How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 4

This is How I Beat Binge Eating: Part 4. In case you missed them, here is the Intro, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Things Got Better!

My eating slowly but steadily began to improve. I found myself using a lot of the ideas from intuitive eating but plugging them into some structure. For example, when I first began, I decided I’d eat three meals and two snacks a day, trying my best to eat them when I could feel that I was hungry but not sweating it if my day’s schedule didn’t permit that. I’d let myself eat whatever I felt like for those meals and snacks, provided it was FOOD and not dessert. I began experimenting with how often desserts should be in the mix, and after trying a small one daily, then a big one weekly, I found that 2 (maybe 3) normal-ish desserts a week felt best.

food addiction beaten
Me with my little family on my sister’s wedding day in Fall 2014.

That rough gameplan didn’t make my binges go away entirely, but it did help a lot. Later on  I discovered MyFitnessPal and found it to be a wonderful tool. I started seeing my eating as a budget. I had a set allotment of calories to work with, but within that? I could choose whatever I wanted! No more rigid meal plans for me. As odd as it sounds, calorie counting has been amazingly liberating for me.

Also, thanks to MFP. for the first time in a really long time I was eating enough calories (some days—keep reading for why I wasn’t on others). It felt amazing after years of starving or overstuffing myself. I came to believe that while some foods have addictive components (for me, SUGAR!) I didn’t really suffer from some sort of food addiction at all. I had simply let myself be perpetually hungry for years. No wonder I was rebounding with binge eating!

Things weren’t magically all better, and I still binged once or twice a month. I felt at peace, though, like I was on a good trajectory. And my weight, without aggressive undereating or overexercising, returned to my pre-pregnancy 140s. It took 8 months to get there, but I got there in a happy, healthy, relaxed way. The difference between losing baby weight after Sophie vs. after Rorie was like night and day.

Parties and gatherings were still hard, though. Events where huge plates of cookies and brownies sat on a table for a few hours while everyone mingled were still challenging for me to negotiate healthily. I’d often eat a healthy snack before going somewhere like this, knowing from my time with intuitive eating that arriving at a tough food situation starving was just setting myself up to overeat. But by the party’s end, still I found I’d usually succumbed to the slippery slope of “I’ll just have one cookie as one of my snacks today” > “Shoot, I had two.” > “Crap, now the day is ruined.” > “I’ll eat 10 more since today’s already shot and start over tomorrow.” Binge thinking still got the better of me fairly often.

Cannon Beach
Mark and I spent a weekend in my childhood stomping grounds near Portland, Oregon last year. This was the first (but not last!) vacation I went on without getting even close to bingeing. I was so, so proud.

As a result, I would shy away from social and family activities more than I should have (or at least cry and get stressed out an hour beforehand before redoing my makeup and going despite my fear). But it was encouraging, at least, to note that my binges in day-to-day life at home were fading out almost entirely. I still struggled in “unusual” food situations like parties, vacations,  and holidays, but by and large my eating was really beginning to normalize.

Resources That Helped Me Keep Changing

I continued to read up in books and online about bingeing and emotional eating, and I came across a few things that really helped me.

I found a handful of bloggers who shared their own frank experiences with binge eating. The two that stick out in my mind at being significantly helpful are Runs for Cookies and Nia Shanks. I’ve never faced the challenge of having to lose 100+ pounds like Katie, and don’t really care for lifting like Nia, so some aspects of their sites and experiences don’t apply directly to me. But their posts about binge eating and how to overcome it spoke right to my heart.

I’m grateful to these two brave, brave women for sharing what they do and helping me feel less alone in my struggles. Some of their practical suggestions have also been a big help to me as I’ve continued to experiment and find out what was going to work for ME eating-wise. I highly recommend hitting those two sites and reading any of their content on bingeing, because it’s good, sound stuff.

Reading Brain Over Binge

Just as big a deal for me was the book Brain Over Binge, by Kathryn Hansen. This book, and Kathryn’s accompanying website, is wonderful. I’ll just say up front that I don’t 100% agree with everything in the book (again, I’ll address this in a few minutes), but the main premise made total and complete sense to me.

Essentially, she explains how she recovered from her binge eating by separating it from other emotional issues. While so much literature on binge eating teaches that you need to dig out the deep, root, emotional causes of your bingeing, Kathryn argues that you can (and should) address such issues as depression, perfectionism, insecurity, and anxiety, but that you don’t need to totally solve all of those things before you can stop binge eating. By following a series of logical steps in your thinking, you can retrain your brain to simply not listen to binge urges. Binge urges, she explains, often begin from your HEALTHY brain’s sending you messages to eat more in response to dieting and restricting. I know this happened in my case: remember how I’d walk past that bakery back at BYU and feel like I NEEDED to get those brownies? It’s because my brain—which is healthy and whole, by the way, not broken and crazy—is designed to help me survive and wanted to get me to eat more so my body could be nourished. These binge urges recur and become habit as you continue to restrict and then binge, which reinforces the wiring in your brain that creates habits.

Therefore, if you can simply stop repeating the action of listening to those urges and bingeing, you can get to the point where those urges eventually stop coming because you’ve treated them as “neurological junk” and unwired the bad habit of bingeing! Seeing binge urges as simply bad brain wiring that can be fixed rather than some dragon that would take years to slay gave me hope and confidence in myself. The notion that I could just CHOOSE to stop bingeing rather than spending years slogging through other issues rang true to me.

My Takeaways from Brain Over Binge

That was a really quick and incomplete summary. But it’s what I took away from the book, and I found that idea very empowering. After years of believing I was emotionally damaged and unwell and binged in reaction, I got validation for an idea I’d already suspected was true: my binges were simply HABITS formed by repeatedly bingeing. They weren’t the result of anything major I needed to spend years working out! Sure, I had insecurity and anxiety I wanted to keep working out. But so did a lot of other people I knew who weren’t binge eaters. I sometimes felt angry, wondering why I somehow had to become this superhuman person with no emotional issues so my bingeing could stop, while others could keep being imperfect yet not have eating problems.

If any of these ideas ring true to you, I strongly advise you to hop on Amazon and grab this book ASAP. It is well worth the time and money, and was a real turning point for me in feeling empowered and able to beat binge thinking. If you’re unsure, or simply waiting for the book to get into your hands, I’d go onto the Brain Over Binge website and subscribe to Kathryn’s emails so that you can get her free eBook. It’s a great introduction to the ideas in her full-length book and does a much better job than I did explaining how binges are a result of urges to binge, and that’s that.

In her book, Kathryn describes how once she figured all this out, her binges stopped right away. I wish it’d been such an ON/OFF switch experience for me, but it wasn’t. I still binged even after reading this book. But, I found that the 5 steps she gives for responding to binge thinking when it creeps in were gold. I wasn’t successful every time, but at maybe 1 in 3 parties or gatherings where I had to be around a lot of sugar, I found that I could make it through an evening without giving into my binge urges. It didn’t work all at once or right away, but I had solid proof from my experience that Kathryn’s ideas did in fact work. And I kept using her 5 steps, practicing and practicing, trying to get that brain wiring to keep changing. I still use this technique today, and like any muscle of the body you repeatedly and persistently work, I feel that my brain is truly becoming stronger and better able to beat binge thinking.

Scaling Back on Running

One more critical piece of the puzzle fell into place around this time. I figured out that even if I ate 2000ish calories a day, burning hundreds of calories a day through exercise made it hard for me to feel full enough to resist binge thinking.

I truly love running. I love how it feels. I love the sense of accomplishment I get any time I run farther or faster than I ever have before. I love how being able to whittle down a mile or 5K time gives me a way to chart progress with actual numbers—I find when I have those healthier numbers to focus on, the number on the scale means less and less. Running is fun and empowering and all-around wonderful.

But.

Have you ever run 10 miles? Or 13? Or more? If so, you’ve likely experienced what I call RUNger: the crazy waves of hunger that hit a few hours post-run and make you ravenous for the rest of the day. This is a healthy body’s normal response: a 10-mile training run, for example, burns about 1000 calories for a woman of my height and weight. This means for my body to carry on and do its normal thing, it wants 1000 extra calories to make up for the ones my run gobbled up.

In theory, the solution is simple: eat 1000 calories and stop being hungry. A lot of people properly refuel after runs and don’t have any problem. For them, running long distances is healthy and great.

But I found that being THAT HUNGRY made it hard for me to not give into binge thinking. While it would have been fine, in terms of calorie math, to eat a big pile of cookies on a day where I ran 10 miles, it didn’t feel emotionally good to do so. In my still-recovering mindset, eating a higher-than-normal quantity of food, even a healthier food like a big sandwich, would trigger my binge thinking. “You’ve eaten a ton today. Just go on and finish the remaining 9 cookies since you had 7 already,” the binge urge would say to me. And too often, I listened.

It was frustrating to me to discover something I loved so much was in fact making my recovery harder. But I couldn’t deny the correlation I was seeing with long-run days and binges whenever I’d train for a race longer than a 5K.

5K
Mark with me at a 5K we ran together in August 2014.

Shorter Workouts = Less Binge Urges

So for my personal situation, I decided to, for now at least, cap my exercise to 45 minutes a day max. This kept my calorie burn via exercise low enough that I did need to eat some extra calories to maintain normal hunger/fullness levels, but not a ton. This was hard for me. In fact, I did cave and run one last half marathon with some friends in the spring of 2015 just because it sounded so dang fun. But I knew that I was feeling better and eating better when I went back to shorter workouts once that race was over.

In short, high levels of running left me too hungry to beat binge thinking. I may have been eating 2000+ calories a day, but because my runs were so long in the past, that 2000 wasn’t nearly enough to keep me healthy and full. And having to eat SO MUCH to make up for my exercise was stressful and hard as I was still trying to figure out healthy moderation. As much as I hated coming to that realization, it was the truth.

So for my workouts, I shifted gears to 5K training. I was surprised to find that this kind of running was still satisfying and fun, but I could simply do a lot less of it and still reap almost everything I loved about running. Once it was too cold and dark to run outdoors in the morning, I’d do shorter workout DVDs daily.

Right now, it seems like “30 minutes a day or less” is really trendy in the fitness DVD world. This works out great for someone like me, who’s all about working hard but is trying to limit the total time and calorie burn to a reasonable level. I personally love Beachbody’s T25, Jillian Michaels’s Body Revolution, and Jillian Michaels’s Ripped in 30 DVD programs—all challenging, fun workout sets that kept me working out for a reasonable amount of time each day that didn’t make my hunger levels hard to deal with. I’ve also got Insanity: Max 30 and Jillian’s Bodyshred on the docket to try out after I have this baby and feel up to such tough exercise again.

Sarah McConkie
I’m famous! I ran the 5K at SLC’s 2015 Comic Con and the photographers liked my bright-red Nikes enough to snap a picture. 😉  Making this switch in my running made such a difference in my eating.

Recovered?

I was so, so pleased with myself. It was a miracle! My binges were steadily decreasing both in frequency and volume. I was finally figuring things out, like I’d promised myself I would when I was pregnant with my daughter Aurora. I felt amazing.

But would it stick long term? What came next would put all my new habits and beliefs to the test.

How I Stopped Bingeing: Part 5