Not unlike many people, I decided I wanted to lose weight when I was in college. I had gained the average 15 pounds (maybe more, OK, it was 30) and felt defeated that none of my clothes were fitting anymore. I purchased a fitness magazine and starting tracking my calories online.
I followed a calorie-restricted diet and lost alot of weight. I lost too much, but that is a topic for another post. While losing weight, I had extreme urges to binge on food, and I would binge.
During a binge I felt uncontrollable, not like myself, and powerless to resist my intense desires for huge amounts of food. This was frustrating, to say the least.
I didn’t realize that I was not eating enough for my body to feel satiated. I was starving. Refusing to live (an extreme way to interpret it but true nonetheless). Consequently, I would experience urges to eat uncontrollably at random times. I always gave in, felt relief to finally eat and then, of course regretted it. But I always obeyed the urge and repeated the cycle.
I did this for ten years.
My bingeing was followed by fasting. I have never purged in the form of self-induced vomiting and I’m too lazy to work out for hours on end to burn off the extra calories. I would rather just skip a meal (or two, or three).
I thought that once I started eating normal portions of food again and weighed a healthy amount, the binge urges would go away and no longer disrupt my sanity. But they didn’t. The urges continued after I resumed eating more food. This was confusing.
It made no sense that I would desire to binge eat when I was already eating enough.
So I read alot on the topic. I became obsessed at learning everything about this weird and embarrassing way to eat. The best books I have read explaining binge urges are Brain Over Binge by Kathryn Hansen, and Taming the Feast Beast by Jack and Lois Trimpey. If you binge eat, read these books. If you have any habit you feel you cannot kick, read these books. There are many other wonderful books about binge eating, and how to end the diet-binge cycle, and many of them are very helpful, but these two explain binge urges in particular.
It turns out that bingeing is habitual. It starts out as a survival mechanism the body uses to get enough food but then it seems to just be a learned behavior. A habit. A normal way to eat.
People often think bingeing is associated with a traumatic past or feeling insecure, or an inability to cope with stress. I thought these things, too, and there is plenty of merit in the ideas. But I examined my past and I could not find trauma that required harming my body with absurd amounts of food (and cannot think of any trauma that demands eating too much food). I took a look at my confidence level and didn’t find it low enough to demand binge eating (nor found that binge eating improved my confidence, it only weakened it), and I could think of alot of other coping mechanisms for my stress that did not involve eating food.
It perplexed me that I was bingeing. I would binge in many different emotional states. It was not limited to stress. It could be when I was happy or tired or apathetic or excited or afraid. There was really no dominant pattern.
It became obvious to me that I was not bingeing to improve my life, I was doing it because I was doing it. I did not like that I did it, but it was easy to do and became my normal.
And it was the normal that I chose. I could have chosen drinking, taking other substances, shopping, playing video games, spending time on social media, or any activity that provided immediate pleasure and relief from an urge, but I note I chose eating because I typically find a lot of pleasure in food the way that someone who finds a lot pleasure in alcohol would choose excessive drinking.
And it did not matter that I was at a healthy weight and that I ate enough to support my body. I had learned to binge and my brain would signal to do it and I would. Every time this happened, I strengthened the habit making it more likely that I would do it again.
After I learned that my bingeing was a result of habit, I was able to separate my morality and sense of self from the urges I continued to feel. This took time because I linked binge eating with my self worth for years, but it was a huge relief when I stopped this association. The urges, while they did not immediately disappear, did become less threatening and I learned that they were tolerable, resistible and even meaningless.
I did not resist my binge urges right away. It took experimenting with resisting a binge urge, actually resisting it, and giving in to them for me to really grasp how they were influencing me. I started to change my beliefs about binge urges. I decided I no longer had to obey them and that I would be physically fine, and better off, if I didn’t.
Other people have had different experiences with this. This is just my own.
It was exciting to resist urges to binge. I didn’t die. I didn’t feel very much discomfort, to my surprise. I actually felt happy that I could decide to take better care of my body. It was rewarding. I noticed that my binge urges were the strongest if I had not eaten enough throughout any given week. They were stronger if I had overeaten at any one meal and they were strong when I would have foods high in sugar. They were less when I ate more protein and fat.
Today I use my experiences with resisting urges to binge to my advantage. I aim to eat protein, fat, and vegetables. I avoid sugar (mostly) and processed foods. I know these things help minimize and even remove binge urges so it’s worth it to me to be mindful of what I eat.
I realize that if I don’t eat foods that minimize binge urges, and I indeed experience the desire to binge, that I do not have to. I never have to. No one has to.
Knowing this, and because I believe it, my life has changed. My thoughts have changed, too. Bingeing no longer gets the best of me and I’m able to see it for what it is–a habit that can be changed. My binge urges have lessoned tremendously and I’m able to enjoy life so much more.
When I do have an urge to binge, I notice it and allow it to pass. It always passes.
What do you think about binge eating being a habit? Have you had an experience with binge urges? Do you tend to obey them or resist them? Do you think binge eating is more complicated than being a habit?
Share your experiences by leaving a comment!
You can also email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image from Under the Root.