How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 3

This is How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 3. And good news! Here’s the part where things start to get better, and where I finally started to truly leave disordered eating behind! 🙂 In case you missed them, though, here is the Intro, Part 1, and Part 2.

Newly pregnant and terrified that I would slide back into my old ways, I decided that nothing mattered more than figuring out what “healthy” really was and then fighting for it tooth and nail. One night, when I was about 8 weeks along with Aurora, I promised myself that I’d once and for all tackle all my food issues, and that I wouldn’t stop working until I’d figured it all out and truly gotten better.

I’m proud to say that I’ve kept that promise.

pregnant
Here I am at 29 weeks pregnant with Aurora.

Trying Out Intuitive Eating

One of the first things I did that night was dig out the book my counselor from my freshman year had  recommended. Intuitive Eating, it was called. The main tenets of intuitive eating (as I understood them) are as follows:

  • If you simply listen to your body and eat when you are hungry and stop when you’re full, and allow yourself to eat whatever foods you feel like, you will settle into a pattern of feeding yourself exactly what your body needs and wants.
  • Furthermore, your weight will stabilize at a healthy, happy place.
  • Your body comes pre-programmed to be hungry when it needs nourishment, and if you listen to it, it will also tell you when it’s had enough.
  • Reconnecting to internal cues is the ultimate key to normal, healthy eating and ultimately a healthy weight.


Aren’t those beautiful ideas? I read Intuitive Eating from cover to cover within the week, and I wanted what it offered.  The lifestyle the book described of listening to your body, eating the foods you want without ever bingeing, and never following a diet again sounded like a dream come true. I wanted that. And  I was determined to do whatever it took to become an intuitive eater.

Julie

I went online and found a list of dietitians and therapists who specialized in helping patients master intuitive eating. I signed myself up to see both a dietitian and a therapist in my area that very evening. I committed to seeing them both regularly for as long as it took to straighten out my eating.

The dietitian I went to see, Julie, was absolutely wonderful. Julie was a practicer of intuitive eating herself and was convinced that it was a wonderful way to live. And I truly believe that for her it was the answer. She seemed healthy, genuinely happy, and all-around what I wanted to one day be like.

I loved meeting with Julie. She was kind, compassionate, and a wonderful listener. Yet she was also willing to tell it to me straight and help me see where my thinking and eating simply wasn’t healthy or logical. She reacquainted me with basic nutritional information I’d learned once but forgotten thanks to so many diet books and magazines. I learned that many of my old ideals—1200, maybe 1500 calories a day tops, for example—were insanely low for someone of my age and height and activity level. I also learned that trying to stay under 100 grams of carbs a day (something I was trying at one point) was similarly nuts. No wonder I was grouchy so much of the time! Most importantly of all, she was able to convince me that I needed to eat much, much more than I had been eating, especially now that I was pregnant.

We talked a LOT about how restricting was never, ever going to be the answer to my problems. And for me, restricting took on two forms. I was limiting how much I ate, as I’ve described, but I was also very restrictive in what particular foods I deemed okay to eat.

“Scary” Foods

We sat down and listed all the foods I thought were “bad.” Candy. Cookies. Cake. Doughnuts. Sugary cereal. Brownies. Ice cream. You get the idea. We grouped them into the “scariest” foods—the things I’d never dream of taking home and keeping in my kitchen for fear of bingeing—to things that were less tempting to me. One of my lower-tier “scary” foods happened to be Golden Grahams cereal. Julie challenged me to go and buy a box of Golden Grahams and have some. I was supposed to then keep them around the house and eat them whenever I wanted to, and when I ran out of them, go buy more.

WHAT?!?

I was terrified of this idea. Why on earth would I keep something like that close at hand? And then openly eat it whenever I wanted to? Well, as intuitive eating explains, the magic of forbidden foods wears off after a time once they’re no longer deemed forbidden. Sure, you are likely to overeat at first, but eventually the Golden Grahams would become nothing special as I granted myself true, full permission to eat them. The idea was to eventually reach this place with all foods. Nothing would be off-limits. All foods were mine for the taking whenever I was hungry.

birthday dinner
The dinner I ate on my 24th birthday. A big-but-not-insane plate of my favorite things with a sugar cookie instead of cake because I LOVE SUGAR COOKIES and was finally allowing myself to eat them guilt-free again. Being able to sit down and eat a meal like this was a major victory for me, because before this point my meals were tiny plates of only foods I deemed “okay,” and I was simply bingeing in between as a result of being so restrictive.

So I dove in, doing everything I could to follow Julie’s instructions. I bought the Golden Grahams and kept buying them. I moved onto other favorites: sugar cookies, ice cream, Cadbury chocolate. I kept them around and ate them, doing as best I could to not feel bad or guilty for doing so. In a lot of ways, it felt so, so good. I was no longer a sinner, a loser, a joke every time I ate a brownie. Detaching moral wrongness and rightness from certain foods was a big deal for me in seeing myself in a more positive light.

Along with all this, of course, I was also focusing on another core principle of intuitive eating: figuring out when I was both hungry and full. I was trying to listen to my body for things like tummy rumblings and headaches that indicated that I was physically hungry (as opposed to just in the mood to eat). And when I did eat, I tried to really savor my food slowly and determine when I was full. I always had permission to eat again any time I felt hunger, but I was to try to stop once I was satisfied.

Changing My Disordered Thinking

As I mentioned before, I was also meeting with a therapist during this time. It was scary and embarrassing and humbling to call up a counselor and schedule myself that first appointment, but I’m so I chose to do it. If you think this is something that might help you, I strongly encourage you to seek professional help too.

Anyway. I’ll call my counselor Karen. Karen was a key figure in my getting better as well. I feel like Julie helped me untangle the knots in my disordered eating, and Karen helped me finally start to change the disordered thinking I’d had such a hard time shaking off before this point.

The major takeaways I had from Karen were this: I was so, so negative and mean and critical in my self-talk. I was outright cruel in the way I’d berate myself for even the tiniest of mistakes. Karen helped me see myself more clearly and appreciate that while I wasn’t yet where I wanted to be, I was doing a lot of things really well. I’d been practicing mean self talk and negative thinking for long enough that I think I needed an outside source of help to pull me out of my old patterns.

She also helped me “reframe” a lot of my thinking in general. I used to make a LOT of assumptions about others’ intentions and about what was true. For example, back in college, I was sure everyone thought I was fat and ugly. But had anyone actually SAID I was either? Ever? Once? No. Had anyone done anything to me that suggested they thought that? No! This was something I simply assumed everyone else thought, for all sorts of dumb reasons that didn’t hold up to logic when I wrote them down or said them out loud.

half marathon
Old assumption: “I’m not really a runner and I don’t have friends.” Oh, wait. Isn’t that a picture of me right after running a 1:54 half marathon and surrounded by friends who did it with me? Unraveling all my old wonky, negative, illogical thinking was part of what made the clouds finally start to part for me.

More Key Realizations

Another big assumption Karen helped me tear down was that being thinner would help me be happier. It’s sad to look back and see how fiercely I believed that. It’s true that our society puts a premium on appearance—remember how much attention I got for losing weight both in junior high and at the start of pregnancy #2—but Karen helped me reason through how in my day-to-day life, thin doesn’t really correlate with happy. Taking good care of you body does, yes. Being a good mom to my kids certainly does. Taking time to get back in touch with things I loved doing, like writing and playing the piano, could too. Running could as well if I kept it in its place and didn’t do it excessively. But would simply being thin make me happier? NO!

For the first time I questioned my erroneous assumption that weight loss was my ticket to everything I wanted to have and be. And once I’d kicked it off its false pedestal, it was much easier to relax in my eating. Eating a cookie was now eating a dang cookie, not making a choice that would take me away from the happy life I dreamed of and therefore something to feel extremely upset and guilty about.

Learning how to think logically about my thinking patterns was a huge, huge deal. I began to consider other possibilities than my own assumptions when it came to my outlook on life. I used to be so quick to conclude that others didn’t like me, or that qualities and problems I had automatically made me a bad person, and so on. Reframing my thinking finally gave me the ability to start changing my actions.

I slowly began to accept that maybe my body had looked just fine all along. This was the biggest breakthrough: my realization that although I had been absolutely convinced that I needed to lose weight, maybe I’d never needed to. Maybe all of my reasons for believing that were bizarre, illogical, overly negative assumptions. Finally kicking the stuffing out of my disordered thinking was a tremendous, important victory for me.

Internalizing those key ideas from Karen was a critical turning points for me. I’m grateful that she helped me so much in this way. After our first few months of meeting, though, I felt like our talks became meandering and odd. Karen didn’t seem to listen well anymore or understand the things I was trying to say. Sometimes things got so strange and irrelevant to me in our sessions that I wondered if she had me mixed up with somebody else. In retrospect, I should have kept trying to find a therapist that was a better fit instead. But I decided to keep on trying with Karen in the hopes that maybe all the random things we’d talk about at our appointments would eventually come together and make sense. But they didn’t. So once my baby Aurora arrived and getting to appointments became tricky and stressful anyway, I decided to call it quits with Karen and simply work with what we’d accomplished to that point.

Intuitive Eating: Not My Answer

I carried on with my meetings with Julie and efforts to eat intuitively, though, through, that entire pregnancy as well as for few months after my Aurora was born. I was diligent in noting my hunger and fullness. I sincerely tried to stop restricting food and thinking of it in terms of good and bad. I read and re-read the Intuitive Eating book, marking helpful sections in hot pink and orange highlighter. I did every last thing Julie urged me to . . . yet still didn’t see myself becoming the intuitive eater the book promised I eventually would.

My Rorie was born August 15, 2013. I'll always look on my pregnancy with Aurora as the time when I really began to change. How fitting that the name Aurora means DAWN.
My Rorie was born August 15, 2013. I’ll always look back on my pregnancy with Aurora as the time when I really began to change. How fitting that the name Aurora means DAWN.

I felt like many of the ideas and principles from Intuitive Eating were things I needed in my life. I needed to stop hating my body. I needed to allow myself to eat enough food to stay nourished and energized. I needed to stop allowing myself to eat so little from day-to-day and totally restricting certain types of foods, because all that ever led to was more bingeing. And my life’s mission was so, so much more than to simply hit a certain weight.

These are things I still strongly believe, and I’m grateful for the time I spent with intuitive eating because of what it taught me. I wholeheartedly recommend intuitive eating to anyone who thinks it may be helpful for them. But I couldn’t deny a few troubling things that I was seeing in my eating patterns throughout this time I spent trying to eat intuitively.

Maybe I was doing it wrong. Maybe that year I devoted to it wasn’t enough. Maybe I wasn’t really giving myself unconditional permission to eat. I don’t know what to say except that while I felt worlds better emotionally and was finally seeing myself in a more positive light, I was still overeating pretty regularly. I resisted thoughts of “you shouldn’t eat that” when it came to sugary treats, thinking that was my old diet thinking coming into play, and just plain ate a lot of indulgent and sugary foods. I’m sure the total number of calories I ate was dramatically lower than when I was full-on bingeing, but the quality of my day-to-day nutrition tanked. And I began to feel the effects physically after several months.

Saying Goodbye to Intuitive Eating

I started to long for my dieting days in one sense. I felt like committing myself to listen solely to my stomach to know when I could eat was simply restricting in another way. What if I wanted to eat lunch while my baby was sleeping simply for convenience, even if I wasn’t super hungry yet? Or what if I wasn’t really hungry but felt like having a cookie or two at a party? Or what if I was starting to feel uncomfortable with the amount of sugar I was eating? What if I truly wanted to go back to eating less of it so I’d feel better physically? I felt robbed of the ability to choose how I wanted to eat for fear that those choices were in fact “restrictive.”

More than anything, I felt like there was in fact some truth to sugar having an addictive component. Keeping treats around and getting habituated to them did take my overeating down a few notches, that’s true. But I feel like it meant I could now eat 10 Oreos at a time instead of a whole package. No matter how long I kept at it, if I had sugar in my house, I’d eat plenty of it. The “magic” of sugary foods never wore off like it was supposed to. Intuitive Eating promised that eventually I’d be satisfied with an Oreo or two, but that never happened for me.

About 6 months after my daughter Aurora was born, I decided I wanted to take back my power when it came to eating. I wanted to call the shots on what I ate and when I ate it, not rely on some book or the “hunger cues” that never did become particularly clear or consistent for me. Instead of assuming I was broken or stupid or doing things wrong, as I would have in the past, I reasoned that I had worked extremely hard at this and that it simply wasn’t the right approach for me personally. And I decided that while intuitive eating had been a helpful stepping stone in my journey, and likely was a great final destination for others out there, it wasn’t going to work long-term for me.

 

Sarah McConkie baby
Me with Aurora on Christmas Day of 2013. I was way less aggressive in taking off the baby weight this time, and ironically the weight gradually came off all the same. It took longer but I was SO much happier at this point in time than I’d been right after I had my first daughter, Sophia.

Takeaways from Intuitive Eating

So. In my year or so of experimenting with Intuitive Eating, I concluded that it wasn’t for me. In the end, I fundamentally disagreed with its logic. Would intuitive shopping work, for example? No—there’s no company on the planet that doesn’t operate on a budget, and for good reason. How about intuitive parenting? After the first time your child runs into oncoming traffic they’ll learn it’s a bad idea, right? Or intuitive piano playing? Just practice when you feel like it and you’ll be the next Mozart. Or intuitive living generally, from a moral standpoint? Just do whatever you want to in the moment and eventually you’ll end up happy and successful. All these scenarios seemed preposterous. So why was eating magically different from anything else in life? Why was discipline and structure such a key element of success in any other area I could think of, but an absolute no-no when it came to eating?

beat binge eating
More of my Rorie as a baby. Wasn’t she adorable?

I decided that I believed that overly harsh restrictions on my eating were a bad plan that would only fuel my bingeing. Intuitive Eating was spot-on there. I made a firm decision that my endpoint healthy lifestyle was going to include lots of healthy, wholesome foods, but that it was also going to include brownies in moderation. Doing so would safeguard myself against bingeing. Also, brownies are good!

But back to my beef with intuitive eating. Is structure itself always a bad thing when it comes to eating, as the book suggests? Are all forms of discipline, rules, and guidelines inherently evil? I decided that the answer here was NO. I decided a healthy lifestyle, for me, would be a  matter of finding a balance. What things in my eating were keeping me locked in a cage, and what things were acting as guardrails to keep me from careening off a cliff?

I believed I had the right to lay down some ground rules, some structure to my eating. I wanted to figure out how to eat in a healthy way that made me feel both emotionally AND physically good. Intuitive eating and counseling got me to where I was no longer terrified of food and no longer hated myself and my body, yes. But I couldn’t deny that eating as much junk food as I was during this time made me feel sluggish and generally blah. So armed with some great principles and beliefs from the two professionals I’d sought help from, but with some equally firm convictions of my very own, I decided to jump back into the fray solo. I would put my newfound experiences and realizations to work, yet allow myself to be the one to call the shots once more.

Coming Next: How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 4

5 Tips for MyFitnessPal Success

Around the start of this year I decided to try MyFitnessPal. In case you haven’t heard of it, MyFitnessPal (often shortened to MFP) is a really popular app used to track food and exercise. I had tried it once years ago and ultimately ditched it. It made me feel like an obsessive, full-time calorie accountant. It only heightened my stress and anxiety about what I was eating. The way I was using MFP simply didn’t work for me.

But this time around, I’ve done a few things differently. And it has made SUCH a difference! I’ve found that MyFitnessPal can be a powerful, powerful tool for good. The key? Using it in a healthy and balanced way.

 

MyFitnessPal

Is Calorie Counting a Good Idea?

Early this year I found myself thinking about trying MFP again. Having a community of support sounded nice, and logging my food sounded like a good way to keep myself accountable. But, I asked myself, isn’t counting calories the epitome of obsessive, disordered eating? Don’t “normal” eaters just relax about food instead of logging every bite? I created my new MFP account wary of these potential pitfalls. But, since the app was free, I figured that I had nothing to lose.

It’s been about four months now that I’ve been logging into MyFitnessPal more or less daily. I’ve loved it! Here are the five things that set me up for success rather than obsession this time around the block.

1. Take MFP’s  Calorie Target as a Suggestion, Not Law.


When you set up your account, MyFitnessPal will ask you for your height, current weight, activity level, goals, and a few other things to generate a number of how many calories you should eat each day. I think the number they give is based on sound science and statistical averages, so it’s a good place to start, but it’s not the eleventh commandment. I have occasional “hungry days” where eating my target amount doesn’t feel like enough. Even if I’ve eaten healthy meals and snacks that line right up into my assigned calorie budget, some evenings I find my stomach literally growling because apparently my body and baby are demanding MORE FOOD NOW!

When that happens, I don’t give myself a blank check to eat cupcakes. But I do choose a healthy snack and eat it without guilt. I do think the calorie amount MyFitnessPal generates is a good target to generally stick to. However, if my body sends the loud-and-clear message that it needs more fuel, I go over. And I don’t worry about it.

2.  Be Really, Really Picky About Who You Add as MFP Friends


The single best thing about MyFitnessPal, in my opinion, is the chance it gives you to become “friends” with other users. You can create for yourself a little community of people whose updates appear in your news feed. When I joined this time, I eagerly added as many friends as possible. I figured that the more support, the better. What I found after a few days, though, is that you want to be a complete snob about who you select for your feed. Why? Because having friends with similar goals and methods of losing weight is absolutely essential.

Right now I’m pregnant and intentionally gaining weight, which means I’m eating a fairly generous amount of calories each day. Being friends with someone who is eating 1200 calories a day on a quest to lose 70 lbs isn’t helpful for me. Even if that low calorie intake happens to be legitimately healthy for that particular person, it isn’t for me. Every time I would see a status of someone bemoaning how “they went way over on calories today” by eating a few hundred calories LESS that what I was shooting for daily stressed me out. It would mess with my head and make me start wondering if I should be eating less too.

So, I went through the dozens of friends I initially added and screened them pretty critically. Was this friend eating around the same amount of calories I was shooting for each day? Did their posts and profile pictures reflect that they were interested in true health as least as much as they were in appearance? Were their weight goals (lose vs. maintain vs. gain) similar to mine?

mfp

I ended up with a much smaller friend group. It was made up almost entirely of pregnant and brand-new moms. For the most part, my MFPs are girls who began pregnancies at a healthy weight, are/were aiming for a 25–35 lb gain over pregnancy, and who generally eat north of 2000 calories a day. In short, they’re a lot like me!

These ladies are positive, kind, and inspiring. Their comments and attitudes reflect what I’m trying to be, and I’m grateful that I can pull out my phone and vent to them on hard days or share my accomplishments when I’ve done something, big or small, in my eating and exercise that I’m proud of.

They’ve been a powerful support system for me. But again, being a picky, picky friend snob is absolutely key. Whatever your situation and goals are, fill your feed with only positive, healthy friends whose goals and situations are similar to yours.

3. Save Meals and Recipes as Often as You Can


I’m a mom of two little kids. I’m not willing to spend my entire day on my app doing math and entering in each bite of food individually. But I was surprised to find how quick and easy it is to log food on MyFitnessPal with the saving meals and recipes function.

How does that work? Essentially, you have to take the time to enter in individual items in a meal just once. Then you can name and save that group of items for use in the future. For example, one of my standard breakfasts is a wheat bagel, 2 eggs + 1 white scrambled and topped with cheese, and a small bowl of fruit. I entered in that in once and saved it as “Bagel/Egg/Fruit Breakfast.” And from now on I can now check one box and MFP adds all those items at once for me. Ta-da!

I found that after the first week or so of entering in groups of foods I tend to eat together, using MyFitnessPal is not time-consuming at all.

MyFitnessPal

4. Don’t Let Yourself Exercise Off Calories So You Can Eat More


This sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out. MyFitnessPal gives you extra calories to eat based on if you exercise. Makes sense, right? Go for a walk that burns 200 calories and you should be able to eat back those 200 calories.

But what I found was that when I entered my exercise that way, I would rationalize a piece of pie by saying I’d just toss in “an extra little workout in the evening.” I’d then find myself feeling obligated to crank out an hour on my elliptical machine to work off the pie, even if I was exhausted by the day’s end or really didn’t have time for it.

Doing this on repeat meant I was regularly both eating too much and exercising too much. It left me chronically sore and short on sleep, even though according to the calorie math I was doing just peachy.

So what do I do instead? I simply add an extra 150 calories daily to MFP’s recommended amount for me to account for the fact that I do burn calories through my workouts. MFP is right in that you should take exercise into account as you calculate how much to eat each day. But I find that subtracting exercise based on individual daily workouts rather than an average led to justifying both overeating AND overexercising. Does that make sense?

So absolutely pad your recommended calorie target a bit to account for your exercise. Thats healthy. But don’t let entering daily workouts get you into a potentially unhealthy pattern.

5. Be Okay with Flexibility and Guesstimating


This last one may be the most important of all. MyFitnessPal is a great tool. But remember: it’s not an exact science. And it’s unrealistic for you to expect it to be. For example, today for lunch I had a veggie burger with some chips and snap peas. I entered in ketchup as one of my items because I did have ketchup on the burger, and I specified a teaspoon as a guesstimate for how much ketchup I used.

Did I pull out a measuring spoon to get the ketchup quantity exactly right? Heck no! Ain’t nobody got time for that! I make peace with the fact that I’m logging to be accountable and aware of what I’m eating, but I don’t need everything to be perfectly precise.

I have also made peace with some meals being impossible to log. For instance, we eat dinner at my parents’ one or two Sundays a month. My mom makes fabulous meals that I have no idea how I could accurately log short of asking her for her recipes and then bringing along my own measuring cups, which would be totally weird. Mark and I will also occasionally eat out somewhere that isn’t a large chain and doesn’t have to provide nutritional data on their menu items. How should you MFP that?

In those cases what I typically do is enter a “dummy meal.” I search the MFP database and guesstimate a meal as a placeholder for the meal I know I can’t accurately log. And then I simply go into that meal with the goal to eat one normal-ish plate of whatever’s available. I’m almost certainly off a few calories in either direction, but that’s just not the end of the world. Plus, I’m willing to bet it all averages out in the end. It’s a classic case of understanding that health isn’t just about nutritional data but about being realistic and balanced with yourself mentally and emotionally as well.

Any other MyFitnessPal users out there? I’d love to get comments on how YOU leverage all the awesome this app has to offer while sidestepping the potential pitfalls.