One of the most common topics that arises in reader emails is binge eating. And I, veteran binger that I am, get it. I do. A recent letter read,
“What were the first steps you took to not giving into the binge? The first days, or even moments when you committed to your weight loss? What do you think was your rock with keeping you on your journey? I know I can do this, but I keep having these random binges that break me. I would love your advice.”
God, I wish I had the answers. For you, for me. While I rarely binge eat anymore, I do think of it now and then—and sometimes achingly.
The truth is, that split second when I’m teetering on a cliff and I can’t tell if I’m about to fall or throw myself over, is among my greatest struggles in life. And that is because…wait for it…it’s not really about the food. It’s about so, so many things—physical nourishment being the least important. The food isn’t merely food; it’s laced with all these feelings, unrequited yearnings, unmet needs, and pains. It’s meant to give me something, and the very act of bingeing—I’ve come to realize—was and is, for me, about filling a void, plugging a hole within myself. That is the deepest level of the binge. That’s the truest, basest meaning of a binge for me. Higher levels—ones closer to the surface—are much clearer for me to read. They reveal that craving within me to numb out when faced with discomfort, my tendency toward escapism.
When I was little, and my family was chaotic and broken and the trauma was too much to bear, I ate to escape. Distraction through eating served as a form of protection from the very painful reality of our lives. But it was also about food being there when no one else was. My mom was always gone, working. My dad was always gone, too—drinking. I needed something to literally fill the space, to make me feel less alone. Food did that.
As I grew up, I only continued and strengthened this process of “using” food. I had unconsciously created all of these associations between my emotions—both positive and negative—and food as the way to deal with them. And the strongest of those associations—the ones that spur salivation upon feeling—will likely remain with me for the rest of my life.
The thing that I had to learn in the process of losing weight, and even now, was and is, that I must remember all of this when I want to [ab]use food. I have to remember that wanting to binge is not due to the fact that I just reallyreallyreally crave pizza and cake and cookies and ice cream all at one meal; it’s not purely because I’m lustful for decadence. Because if it were—if I were simply in need of a break from “healthy” or “clean” eating, then a reasonable serving of pizza would be perfectly fine by me. And a bowl of ice cream afterward would be dandy. But those of us who binge eat know that we’re not always interested in a reasonable amount of anything. I want ALL THE PIZZA. ALL THE ICE CREAM. And then, I want the donuts. It’s not about indulgence; it’s about overindulgence. It’s about being so full you can’t think anymore.
Once you know this about yourself—or at least, once you admit it—it’s awfully hard to ignore.
The very second that I start to feel a tickle to binge eat, I have to think about what’s going on in my life. What’s the bigger picture? What’s triggering me? The last time I felt this way was right around the week I turned in the third draft of edits for my book. I was, well, just so down about them. Anxious about how my editor would react to the new material, I’d begun to wonder if the whole book was garbage. In my personal life, my mom and I were completely at odds. She—like me—is utterly perfectionistic, and often, that perfectionism of hers can mean that she starts picking at me about things she wishes I’d do with my life. And as someone who only wants to give their mother the moon and each and every star, that just slays me. All these things to say: I was overwhelmed in my a few areas of my life. I didn’t really know how to fix any of it. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was a loser. I felt lost. And it translated into me wanting nothing more than to binge eat. Now, I think it would make for a great and redeeming story if I could tell you that I recognized all of my behavior patterns—especially with food—and I overcame the lowliness of losery feelings and avoided the binge. Cue trumpets and triumphant shouting. But no. Truth? I didn’t. I wallowed and I ate. Alone and ashamed for a full day. And it.was.just.awful. I cried as I swallowed the last sweet, realizing that it hadn’t done a thing to make me feel better. Binges are like that.
So I guess my advice to you must first involve me giving you a sizeable dose of understanding and compassion. Even though I’m wise to my own ways and mostly great at staying in tune with myself, I don’t always get it right. I am far from perfect. But I try, and I know you try. And we’re here—in this—together.
What I can share that might be of value is what has worked for me during much of the past seven years of maintenance. These four things have helped me to pull back and steer away when I’ve nearly committed to a binge eating episode—which, for anyone who has ever been in that very moment, is an intense challenge.
1. Know what’s going on in your life that might be making you uneasy or uncomfortable in some way. What is triggering you? This requires an incredible amount of honesty because the goal of a binge is often to ignore the very emotions that I’m asking you to consider.
2. Know that the old “I’ll start clean tomorrow” is both tired and untrue. Start today. Today is the tomorrow that you said you’d start yesterday. Bingeing has a way of making us want to pause the present and put off the future. You can’t. You’re only getting more stuck the longer you stay in the pattern of “one more day/night of treats, then I’ll be good.” Stop and think about how many times you’ve said that to yourself.
3. The way to get out of a binge cycle is to get out of the habit of bingeing. It’s imperative to interrupt the pattern of “If I’m feeling x, I’ll eat y.” For me, this meant creating new rituals, new routines. The first three weeks were almost unbearably difficult. They weren’t natural and they required a lot of sheer willpower. But over time, I developed a new way of dealing with my feelings and a lot of new nightly behaviors—things like reading, watching new TV series, etc.—that helped to ensure I didn’t turn to massive amounts of food as my go-to for comfort, fun, and reassurance. Now, the bingeing is foreign.
4. Eat in a way you’re proud of. Always.