I am not a licensed mental health clinician. The information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. If you or a loved one struggle with an eating disorder, please seek professional help.
Recovery in a Nutshell
How to quit binge eating for good
When I was struggling to recover from my eating disorder, I read many books. Most of them did not help me at all. A few of them enabled me to recover completely. The reason why most of the books I read were unhelpful was because they were far too complex. Did I really have to resolve all of my conscious and unconscious childhood trauma, love and accept myself completely, and create a meaningful and spiritually fulfilling life in order to eat like a regular person? I had been to multiple therapists and a few alternative and energy healers, with no success. What more could I do? The books that did help me were much more simple, and more importantly, actionable. They taught me skills I could build to proactively and immediately regulate my appetite, resist urges to binge, and let go of shame and self-hate.
Complete recovery from bulimia and binge eating is not only possible, but logical and intuitive. There is no magic pill you can take to cure disordered eating, but there are tangible steps you can take to heal yourself NOW. In Binge Eating Demystified we discussed three processes that keep you feeling stuck and out of control around food; in this article we will learn three skills that transform these. Along with each skill, I will provide an exercise to help build it. Just as you need physical exercise to build physical strength, you need a consistent recovery practice to build recovery skills. Recovery is not something you read; it is something you do. Enjoy the ride!
The Direct Route to Recovery
You befriend your body. You eat enough calories, reintroduce yourself to foods that you enjoy, and eat at regular intervals throughout the day. Your body begins to trust you again and the urges to binge grow weaker.
Our bodies and minds function best when we follow a predictable schedule. You may be familiar with the circadian rhythm, the internal clock that determines the times of day during which we feel alert or sleepy. The truth is, that this rhythm does not only exist for sleep and wakefulness, but for hunger and satiety as well. Biologically speaking, there are times of day when we feel hungry, and times when we feel satisfied. When out of touch with your sleep/wake rhythm (such as in the case is insomnia, jet lag, or quarantine), you feel neither tired when it's time to sleep, nor alert when it's time to wake up; when out of touch with your hunger/ satiety rhythm, you likewise feel neither hungry when it is time to eat, nor satisfied after you have eaten enough. You may become so accustomed to restricting or fasting the entire day that your body stops producing hunger signals at regular intervals, so that when you finally do eat, you are so famished, it does not register when you are full. Restricting, bingeing and purging cause you to lose touch with your natural hunger and satiety signals.
The good news is, that you can recreate this rhythm by eating regular consistent amounts at regular consistent times every day. This teaches your body when to expect food, so it stops craving it at other times. Your body comes to know that you will eat enough, so it lets the insatiable appetite and preoccupation with food go. You become able to focus on other tasks and enjoy the things you love. Simply put, your body learns to trust you again.
When you are beginning recovery, this requires a structured meal plan. Your body’s hunger signals are still upset, so it is difficult to recognize when you are truly hungry and when satisfied. Also, the restrict/ binge/ purge pattern is deeply ingrained and often difficult to detect until you are deeply caught up in it. It is easy to convince yourself that a green salad is a complete meal, while in actuality the number of calories you are consuming is way below what your body needs to function. It is likewise possible that what you intend to eat as a meal or snack turns into a full fledged binge before you realize where you are headed. Preparing a meal plan the night or week before allows you to make intentional choices about what and when you eat. As you get further along in recovery you will become able to eat more intuitively and will no longer need or want to follow a fixed meal plan.
There are many many ways of planning meals and many resources with sample meal plans and strategies. We will not go into any of that here, but instead outline what makes a meal plan an effective one. You can then choose any meal plan strategy that calls to you or simply make up your own, so long as it meets these three conditions.
You specify when and how much you plan to eat each day. It is simple and obvious whether or not you are sticking with your meal plan. You can easily recognize urges to restrict or binge because you have a clear image of what balanced eating looks like.
You eat roughly the same amounts at the same times every day. You eat every three or four hours, adding up to a total of about 2,500 calories. This allows your body to come out of starvation mode and your appetite to regulate.
You view meal planning as a dialogue between you and your body. It is a gift you give yourself rather than yet another set of rules and restrictions. You include foods that you enjoy, notice how you feel while on your meal plan, and set times to review and adjust it if needed.
As your body begins to settle into a natural rhythm, you can gradually drop the Clear and Consistent and focus only on the Kind.
Important Note: If you have been starving yourself or purging after meals for an extended period of time, increasing calories can initially cause bloating and physical discomfort. These symptoms vary from person to person and are the body’s process of getting accustomed to digesting food again. If you stick with structured eating, they will pass with time. A registered dietitian with experience treating eating disorders can help you avoid some of these symptoms and recognize which are simply a temporary part of the recovery process. If you are underweight or suffer severe symptoms of malnourishment, it is especially important that you receive professional guidance when increasing your food intake.
Eating regular adequate meals rebuilds your body's trust in you, so that it decreases urges to binge and purge, which makes it easier to eat regular meals, which further strengthens your body's trust in you. And so the cycle is reformed.
1. Using the above guidelines (Clear, Consistent, Kind), write out a sample meal plan. Outline what times you plan to eat, as well as meal and snack options that include the calories and nutrients your body needs in order to feel satisfied.
2. Read over what you wrote and ask yourself “what do I need in order to stick with this plan?“. Do I need to buy and prepare anything beforehand? Do I need support or a means of strengthening myself emotionally? Set yourself up for success.
3. Notice any fear, doubt or resistance you have to keeping your meal plan. Tune into the feelings, ask them what they need, invite them to come along for the ride, and reassure them that you will listen to what they feel and set a time to re-evaluate and adjust your plan if needed.
4. Ask yourself "Do I feel excited to keep this? If the answer is “yes”, fantastic! If the answer is"no", think about adjusting your food choices, or rewarding yourself for each day you stick with your meal plan.
You step back from urges to restrict, binge and purge so that they no longer dictate your actions. With the power of repeated practice, your brain learns new, healthier patterns until balance around food becomes natural and automatic.
I know. It is quite a bit easier to write a meal plan than it is to keep one. In fact, it is likely you have tried some form of meal planning before, but when the urge to binge hits, it is simply too powerful to resist, and once you binge, you feel the need to compensate somehow. Fear not; we will address this too. Read on.
The key to resisting urges to binge and purge is learning to separate your Self from your eating disorder.
That's right. You are not your eating disorder. I know it has taken over so much of your life and sabotaged so many of your dreams, but it is not you. At the core you are (and always have been) whole, healthy and beautiful. Your eating disorder is simply a collection of thoughts and sensations. Thoughts and sensations may be uncomfortable, but they are not dangerous and they lose their power over you once you recognize them for what they are.
Various spiritual and psychological systems have differentiated between the habitual instinctive and higher level aspects of human nature. They have referred to them in a number of ways: The big self and small self, animal soul and rational soul, parts and self. For the sake of simplicity, we will call them I and IT.
I love and accept myself unconditionally; It tells me I am not good enough or not thin enough. I treat my body with kindness and compassion; It urges me to eat until I feel sick and then purge to rid my body of excess calories. I am capable, motivated and energized; It feels helpless and out of control. I have goals and dreams and tasks to accomplish; It believes nothing more important than food, weight and momentary comfort.
Neurologically speaking I and IT are often linked with different regions of the brain. “IT” is related to limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for habit formation, emotional arousal and survival instincts. “I” is actualized via the frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for higher level thinking, decision making, and long term goal setting.
Two bits of good news:
1. While initial cravings and impulses are not within conscious control, the movements you make with your voluntary muscles are.
2. The actions you chose to take actually change and rewire the habit centers in your brain!
What this means for you:
1. The urges you have to binge cannot make you move a muscle unless you agree to do so,
2. Each time you resist urges to binge and instead direct your attention at more healthy wholesome activities, you rewire your brain so that the urges become weaker and the next time you are faced with this decision it will be easier to choose your long term health.
Each time you detach from urges to restrict, binge and purge, they grow weaker and less compelling.
Before doing this exercise, ensure that you have eaten enough throughout the day so that you are not physically hungry.
1. Make a decision to remain where you are for the next five minutes.
2. Now, tell IT to make you leave the room, walk to the kitchen or nearest convenience store and pick up one of the foods you frequently binge on.
3. Pay attention to what IT says. Notice the sensations it creates in your body and the thoughts IT speaks through your mind. Watch them come and go, intensify and grow weaker, all the while sticking with your decision to remain right where you are.
4. Notice how there is no thought or sensation, no matter how uncomfortable, that can make you move a muscle if you choose not to.
Can you feel the power this gives you?
Repeat this exercise any time you feel the urge to ditch your meal plan.
You accept, empower and gain trust in yourself, so that you feel worthy enough to treat your body with kindness and powerful enough to transform destructive habits.
The truth is that both urges to binge and purge stem from legitimate needs. Urges to binge are there to sustain our basic survival by ensuring we have enough to eat. Urges to restrict and purge come from the need for social acceptance. The goal is not to ignore and control IT, but rather to guide and direct it so that it benefits, not only our immediate survival, but also our long term wellbeing. For that, there’s gotta be some dialogue between I and IT. This is where we begin to shift our image of IT from monster to hurt child. We learn to direct compassion at the parts of ourselves that appear most destructive.
It is easy to stick with recovery when life is going your way and you feel powerful, motivated and inspired. The truth, however, is that a huge part of recovery has to do with what you tell yourself when things aren't going well, when you feel bad, do not meet your goals and expectations, or fall off the wagon entirely and find yourself uncomfortably close to the place where you started.
What do you tell yourself then? Do you beat yourself up for not doing recovery well enough or do you hold and comfort the part of you that is disappointed and hurting? Do you try to control and force yourself back on track, or do you allow yourself the space to grow in the slow, non-linear fashion that we humans do?
The messages you tell yourself create your internal environment. Your internal environment determines the ease and effectiveness with which you practice every other aspect of recovery. Trying to recover while criticizing and judging yourself, is like trying to work while your boss stands over your shoulder and yells at you. Lasting recovery requires a compassionate internal environment.
Here are some ways in which you can cultivate one:
Actively look for and notice what is beautiful about you.
Celebrate each small victory you have.
View setbacks as a valuable part of your unique recovery journey.
Trust that you have what it takes to get well and stay well for good.
Hold painful emotions in a kind and loving way.
At the center of a compassionate internal environment is the ability to hold space for every joyful and painful emotion, every success and failure, every attractive and imperfect aspect of yourself and your body, and to recognize that each of these are a special part of that beautiful mess we call Human Being. Cultivating a compassionate internal environment allows you, not only to control your eating habits, but to transform them completely so that you want to eat in a way that feels good to your body.
Choose an area of your life where you feel discomfort and the desire to change.
1. Scan your body and notice where the discomfort is located. Perhaps you feel tension in your chest, a knot in your stomach or pressure in your head.
2. Ask yourself, does this feeling have a name (such as anger, fear, sadness or shame)?.
3. Ask the feeling, "what would you like to tell me?" Simply listen to the thoughts that run through your mind as you would to a close friend.
4. Now ask the feeling, "what do you want? Is there something you would you like to protect me from?" Hold whatever the answer is with kind and loving attention.
5. Thank the feeling for speaking to you and reassure it that you will be here any time it needs.
At this point the feeling may begin to release so that you feel lighter, or it may stick around awhile longer. It is important that you let go of any expectations and simply allow the feeling to be just as it is. Notice if it comes back again, and when it does, welcome it, give it a mental hug, and say “I see you. I am here with you. You are safe”.
the direct route to recovery
Eating wholesome meals at roughly the same times every day regulates your appetite and allows your body to come out of starvation mode.
Detaching from urges to binge and purge gives you the power to resist them frequently enough to rewire your brain and develop healthier habits.
Treating yourself with love gives you motivation to recover (you are worth it!) and confidence that you will succeed (you’ve got this!).
Remember, this is the direct route to recovery, rather than the immediate destination. You may take giant leaps across it, or tiny baby steps. At times you will encounter obstacles and roadblocks and you may require support and more detailed direction. So long as you continue moving, each step you take will bring you closer to finding lasting peace with your body.
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