaming around us. It’s even more difficult to let go of the food beliefs we were taught as children.

It’s important to make food neutral and not such a “big deal.”  When food is a big deal, so will eating or not eating it—as will how we feel about ourselves afterward. 

For some, certain foods are taboo not for nutrition or weight reasons, but for reasons associated with anxiety. Food exposure with a professional can be a wonderful opportunity for healing and learning to incorporate a whole variety of new foods.

For example, I equally enjoy my kale salads with tempeh and my ice cream with chocolate. They’re both completely allowed and thoroughly enjoyed in my life. In this way, I no longer binge ice cream and no longer regretfully feel I “should” be eating vegetables. This leads to my next takeaway.

Get Rid of Your Rules

Even if you don’t follow them, mentally holding onto nutrition rules can affect your ability to make choices, often lead to bingeing.  For example, if you buy into the idea that “carbs are bad” and that you should only be eating protein and vegetables, then every time you eat a sandwich for lunch, you’ll reinforce a sense of internal failure. This can easily lead to what I call the “f#*k it syndrome”—opening the flood gates of poor self-care for the rest of the day. If you feel you’ve blown it already, why bother trying?

This mindset sets us up for black and white thinking, which causes us to miss out on the rainbow of color that life provides. So, even-though you may not follow the rules you’ve adopted, they can still create a cycle of shame-induced bingeing.

Be aware of your internal dialogue. For example, if you believe pizza is bad, it can become easy to overeat pizza if you’re telling yourself you should not be eating it in the first place. When we’re caught in the rules of our minds, it's far more difficult to hear the cues of our bodies.

Keep Trigger Foods out of the House (At First)

If you’re like many who’ve had deep food beliefs for many years, getting rid of rules will take some time, as will learning to eat all foods in moderation. Previously forbidden foods will likely continue to have a stronger pull until, through continuous exposure, they too become neutral.

Until this exposure is done safely and successfully, such as through pre-planned single-portion food challenges, it may be best to keep trigger foods out of your house. If a food continues to “call your name,” wait before keeping it in your home in abundance.

Let Go of Losing Weight

This is a tough one because, let’s face it, most people in our society today would be glad to lose some weight. We are conditioned for this desire and it can be overwhelmingly powerful. But just because we have a desire, doesn’t mean we must (or should) act on it.

I remind my clients that the desire to lose weight may take time to go away. We practice accepting this feeling without acting on it. As soon as our focus shifts to weight loss, we tend to sabotage ourselves—with rules, breaking the rules, and shame. When shame—a frequent motivator for bingeing—is triggered, we become more likely to engage in self-destruction. We confirm to ourselves that those deep-seeded core beliefs are true: we aren’t worthy, we aren’t good enough, we don’t have self-control.

But what if your current weight is already perfect? What if there isn’t—and never was—any “stubborn” weight to lose? What if your health doesn’t depend on your weight?

Even if you cannot believe these concepts, accepting your body precisely where it is today, just for today, makes self-care far more feasible.

And get rid of your scale.

Shake the Shame

Get rid of the idea that eating “clean” makes you more worthy. Or that your worth in any way is connected to how you eat.  There is a certain elitism associated with clean eating in our culture today.  If you rigidly follow health and wellness regimes, know that it can eventually catch up with you through inner rebellion and physical hunger.            

You have a right to proudly inhabit your body, regardless of size. You can fight against the weight discrimination that’s so prevalent in society today. Losing weight doesn’t necessarily equal better health or more happiness. No matter what, you belong in this world.

It has been many, many years since I’ve felt the need to binge. I believe if bingeing is something you struggle with, you, too, can beat the binge with patience and work.

Marlena TannerComment