Hello, friends. To begin, I’d like to express my sincere thanks for all the support and love I received for my last post. It meant the world to me, as it was a difficult thing to share. I received a few requests since sharing “When Food was a Drug” to talk more about how to break out of the binge cycle, and how to learn to manage binge eating disorder. I am not a nutritionist or dietician, this advice is based on my own experience and research, but I hope that it may be of help to others who are struggling.
Binge eating disorder was only recognized as a diagnosable eating disorder in 2013, which means that there isn’t yet the kind of awareness about it as there is for Anorexia and Bulimia. And yet, binge eating disorder affects more people than Anorexia and Bulimia combined, and can be equally dangerous for one’s health. The causes that lead to binge eating disorder are often different for everyone, but the binge cycle looks similar for those suffering. For me, the binge cycle went like this:
I would come home from work at the end of the day, feeling sad, insecure, stressed, scared, lonely, or bored. On the way home I would pick up potato chips and candy, or a frozen pizza, or all of the above. I craved the instant gratification of food, and I was powerless in the face of that craving. I knew that when I binged, I would feel momentary pleasure and be distracted from what was bothering me. I would plant myself on my couch, turn on the TV, and begin consuming. I ate, and I ate, and I ate, past the point of pleasure, to the point of discomfort. I had no control. I’d look in on myself in horror and say “what are you doing? Why are you doing this?” And I’d just keep going, until the food was gone. In the aftermath, I’d feel sick, miserable and deeply ashamed. I’d feel worse than I felt before the binge. I’d immediately go into a state of restriction for days or longer, trying to diet away the shame to balance off what I’d done, until once again, I’d be triggered, and the cycle would resume. Trigger, binge, misery, restriction, repeat.
When I moved into recovery from my eating disorder, and people would ask me what my weight loss secret was, I’d say some combination of “nutrition, exercise, and self-love.” And all that was true, but learning how to manage and overcome my eating disorder was much more complicated than that. Because my brain has been permanently rewired to seek food for pleasure and reward, it took a lot of different strategies to change my behaviour. Here are some that helped me, and may be helpful to you as well.
1. Feel the Feelings
This is the most important piece of advice I can give anyone trying to overcome binge eating disorder. BED comes from a desire to distract oneself from painful feelings by using food to create calm and pleasure. Similar to those who abuse substances, when you abuse food, you’re trying to get away from whatever negative emotions you may be feeling, along with what caused them. So, when you feel the desire to binge, stop and think, identify the feeling you’re having, and let yourself feel it. If you’re feeling sad, identify why, let yourself cry, let yourself feel. Feelings aren’t the enemy, even bad feelings. I kept a journal with me during recovery, so that I would write when I felt triggered to binge. I’d identify what I was feeling, then think about why I was feeling that way. I’d let myself be in the space where I was, rather than trying to push myself out of it.
When I felt like I wanted to binge and I identified the ‘why’ behind it, I was able to better avoid bingeing. For example, when I first moved to Toronto, I didn’t have a lot of friends in the city, so I was often lonely. I realized this was a huge trigger for me, so when I recognized the desire to binge out of loneliness, I’d call one of my best friends to talk on the phone. If no one was available, I’d take myself out to a movie. Getting myself out of the house and situated around other people meant I was far less likely to binge.
If anger is behind your desire to binge, the very best thing you can do is go exercise. Yeah, it’s hard at first, but let me tell you, some of my best workouts have been angry workouts. Working out angry makes you feel fierce, empowered, and it releases endorphins. Take all that anger, feel it, and funnel it into your health. When you choose bingeing over exercise, the person or thing that caused your anger maintains power over you. Take your power back.
If you can, see a therapist. When I started down the road to recovery, I didn’t have the financial resources to get professional help, though I did later during relapse. Binge eating disorder is a mental health problem, and it is not your fault. Your recovery will be best supported by working with a professional.
2. Count Your Calories, but Don’t Deprive Yourself
People who suffer from binge eating disorder lack the “stop mechanism” in their brain. This means that eventually, intuitive eating may be possible, but in the initial stages of recovery, calorie counting is key. I had no idea how much I was supposed to be eating, and calorie counting allowed me to come to understand portions and nutrient balance. It also let me decide how I wanted to spend my daily food budget, which meant that I never felt like I was depriving myself of anything.
I didn’t deny myself my favourite foods, even those that were my binge triggers, I just found healthier alternatives, or I’d eat them in smaller portions which would fit within my food budget. When I went out with friends and they’d buy after bar foods, I’d have a bite of their pizza, or a couple forks of their poutine. I drank 1-2 glasses of red wine every other day with dinner. I baked healthy cookies at 80kcal a piece and would let myself have two a day. Fully depriving yourself of your favourite foods can lead to a binge later; practice balance.
Exercise is important for everyone for overall physical health, but exercise for me is a huge part of recovery. I’m not manic about my activity, but I work out 4-5 days a week. Exercising gives me self-confidence, and makes me feel strong. It releases endorphins, so it can be an excellent replacement for the desire to use food for pleasure. I never used to like to exercise, but nowadays, I gain so much pride from gains I make in the gym or the pool. That feeling of strength makes me feel fierce and joyful. When I have a heavier food day, I make doubly sure to have a great workout the next day. Exercise helps me feel that I have control over my body, myself, and my eating disorder.
4. Get Enough Sleep
Fatigue is a very common binge trigger, because of the change in hormones that sleep deprivation causes in your body. When you are sleep deprived, your body increases the production hormone Ghrelin, which tells you when it is time to eat, and it decreases the production of the hormone Leptin, which tells you when to stop eating. So, if you are already struggling with binge eating, adequate sleep is critical. When you feel the urge to binge, ask yourself if it is because you are tired. If so, go take a nap. If you’re exercising regularly, this can often go hand in hand with helping you to sleep better. I used to struggle to get enough sleep, but regular exercise can lead to deep, peaceful rests.
5. Know that Relapse is Part of Recovery
Relapse is a difficult and very real part of recovery. Whether you fall off the wagon and binge once, or if it becomes a longer term problem, you can’t allow the setback to stop you from trying to recover. One of the mantras I’ve always used is “I commit to recommit.” I know there may be times that I fall off the wagon, but I promise myself to get back on it and keep going. At one point in time a few years back, I fell off the wagon for several months. A lot of things were going wrong in my life, and I turned to food for comfort once again and stopped exercising regularly. But, I came back from that, and my relationship with food is now healthy especially combined with regular exercise.
In relapse, I felt guilt, shame, and sadness that I hadn’t managed to conquer my eating disorder for good. A large part of the work that I did to get out of that space was to address the underlying problems in my life that were putting me in the space I was in. I sought counselling, reached out to friends, and found ways to focus on the things that brought me joy. I found a way through the pain, and fought for my best life.
These days, I’m in a wonderful, healthy place. My life is full with physical activity, time with loved ones, creative pursuits, healthy foods, and a job I love. I can’t say that I’ll never binge again, but if I do, I’ll pick myself up, dust myself off, and move on; that’s what recovery looks like for those who have struggled with binge eating disorder. I don’t let myself get sucked into the binge cycle anymore, I know where that leads. There is a life after binge eating disorder. It’s truly amazing to me to see who I became when I was no longer constrained by the walls I built for myself. And to those of you who are also struggling, know that you, too have the power to set yourself free.