Contrary to what most people believe, my recovery didn't end when I conquered anorexia. My demons decided that they weren't done with me just yet. Here's the part of my story you didn't know - my battle with binge eating.
Part I: What Binge Eating is Not
Let me begin by clarifying the crucial distinction between binging and overeating/treating yourself.
What binging is not:
Eating an extra slice of birthday cake
Finishing dinner and going back for seconds (or even thirds if you're still hungry)
Ordering an extra large ice cream sundae with all of the toppings on a hot summer night
Picking at a few different snacks until you find the one that hits the spot
Eating until your belly feels full
It's a very unfortunate truth that society has begun to confuse normal eating behaviors for binging - a direct result of food restriction and caloric deficit becoming the norm. As someone who preaches the importance of intuitive eating, I work to constantly remind others that we will not eat the same types or amounts of food every single day, and that's exactly how it should be. Our bodies' needs will forever continue to change on a daily basis based on activity level, environment, stress level, fatigue, etc. With these changes, we will simultaneously experience changes in our hunger and cravings. I must emphasize that we should not mistake our days of extreme hunger for binging. Eating more than you typically do, in response to your body's hunger cues, is beautiful. That's exactly how any doctor, nutritionist or exercise specialist would advise you to eat.
Similarly to that, another very important point to emphasize is that we ALL overeat sometimes, whether it's because of a holiday, vacation, boredom, or just simply because we are really enjoying the food we're eating. That is an extremely normal behavior every once in a while and should not be mistaken for binging. As long as this behavior does not become a habitual or recurring problem, you have nothing to worry about. We're human! We like food! And sometimes we like to eat a lot of it! That's A-OK.
So just to clarify, treating yourself to an ice cream cone every night of your beach vacation is not binging. Filling up your plate on Thanksgiving and then going back for seconds (or maybe thirds) is not binging. Having an extra slice of pizza, simply because it smells so damn good, is not binging. Treating your body every now and again is NORMAL. It's when you begin to lose control over these episodes of eating that problems arise.
Part II: So What is Binge Eating?
In general terms, binge eating disorder (BED) is compulsive overeating or rapidly consuming abnormal amounts of food (far more than your body requires) while feeling unable to stop/gain control. It is formally characterized by 'recurrent episodes of eating large quantities of food, often very quickly and to the point of discomfort'. It is a severe, life-threatening eating disorder - not a weakness or source of shame.
Below is an abbreviated list of common behaviors and warning signs associated with BED. I will emphasize that this is an abbreviated list, and does not include all of the behaviors and warning signs that have been identified as diagnostic criteria. I specifically chose to highlight the ones listed below because I felt as though they were the most helpful in distinguishing between BED and innocent overeating. For a more comprehensive list, click here.
Recurrent episodes of overeating
Eating until feeling uncomfortably full
Eating large amounts of food when not feeling physically hungry
Eating alone because of feeling embarrassed by how much one is eating
Feeling disgusted with oneself, depressed or very guilty afterward
It's important to point out that nowhere on that list does it say 'eating more food than usual in response to increased hunger'. Binging is not eating large amounts of food in response to physical hunger, but instead eating in an attempt to satisfy an emotional hunger. If your body is asking you for food, respect that. Yes, it is normal to have days where you feel like a bottomless pit. And YES, it is okay to respond to that hunger by providing your body with extra fuel. That is not binging, that is taking care of yourself. When you begin to eat in an attempt to fill an emotional void, escape reality or achieve a temporary high from the satisfaction of food, that's where it begins to get messy.
Part III: My Battle
So, let me begin by painting you a picture as we take a stroll down memory lane.
It's 11pm and I am sitting in my bed, fully satisfied from dinner earlier that evening and the bowl of popcorn I was snacking on before heading upstairs. My belly isn't the slightest bit hungry, but after my stressful day, the only thing I have been able to think about since polishing off that bowl of popcorn is those Oreos in the pantry. I decide to go downstairs to the kitchen telling myself "I'll have a few Oreos with milk and come right back up," knowing damn well that that's not what my demons had planned.
I peel open the Oreos and start with just 1, then 2, then 3, 4, 5...before I know it, I've mindlessly eaten the entire sleeve. And now, simple as that, I've entered right into my black and white way of thinking. I tell myself, "Well, you already had all of those cookies, so you might as well just eat everything else in sight." I hear my demons say, "You've already ruined your day with those Oreos, so now your only option is to say f*ck it and just start over tomorrow."
Before pausing to check in with myself to see how I'm feeling, what I'm thinking, or what I need in that moment, I find myself right back in front of the wide open pantry. I grab the first thing I see - salted almonds. I devour handful after handful, put those back, and quickly move on to the chips. After polishing off an entire family-sized bag without taking a single breath, I hide the evidence under the rest of the garbage in the trash can, and pop a bagel in the toaster while pouring myself half the box of cereal. I devour both, and move on to the leftover pasta in the fridge.
I try to move as quietly as I possibly can to ensure that no one wakes up to hear me. I open the fridge slowly, making sure it doesn't squeak. I eat off of napkins to avoid the sound of my plates hitting the hard counter top. I stop the microwave before it hits 0 because God forbid someone came into the kitchen and caught me in the act. I would be mortified.
I gaze up to the clock and see that only 30 minutes have gone by, yet I've somehow managed to consume a full day's worth of calories. I feel physically sick - so sick that even breathing without discomfort becomes a challenge. My belly could pop any second from the mass amounts of food I've just stuffed inside. But even then, in that moment of sheer discomfort, I still want more. I find myself planted right back in front of the wide open pantry, and the cycle continues.
So now that I've allowed for you to take a glimpse into the peak of my struggles with binging, let me explain how I got there.
I didn't always struggle with binging. I actually struggled with the exact opposite for over 5 years prior. I was diagnosed with anorexia at the age of 16, was hospitalized by the age of 19, and nearly lost my life to that illness all together before making it to 20. But despite all odds, I conquered anorexia. I fought like hell and achieved recovery within a year and a half of my discharge from inpatient treatment. I was completely weight restored, I was off of my medications, I was cleared to begin exercising again, and I was finally beginning to find peace with the monsters in my head.
It wasn't until about 2 years post-hospitalization that my battle with binge eating began. And the scariest part was that it seemed to come out of no where. I thought that I was finally beginning to experience true joy in eating again (for the first time in YEARS), but now looking back, I can clearly see that I was still relying on food in an unhealthy way to deal with life. The first time around, I avoided food at all costs to provide me with a temporary high and sense of superiority. This time around I was still abusing food, but instead of avoiding it, I became addicted to it. I single-handidly relied on it to numb any of the pain I was experiencing in my life.
I thought I conquered anorexia, but looking back, I now realize that there was a small handful of stones that had been left unturned in that process. I successfully faced hundreds of my deeply internal struggles and insecurities throughout that recovery journey, but there were still a few more things I needed to face. I soon came to see that taking those shortcuts was coming back to bite me in the ass, and that my demons hadn't actually disappeared, they simply transformed themselves into a new monster.
I needed to learn to stop relying on food to ease my pain. I needed to accept that starving myself didn't solve any of my problems, and neither would binging. I had to remind myself every single day that I should not grant food so much power. But no matter how many times I repeated these mantras in my head, nothing would change until I took action. I had to gear myself up for round two and prepare to go back into battle. I had done this once before and I knew I could do it again, but not until I took a moment to stare this new demon straight in the eye.
Part IV: Breaking The Cycle
I wish I could give you a step-by-step guide on how to conquer binge eating, but unfortunately what worked for me may not work for you because all of our journeys are unique. While I cannot write a comprehensive How To list, I can tell you what I learned and what I am still learning as I continue to navigate through this journey.
My struggles persisted for about 12 months before I began to get a grip on them. At the peak of my battle, I was heavily binging 4-5 times per week. I had gained an uncomfortable amount of weight. My body felt sluggish and constantly bloated. My energy levels were hitting their rock bottom. I was crumbling. And the worst part of it all was that I was too embarrassed to ask for help, so I continued to struggle in silence.
I vividly remember walking out of my annual physical in tears as I told my mom how much weight I had gained. I wasn't comfortable telling my doctor about my binging, so I attributed the weight gain to the fact that I had been "lifting more and gaining muscle" in a weak attempt to make myself feel better. As the words came out of my mouth, I felt a sense of shame consume my entire body. I remember cringing as my doctor did the physical exam, wanting to crawl out of my skin when she rubbed her hand over my bulging stomach. I couldn't even recognize myself anymore. I needed help.
Step # 1 - PUT THE BRAKES ON
Binging became a part of my daily routine. My notorious all-or-nothing mindset was in full swing. "You've already gained so much weight," my monsters would whisper, "so what's a few more pounds?" I couldn't find the point in trying to change my behavior because I felt too far gone. But please take my word when I tell you this - it's never too late to break the cycle.
It was time to stop this train dead in its tracks, but that was much easier said than done. I had been trying to do this on my own for one year too long, so I was finally ready to call for backup. I couldn't stop the binging on my own, so I began to rely on accountability for the extra push that I so desperately needed. I opened up to my mom about my struggles, and together we talked through what would be most helpful in initially breaking that addiction.
Here's what we came up with:
The "lights out" rule - I almost always binged late at night once everyone else went to sleep, so we created this rule to gently deter me from coming back down to the kitchen once everyone else was in bed. It was a simple signal from my mom to help remind me that it was no longer time to eat. After dinner and maybe an evening snack or two, she would announce "lights out" and follow it with "kitchen is closed." Of course there were no locked doors or pass codes to keep me out, but that simple nightly reminder was a great first step. It emphasized that I now had someone who would be keeping their eye on me, and if she heard footsteps coming down the stairs that night, she would be the first one to confront me.
Hide the trigger foods - My parents always had a few staples in the pantry that became my go-to foods when I binged. We called them my trigger foods because just the sight of them was enough to send me over the edge (sweet and salty trail mix, peanut butter, and cereal were a few of my biggest trigger foods). As a family, we agreed to stop buying those foods until I became more confident in my ability to stop the cycle. After a while, we began buying them again so that my family could enjoy them, but we would keep them in a separate pantry from the rest of the food. This was SO helpful for me because you know what they say - out of sight, out of mind.
Journaling before bed - This was one of the only ways I could rationalize the thoughts going through my head. Every night before bed, I would take about 20 minutes to just write whatever was on my mind. It was the time I spent checking in with myself to see where my mind was at that day. I would remind myself of my goals, write down a few things I was proud of myself for that day, explore any problems I faced, etc. It allowed for me to sort through my thoughts and rationalize them before taking out my stress, exhaustion, or frustration on food.
Step #2 - R.I.D.E OUT THE WAVE
This is a theory I had heard a million times before, but never understood how effective it was until I decided to give it a shot. In the midst of my struggles, I would feel the urge to binge slowly build throughout the day until it finally hit its peak around 10 or 11pm every evening. When that peak hit, it felt absolutely impossible to ignore. I would try to fight it, but the strength of that wave was far too strong. It was like there was a gravitational pull dragging me into the kitchen, and I could never seem to hold my ground.
Riding out the wave is a technique most-often practiced with anxiety, but it can be easily applied to eating disorders as well. R.I.D.E stands for recognize, involve, distract, and end. This 4-step process is based on the fact that what goes up must come down, meaning that your urge to binge cannot possibly remain at its peak forever. Just as it slowly escalated throughout the day, it will soon rescind. We just have to ride out that wave and wait for it to crash.
Here's what it's all about:
1) Recognize your urge to binge.
2) Once you're feeling that urge begin to build, immediately involve yourself in your surroundings. Look around and pay attention to what's going on around you. Notice who's there, what people are saying, what the environment looks like. If you're alone, remove yourself from seclusion and surround yourself with other people, if possible. If not, try calling a friend.
3) The next (and most important) step is to distract yourself. Talk to someone and really pay attention to the conversation, sing a song, read a magazine, or watch something on TV. Try to become active in what you do - for example, if you are reading a magazine, say the words aloud to yourself. The goal is to focus on something other than the urge you're experiencing.
4) When you've allowed for enough time to pass by distracting yourself away from your feelings, the urge will naturally end.
I agree - it sounds pretty dang simple! But I promise you, it's one of the most effective strategies I've learned so far. So in your next moment of doubt, when the urge seems more powerful than ever before, repeat these words aloud to yourself 100 times - what goes up, must come down.
Step #3 - STOP TRYING TO OUTSMART YOUR BODY
When you fail to give your body what it needs for survival, your hunger switch remains firmly on until this need for nourishment has been met. Forcing your body into a caloric and/or nutritional deficit is not the solution, but actually the root of many people's problems. Your brilliant body will pick up on the fact that you're not taking proper care of it anymore, and it will try to save you. It will fire signal after signal, begging you to feed it properly again. And the best part - it will do this relentlessly until you oblige.
In the words of Geneen Roth, author of Breaking Free From Compulsive Eating...
"The fourth law of the universe is that for every diet, there is an equal and opposite binge."
In most people, the signals that your body is firing are eventually met with an unplanned episode of overeating. This small deviation triggers that infamous all-or-nothing mindset of ours, and since we've already "screwed up", the floodgates have been opened.
So here is my challenge for you: eat like you did when you were five years old. Stop trying to resist your carb cravings by using cauliflower for everything. Stop buying that low-calorie, high-protein diet ice cream when your body is begging for some real Ben and Jerry's half baked. Stop drinking gallons and gallons of lemon water to try to suppress your appetite. Just EAT, satisfy that craving, and allow it to naturally subside. I promise you, it will save you so much time (and so many binges) in the long run.
Part V: Moving Forward
Believe it or not, someday this struggle will become manageable. Someday you will celebrate going 2 months or maybe even 2 years without a binge, rather than 2 days. Someday soon you will look back at this post with reassurance, rather than doubt.
Before hitting you with the more abstract (and mushy gushy) advice, I will leave you with a few concrete pieces of advice to help you get on the right foot. Please keep in mind that these are a few tips and tricks that worked for me, but you may need to tweak them for yourself, or even try something totally different. If that's the case, don't panic. Just listen to yourself and trust the process.
Tip 1: Write a letter to your future self
If you find yourself surrendering to the urge to binge, use that frustration to prevent the next binge. As soon as the binge has ceased, immediately write down every thought and feeling racing through your head - write about the discomfort, explain your anger, remind yourself that it didn't solve anything. Tell yourself that next time this urge hits, succumbing to the temptation will not resolve the stress, insecurity, or sadness you're feeling (and in actuality, it only makes it worse). Beg yourself to say no. Beg yourself to resist and stay strong. Beg yourself to fight. And next time that urge resurfaces, pull out that letter and read it.
Tip 2: Reintroduce your trigger foods slowly
This was a tough one. I would be doing great for weeks at a time, until that damn trail mix found its way back into the pantry. One handful would turn into twenty, and before I knew it, I had opened the floodgate. My advice is to buy the pre-portioned snack bags for any of the foods you typically binge on (only once you're ready to start eating them again). You may not need to do this forever, but it's a great way to learn how to reincorporate those foods back into your life without overdoing it. I would buy the individual snack packs of trail mix, peanut butter, and so on until I felt confident enough to eat from the bag or jar again without succumbing to a binge. And I can reassure you that it is possible! I conquered that part of the battle and you can too. This gal no longer allows any family-sized bags of trail mix or jars of peanut butter to take me down.
Tip 3: Be as transparent as possible
Secrets will do NOTHING for you in this process. Find someone in your life who you can wholeheartedly rely on to listen to you without judgement, and utilize that relationship to its fullest. When you feel weak, admit it. When you hear that monster starting to whisper in your ear, admit it. When you want to binge, and every ounce of your being wants to binge, admit it. Don't ever be too embarrassed or too shameful to ask for help. This is an illness, not a choice. Don't ever forget that.
I've shared a lot with you, but it ultimately all comes down to this - you have to want recovery. No amount of blog posts, inspirational quotes, or "tips and tricks" can save you from this demon until you commit to the process. Just like everything else in life, the power is in your hands and your hands only. I can show you the way, but it's your choice whether or not you will choose to proceed.
Make today the day that things are going to change. If you're reading this and your day has already gotten off to a rocky start, it's time to wipe the slate clean and begin again. If you're just waking up with fresh eyes and a clear head, let's put that energy to good use. If you're crumbling in a moment of doubt or frustration, channel your anger into motivation. Where ever you may be right now, meet yourself there.
Today is your day. Break the cycle. Ride out the wave. Open up to someone who will listen. Find a shoulder to lean on. DIG DEEP. It's going to be hard, and it's going to seem impossible at times, but I wouldn't be sitting here today typing these words if I didn't truly believe you could do it. I beg of you to make today the day you turn your life around. It's your battle to conquer - get out there and do it.