Originally published 2/19/14. Updated 8/7/14.
Binge eating. It’s a real thing. It’s an addiction. It’s not just something fat people do because they’re unhappy. I kind of wish that was the case. I was a fat, unhappy woman and then I was a thin, mostly happy woman. Both versions of me binged. The versions in between did too.
I want to preface this post by making it clear that I’m not trying to discourage you. Not at all. In my head, knowledge is power. And with that power, hopefully you’ll be able to make better choices than I have in my journey.
I’ve never understood drugs or alcohol addictions. Cigarettes, yes. But when I was finally ready to give those up, I did. So obviously it’s that easy for everyone. Or it should be. Right?
I still don’t have the answer for that, but what I can say is this…cigarettes are easy to classify in my head. I know that I can’t just smoke periodically. I’m too compulsive for that. I can’t just have one when I’m drinking. No, I know that it’s all or nothing. And because I’ve seen the consequences of long-term smoking, I was able to just stop. Done. Four years later, it’s not even a consideration.
But food? It’s been different. If there are cupcakes in the house, I will wake up thinking of them. It’s my first thought. And that has lasted throughout my entire journey. And while I do find that I eat mindlessly when I’m feeling down, binge eating is independent of that. I eat out of boredom all the time. I’m not particularly hungry, but I want something to munch on. That’s a problem that is generally helped by food journaling.
It’s taken me four years on my journey to health to understand just how much of a real problem binge eating is. Binge eating is a compulsion – a true addiction. It’s an itch that must be scratched. I can live in moderation for weeks – months even – and then there will be a dozen donuts sitting on my counter. And I will eat every single last effing one of them. I will feel awful – I will be in the bathroom the whole rest of the day. But if I don’t eat them, I will think about them constantly. My mind doesn’t stray for more than five minutes, and that’s really embarrassing to admit.
Now, I am smart enough to keep my preferred binge foods out of the house – usually. My personal binge foods include cookies, cupcakes, chocolate candy, brownies, donuts – you get the picture. But while chatting with my friend K about this subject, she suggested other ones: chips, pita chips, pretzels, etc. Those aren’t things that I wake up thinking about, but I will certainly binge on them if the mood strikes. For me, that’s generally when I’m stressed, nervous, or bored. And we are all different, so yours may look totally different. But I think we can all agree that we aren’t binging on spinach.
So let me bring this back to drug and alcohol addictions. Those are “mainstream”, so you can find help. If you struggle with either of those, there are support groups and 12-step programs. Food is different, but as I’m learning – it’s very much the same. There are people out there who will poo-poo this idea that you can’t simply live in moderation.
Well, I’m here to say that four years into my journey, I have not figured it out. I spent too long beating myself up over it too, which is why I’m writing today. I don’t have an answer, but I’m learning to recognize the itch when it comes. And I’m also actively trying to figure out how to avoid it.
I can’t simply live in moderation, because there is no “just one cookie” for me. That only exists when I’m in the presence of others. One thing I have learned that helps is dividing goodies up between our family. So if we have donuts, I will tell everyone that they get 2. There can be no overeating then, because I can only have my share.
But the process of accepting my food addiction has taught me empathy for those who struggle with drugs and alcohol. It isn’t simply a matter of quitting because it’s logical. It doesn’t mean we all can’t overcome our problems, but there is a real compulsion there that can’t simply be ignored. I wish I could explain it to those of you who have never experienced it, but it’s nearly impossible.
My friend K made a great point – binge eating is acceptable as a mom. You can drive while inhaling a bag of chips; you can constantly pick at the dessert table at a potluck. No one gives you a second glance. It’s not as if you just threw back 5 shots of tequila. But it is in many ways. Shoving 3 brownies into your mouth in a span of 90 seconds presents a sort of euphoria, followed by a guilt hangover.
I have said this before, but I’ll say it again. Even while I was rocking size 2 jeans, I was still binge eating. At my thinnest, I ate 10 cupcakes piled with 3 inches of icing in one single day. This is not a fat girl problem. This is a mental problem. And I can tell you that it has led to me gaining back massive amounts of weight. And it’s tricky too, because you can be eating healthy in general. So when you look back and try to figure out how in the hell you’ve packed on 15 pounds in a month, it doesn’t make mathematical sense. But it’s so easy to forget that you ate an entire bag of chips at 10pm, because it happens so fast and no one saw you do it. It becomes such a part of you that you don’t even remember doing it. As K admitted to me, it becomes a blur. And she’s right. You can’t even quite recall if you ate 4 cookies or 11.
Binge eating looks different for everyone. And I would never claim to be an expert on the matter. Some of us hit drive thru after drive thru ordering massive amounts of value meals. Some of us have a hidden candy stash. Some of us can’t be trusted around our child’s birthday cake.
But what I have determined is that when I’m binging, I don’t even taste the food. I don’t even think about what I’m chewing because I’m already thinking about the next bite. I remember it was the same with smoking. I would think about lighting my next cigarette as I was still smoking the current one. That makes no sense. I know that.
My whole purpose here is to help you become aware of your body and mind. I’m not a doctor and I’m not a psychologist. I can’t fix this for you. Hell, I can’t fix it for me. But since admitting to myself that it’s a valid problem, I feel more empowered to overcome it. I spent a lot of time trying to live in this magical land of moderation that I keep hearing about. It sounds like utopia to me, it really does. But for some reason, it eludes me. I try, and I try, and I try, but I keep ODing on sweets.
My attempt at a fix is that I simply choose to limit what comes into the house. And when we make treats at home, I try to make them as healthy as possible. But I think the best thing for me is committing myself to only eat certain amounts of whatever we have. But, I have to make sure to tell the kids! Then they’ll yell at me if I eat more than my portion. It sounds trivial, but I figure – do whatever works!
If you are just beginning your journey, I need you to understand that your urges aren’t going to just subside. You think they will. You tell yourself that once you get to that happy weight, it’ll be easy to stay there. But it doesn’t work that way. And I honestly believe that if you start your journey with that knowledge, you’ll be better prepared to tackle these challenges along the way. Pay attention to the compulsions, and even when it feels weird, talk about it.
I just demolished a Costco-sized bag of Popchips in the past three days. That’s 2160 calories that I ate when I wasn’t even really hungry. Some of it was mindless eating out of boredom, some of it was binging. I had it in my head that since a serving isn’t that high in calories, I didn’t have to pay attention. It just now occurred to me to actually look at the nutrition label. After the bag was empty. And that’s how you gain back 40 pounds, friends. And it’s not even just about the numbers. It’s about that loss of control. You binge, it’s a blur, you get bigger, and then you don’t understand what caused it. And then you feel like your body is rebelling when in reality, you are making the choices. You just don’t always remember them. And when you feel like your body is growing no matter how healthy you eat, you start to give up.
Pay attention to your body. Learn your issues. Be honest with yourself. Don’t be embarrassed. Don’t feel guilty for not being able to easily live in moderation. There are many of us out there, and we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.
At this point, I’m learning to accept this as one of my many imperfections. It’s not something I love about myself, but it also doesn’t mean I’m a failure as a “healthy person”. I don’t like when I do it, but I also am realizing that I may never be able to fix it. I feel it’s important to take the necessary steps (as mentioned above) to make my binge eating occur as little as possible. Logging my food greatly helps. But when it does happen, I just have to dust myself off and make the next day a better one. When my head is in a better space, I binge less. And vice versa. I don’t think binge eating can be fixed on its own necessarily for me – it’s a package deal. So if I can focus on making each day a healthy day (physically AND mentally), then I reduce my chances of binging. And that may be the best I can do.
Do you struggle with binge eating? What steps have you taken to avoid it? I’m open to suggestions!