How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 1

How I Started Bingeing

Here’s Part 1 of the story of how I stopped bingeing and emotional eating. In case you missed it, here’s my Intro post to this series.

Where to start? I don’t like rehashing what I was like at my worst, but the rest of my story doesn’t make sense if you don’t know what I’ve been fighting to leave behind. So here it is. This is How I Stopped Binge Eating: Part 1, though maybe a more appropriate title for this part would be How I STARTED Binge Eating.

Once upon a time there was a little girl named Sarah. Now, I’m not a scientist or expert of any kind, but I truly believe there’s some addictive component to sugar, and that some of us out there are more prone to be hooked by it—and comforted by eating it—than others. I think I’m one of the genetically unlucky in that way who is just plain prone to overdo sugar.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a hard time eating just one of anything sugary. In fact, my mom tells me that as a child she’d occasionally catch me scooting a chair to the kitchen counter, climbing up to sit by the canister of white sugar she kept there, and digging right in with a spoon. Emotional eating had been part of my life pretty much as long as I can remember. I think I was just plain pre-disposed to it.

I began emotional eating even as a child
Me as a kid. Cute, right? 🙂 I was never a tiny, skinny little girl, but I was never unhealthily overweight either.

Junior high school was the first place anyone called me FAT. I was mortified. I decided to simply stop eating sugary foods, period, to try to lose some weight. And it worked. I don’t know how much weight I lost because I didn’t really weigh myself back then, but it was enough of a difference that people noticed.

And they were so, so, SO  nice to me about it.

I got piled with positive attention. Other kids at school, neighbors, and relatives were all telling me I looked so great. And I loved every second of it. I did eventually begin eating sugar again after 8 months of zero sugary anything. But the weight stayed off even with sugar back in my life, and I stopped worrying about my weight. High school was a much kinder place to me than junior high had been, and those food and body image worries faded away into almost nothing. I was too busy having fun with friends, keeping up my grades, and loving all the extracurricular music/piano/choir things I was involved with to care about the size of my pants. Life was good.


Hiking with my high school besties the summer before college.
Me on a high school choir trip to NYC in 2006. I’m on the far right.

However, something important to note, I think, is that I never really learned how to cope with stress healthily. Why not? Well, I was never seriously stressed. Sure, school was hard sometimes. I played the piano, and that came with its share of stress too on occasion. But it just wasn’t big, scary, real-life stress. All was pretty much peachy for Sarah Montgomery. Also important to note: all that praise for losing the weight when I was 13 would also come back to haunt me and inform some of my terrible, terrible decisions later down the road.

Freshman Year: the Start of Emotional Eating

I don’t think I was emotionally prepared for everything that was about to change in my insulated little world. I expected life to be handed to me on a silver platter, just as it had been before. Up to this point, everything I wanted for myself had just kind of worked out: grades, scholarships, making it into choirs I tried out for, you name it. I worked hard, sure, but I was also really lucky.

But then I hit the university setting where I was no longer a big fish in a relatively tiny pond. Everyone else out there was smart and nice and played the piano and excelled at everything I did and then some. I found I wasn’t that great at making friends, either. I’d taken for granted that I had friends in high school, but suddenly I found that I wasn’t all that talkative or, really, very nice. I cringe to think how standoffish and ticked about dirty dishes I got at my roommates. I was stressed and cranky and insecure.

Me with some of my freshman year roommates.

And the lack of general response from boys I was interested in? Well, maybe I should have tried harder to TALK to said boys. But in my head I began to worry that the problem was what I looked like. I began to view my reflection really critically again, like I had in junior high but about 100 times worse. I was a size 8, not a size 2, and once again, that really bothered me. I didn’t have huge, wide-set eyes or gorgeous cheekbones. It seemed like every other girl I compared myself to was prettier than me and thinner than me. All this resurrected insecurity about my likeableness and attractiveness began festering within days of my stepping on campus.

Then things really hit the fan.

Jumping into group pictures and faking smiles. I got good at that back in the fall and winter of 2008.

My All-Time Low

It was so many things all at once. The economy began to slide. Yes, this lovely year was 2008. This meant my dad, who had always had good, steady employment, was suddenly laid off. One of the scholarships I’d planned on receiving sent me an email that essentially said they probably didn’t have funding anymore, so sorry. WHAT?! My mom was suddenly dealing with losing her dad in the aftermath of a stroke he’d recently suffered. A friend and neighbor from back at home was diagnosed with terminal cancer—after that family had already lost one other member suddenly just months before. I found out about someone close to me who had been abused as a child but too scared to come forward about it until that fateful fall of ’08. And to top it all, my first wave of midterms had left me reeling. Wasn’t I one of the smart kids? And now my first-ever college finals were imminent.

I found myself breaking down and crying in bathrooms around campus so my roommates wouldn’t hear me. I would hit up a vending machine to order a king-sized candy bar as a pick-me-up, only to decide I wanted more and to go find another vending machine on campus to buy another from. Emotional eating became the bandaid that held my fragile self somewhat together. I’d bounce around from place to place on campus, buying the sugary foods that seemed like the only stable, comforting thing in my life in that dark time. Without a mother cooking for me and watching over me at home, it was easy to get and eat huge quantities of food without a soul knowing.

I was embarrassed about the amounts I’d eat and would then rebound by living on nothing but diet soda and carrot sticks or Slim Fast shakes for the next day or two. There was also a huge set of stairs on my college’s campus that I’d make myself run up and down over and over and over in the evenings as I tried to erase the effects of my binges.

Then, one night after a particularly bad binge and cry-fest, I had an odd flashback to a movie I’d watched in a high school health class about Karen Carpenter. I think its message was intended to be a deterrent for young girls to turn to disordered behaviors, but for me it became a how-to-become-bulimic manual. I also had the twisted, horrible notion that everyone felt so BAD for Karen Carpenter, and it’d be nice if someone ever noticed and cared about  me like that. So I purged for the first time.

For about an hour, I was on cloud nine. I felt like I’d gotten away with murder. I can eat anything I want and never pay for it! I thought. I will lose so much weight! I’ll look like my cuter friends and roommates! Everything is going to get better!

But soon the seriousness of what I’d done settled in, and I was even more frightened than before. What was I doing? I couldn’t ever do this again! I’d just start eating healthily as of tomorrow, I decided, and then I’d never have a reason to purge again. That was that.

my emotional eating worsened in college
More college. Thank heaven again for my good roommates who were kind to me even though I was pretty much a mess.

Until the next time I couldn’t deal with my feelings, that is. I did it again a few days later. And then again. I began to wonder if I’d be able to stop. And that was terrifying.

Getting Help

One night about three weeks after that first purge, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I found a dark, secluded bench behind a building on the far corner of campus and pulled out my phone to call my mom and tell her everything. I couldn’t live this way. I felt weak. I felt shaky. My throat hurt. My head hurt. My heart hurt. I needed help.

My mom responded quickly and lovingly and rushed down to my college town the very next day to help me find counseling. I also let my roommate know what was going on—who was kinder to me than I deserved, both that awful night and up until today—and felt a glimmer of hope that it was going to be all right. I promised myself I’d go talk to a counselor and that I was DONE purging.

The counselor I met with was a nice guy. I think he sincerely wanted to help me. But I also think he didn’t realize how seriously overwhelmed and incapable of dealing with stress I was. We chatted weekly a handful of times, and I told him each time that my purging had stayed stopped. Our conversations were pretty much, “Hey, how are you? No more purging? Good job.”

At one of them a “Here’s a good book we like to give to eating disorder patients” was thrown in with a recommendation to read Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole (side note: I flipped through it, thought its ideas were baloney, and chucked it under my bed). Then he let me know he felt good about where I was and we didn’t need to meet anymore unless I really wanted to. I gave him a hurried thanks-but-no-thanks and scooted on out of that office for the last time. I took his blessing to go as a sign that I was “better” since my purging was all gone.

I could now get back to what I had by then decided my real problem was: being fat.

Next: How I Stopped Binge Eating: Part 2

Why Eating Dessert Is So Healthy

Once upon a time I assumed I suffered from some kind of sugar addiction. As a result, I wouldn’t allow myself to eat sugar at all for long stretches of time, and would then rebound with massive sugar binges.

But these days I eat dessert twice a week, religiously, as part of my plan for a healthy life. And I rarely, rarely binge at all anymore. Doesn’t that sound great? It is! And I’ll tell you why.

Total Restriction Is Never the Answer

Back in the day when I was trying to straighten out my eating but not having much success, I came across an idea called intuitive eating. It didn’t end up working out for me personally (read more about that here), but I am extremely grateful for the months I spent trying it out because I learned some valuable things that are integral parts of my current take on food and eating.

One of those truths intuitive eating taught me is this: if you deprive yourself of something completely, you will eventually binge. Period. I’d read that and heard that many times before, but I didn’t really believe it. Until I took an honest look at my own eating, that is, and found it was 100% the case for me.

dessert is healthy

The Golden Grahams That Changed My Life

While I was working with intuitive eating, I met monthly with a fantastic nutritionist named Julie. At our first meeting, in early 2013, she left me with a challenge to complete and report on the next time we met: buy a box of Golden Grahams—something I’d mentioned as one of my favorite foods that I wasn’t currently allowing myself to eat—and eat some.

In retrospect it’s kind of embarrassing that that was so scary. But it was! So on my way home I bought a box, then eyed the bright-yellow cardboard nervously for the remainder of the drive and a few hours after bringing it inside and setting it on my counter. At that time I assumed that my brain or metabolism or both were somehow broken, and that my body “couldn’t handle sugar.” I thought I was addicted and that if I took one bite of the stuff I was done for—and, as a result, for years told myself I wasn’t allowed to eat sugary things but in fact did overeat sugar on a regular basis, feeling bad and guilty and like I was breaking a rule every time. The idea of buying something sugary, bringing it home, and eating it without feeling bad about it was totally foreign and frightening. But that bowl of graham cereal goodness was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It’s ironic that I didn’t believe that deprivation was the cause of my binges, because once I took that leap of faith and stopped depriving myself of sugary foods, the binges slowly but surely began to become less and less frequent.

end sugar addiction by eating sugar moderately

Those Golden Grahams marked a huge shift for me: I decided that keeping sugar in my life on a regular basis was going to be a key element in my return to normalcy when it came to food.

But how often was eating sugary food a good idea for me? Could I handle having candy and ice cream on hand in my home at all times, or should I avoid keeping tempting treats around the house? Was a small dessert every day ideal, or should I have something sweet weekly or every few days instead? And what exactly counted as “sugar”?

This was a long trial-and-error process for me, and I’d imagine that different strategies work well for different people. But here’s the approach I’ve settled on.

What I Do with Desserts Now

I eat dessert two times a week, always. For me, eating sugar regularly is key in preventing binges because it keeps me from feeling physically or emotionally deprived. Most of the time I use Splurge #1 on Monday evening, when my husband and kids and I typically have a little “family night” together where we do something fun and then enjoy a treat, which is often something the kids and I baked that afternoon. Splurge #2 is almost always saved for one of the weekend nights, so that if Mark and I go on a date, or if we have a party or wedding reception to go to, I can join in with everyone else and indulge there.

But I’m flexible: suppose one of my kids’ birthdays falls on a Wednesday, or I’m just really, really craving brownies on a Thursday. I allow myself to put that Splurge wherever I’m going to enjoy it most, but I am cautious to try to keep them spaced out so that they fall every 3–4 days if possible. That way, if I find myself faced with a bag of Twizzlers or some day-old doughnuts or something that sounds appealing in the moment but that I know is actually pretty mediocre, I can remind myself, “Hey, remember how you and the girls were going to make red velvet bars on Friday? Hold out for that!” And in that instance, I feel like I’m not really saying NO to sugary treats, but instead saying LATER. That may sound like a silly mental shift, but for me it’s been a complete game changer.

A night out with the kiddos at one of my favorite places to Splurge: Cold Stone.

Should You Keep Sugar in Your Kitchen?

I’ll also be honest and add that I still don’t typically keep a lot of sugary food around the house. Maybe I’ll get to the point where that’s not stressful someday, and maybe not. For now, my family makes going out to buy a treat or taking time to bake something a special occasion. If we’re buying, we buy just enough for all of us to have a normal serving. Sure, 4 individual ice cream cones costs more than a single tub of ice cream to keep at home, but to quote Confessions of a Shopaholic, cost and worth are very different things.

The same is true when I bake: as often as possible we bake a batch of whatever, set aside a plate that has enough for all of us to eat just a few, and then take a plate or two to family or neighbors instead of keeping the leftovers around. It’s a great way to spread a little love while not making baking cookies a days-long cause of stress and willpower battles that last until the last cookie gets eaten.

Figure out what works for YOU. Maybe feeling like you can be around any food and still maintain control is a big part of your own definition of “recovery.” If so, more power to you! But if you’re like me, not having treats quite as accessible is a good defensive move in keeping my eating in check.

A Word on Splurges

Now the last key to why my 2x-a-week Splurge plan is so effective: I make these Splurges GOOD. Note the capital S in Splurge: no waxy Twizzlers, day-old doughnuts, or grocery-store-bakery brownies for me! I think of the most fantastic thing I can think of and then let myself have a reasonable portion of that thing. Sometimes it’s a big ol’ sugar cookie from my favorite bakery.  Sometimes it’s a shared slice of Reese’s cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory. Sometimes it’s homemade chocolate-covered cinnamon bear cookies. And fairly often it’s cake batter ice cream from Cold Stone with cookie dough AND brownies AND rainbow sprinkles mixed in because I’m pretty much a 5-year-old trapped in a twenty something’s body.

Get the picture? Don’t make your splurges massive in quantity, but make them amazing in quality.

sugar addiction
This recipe for Funfetti Bars from Crazy for Crust is one of my all-time favorite Splurges. YUM.

I choose exactly what I’m craving most because that way I’m ensuring that I never go too long without satisfying the mental/emotional desire to eat something fabulous purely for fun. And the best part is, that because I am conscientious about making sure to eat fairly healthy meals and snacks throughout the rest of my eating, I can get away with doing this twice a week and not just maintain my weight but even lose a little. Yes, you read that right! While the number on the scale isn’t the most important thing, I was tickled to see that about five pounds dropped pretty effortlessly in the months before I became pregnant when I began doing my 2 Splurges a week regularly.  I also believe my dessert-eating is a key part of why my weight gain has been at such a healthy rate this pregnancy (12 pounds up at 21 weeks in, which I’m thrilled with).

Treat Yo Self!

So there you have it. I’m giving you the challenge my nutritionist gave me: go eat some dessert, and then keep doing it on a regular basis. Restriction and deprivation will get you nowhere. Ask yourself honestly: is restricting working for you now? I don’t think there are many one-size-fits-all principles of health, but this is one of the few. Start eating the foods you are depriving yourself of now, in reasonable quantities but at regular intervals, and you’ll be amazed at what begins to happen over time.