It’s hard to express what being a binge eater feels like to someone who has never had any issues with food moderation or reliance. I’ve tried to compare it to someone who is addicted to smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol but the comparison doesn’t quite fit. All addictions are tricky to treat because the behaviour has become so entrenched into a feedback loop that despite the logical part of your brain knowing that you’re doing something damaging, the emotional part of the brain just seems to take over. It’s habitual, it’s a driving force like no other I’ve ever felt. It’s a compulsion and it’s a self-harming behaviour.
Knowing these things, and feeling like I have things under control doesn’t mean that I will ever be able to say I am no longer a binge eater. In my opinion, I am and always will be a binge eater, because the potential is always there, the draw toward using the binge as a way of coping, of controlling, of punishing, it’s always there niggling under the surface, but more insistent when stress or anxiety are higher. At the moment I am in recovery and I am proud of myself for getting to where I am.
Is my relationship with food perfect? No! Am I always in control? No certainly not. Do I still overeat? Yes sometimes, but I understand myself better now, I take care of myself better now and I generally ask for help when I need it now. I didn't know that there was help back then, in those long years of feeling confused, frustrated, lost, angry and fed up of being a complete hypocrite to my clients. There I was doling out nutrition advice whilst secretly stuffing my face with every morsel I could carry back from the petrol station shop near my dad’s house, almost on a nightly basis.
Where binge eating recovery gets very difficult to manage is in having to face the thing that you have this terrible relationship with on a daily basis. If an alcoholic wants to go into recovery, they stop drinking the alcohol and whilst this is not easy, they can survive without alcohol. When a smoker wants to stop smoking, they do this without having to put a cigarette in their mouth every day.
When a binge eater wants to stop binge eating (and sometimes we don’t by the way, sometimes we WANT to punish ourselves by continuing to binge until we really shove ourselves down into the pit of despair), we have to eat food on a daily basis to stay alive. Being faced with the thing that you are struggling with, having to put food into your mouth and know when it’s appropriate to stop, and having to rebuild your relationship with food (especially the types of food that you binge eat with) is a really really tough thing to do.
Festive times are harder than other times for me, Easter, Christmas, my birthday because everyone knows that I love chocolate and just the sheer volume of decadent, calorie dense foods that are lying around almost begging to be eaten, that doesn’t happen at other times of the year. The types of foods that I used to binge eat with were ‘junk foods’ - family bags of chocolates, 4 packs of eccles cakes, multi packs of chocolate bars, boxes of salted crackers, chocolate or yoghurt coated nuts, packets of biscuits - the list goes on really and that list could be ALL in one sitting.
Do you know the consequences of eating that much food in one go?
Tummy ache, energy crashes for days or weeks, vomiting (not voluntarily), indigestion, constipation, flatulence, bloating, discomfort and not to mention deep levels of shame, regret, denial and anger that it has happened again.
The last time was the last time we said. Just ‘one last time’, just to ‘get rid of the craving’, just to settle down the urges. One last binge to put a stop to it all. I won't regret it this time, I’m doing it for nostalgia, I’m doing it to remind myself WHY I stopped doing it last time. I’m doing it so i have a fresh memory of how CRAP it feels after it’s done and the reality sets in...again!
You can convince yourself of any reason to binge eat if you really want to punish yourself, this behaviour, these feelings, these urges, these drives are like compulsions. When you want something this much, your brain will find a way to tell you that it’s ok - just this once right? When I was doing it on a regular basis, I’d find myself walking to the shop (I had a few local shops that I’d frequent so that it wasn’t too obvious) and in my head I’d be saying ‘you don’t have to do this, you could just turn around right now, you could walk past the shop and just go for a walk instead’ but inevitably I’d walk the beaten track into the shop with the taste of the foods I was seeking out on my tongue. When the urges were that strong, nothing short of someone intervening and sitting on me to hold me down was going to stop me in my tracks.
There was also an element of pleasure to binge eating which makes the relationship with those foods very difficult to reset when you are in recovery. The intense sugar rush, the texture of the food in your mouth, the overwhelming taste as you work your way through packet after packet. Even now I find almost no pleasure in eating just one biscuit, or one bite of cake, or one chocolate. My physiology is set up to expect MUCH more of a reward factor from giant volumes of food after doing this for decades. There are still certain foods that the smell, taste or texture of would be a trigger for more, more, more! I don’t avoid these foods all of the time, but I do limit them because there is a fine line between being in recovery and NOT being in recovery.
One of the biggest challenges that I face is eating an appropriate amount socially, with well meaning family and friends who want to feed you and almost can’t take no for an answer when you decline to have dessert because you’re feeling full - they take it almost as a personal affront that you don’t want a piece of their cheesecake, or second helpings at dinner. They have no idea of what buttons they are pushing (unless they are in your confidence on this matter) and there have been times where I want to just yell at them and make them understand, but I know that these people aren’t doing it on purpose and if I am feeling triggered, it means that I have more work to do on my own feelings about food.
I should say that I’ve never had ANY professional help for this, I’ve done my own reading, my own research and listened to other people talk about it and found my own way. I know that I still have a long way to go with managing anxiety, managing my self-care and protecting myself from future binge potential, but for now things are going well enough and I’ll continue to encourage others to seek out help, or at the very least tell someone about the choices that you are making. I know that it feels shameful, and horrible and embarrassing, but if you can find someone to confide in, even if you don’t tell them what is driving this behaviour (let’s be honest - we don’t always know what drives this) when you get it off your chest, the pressure that you feel inside might lessen slightly and it might mean that those urges you feel to binge are less potent.
Talking can be hard, admitting that you have a complex set of thoughts, feelings, emotions, beliefs can be even harder, but help is out there and beginning to unravel those things that are potentially driving this behaviour, understanding more about yourself and where this comes from may be a mountainous by worthwhile journey to begin considering.
I am here to listen if you want to talk. There is no judgement here, just understanding and acceptance for you!
Someone asked me to explain HOW I managed to pull myself out of this savagely repeating cycle of destructive behaviour. I don’t have an awful lot of memories of that time, probably in a sugar coma for most of the time, but I remember thinking that something had to give. Something had to change because if I kept this up, I'd be in for a lot of trouble as I got older.
The first time I remember binge eating was at primary school, and I suppose it is prudent to start at the beginning to work out WHY this behaviour began in the first place which should hopefully lead me to how I finally managed to break the habit and enter the recovery phase. On this occasion I recall being told off for something at the school fete and I had maybe 20p in my pocket which back then to a 7 year old was millionaire level money. I bought a plate of cakes (do you remember those school fetes where everyone made cup-cakes and they got put on paper plates - one of each type of cake...anyway…) feeling hard done by, and upset I gobbled down all of the cakes. This was probably the first time my brain recognised EMOTION -> EAT -> FEEL BETTER.
I don’t specifically remember binge eating again as a child (like I said I have a bad memory) but I do have specific memories of family dinners where our portion sizes were MASSIVE and I mean MASSIVE - more than double what I would eat now as a very active adult, plus dessert! So physiologically I was being set up for a lifetime of having a huge appetite and a very high satiation point (i.e. it takes A LOT to make me feel satisfied or full).
I remember eating Mr Kipling cherry bakewell tarts and probably eating 3-4 in one go and no one stopping me from doing this. I remember eating 5-6 Rocky chocolate bars in one go and no one picking up on it. I remember gorging myself on pick and mix sweets, I had friends who could eat one sweet per day and be happy, mine would be gone in minutes and I’d barely even feel sick, never mind have enjoyed or savoured them. I remember family bbq’s where we were almost encouraged to eat as much as we could, multiple plates of highly calorie dense, highly rewarding food. I could go on, but I won't, you get the idea, I think I’ve set the scene for the beginnings of my relationship with food.
Now comes the bit where things get a bit muddled, I did well at school, I did well at uni, I drank and ate take out food to excess with my friends but doing it with other people didn’t seem to be so bad, I was fitting in and everyone was doing it so it was more ok. I was also part of multiple sports clubs so it was never an issue from a body composition perspective. I remember eating a lot of cereal, which became a new binge food - a whole box of alpen muesli could go in one EASILY! The lack of outward symptoms (no excessive weight gain, and doing binge wrapper disposal secretly) is probably why no one ever picked up on what I was doing.
I went through periods where I tried to diet and restrict but nothing really stuck and reflecting upon it, I recall both parents going through phases of dieting, followed by excess, followed by more restrictions, followed by MORE excess - so my primary examples also had a poor relationship with food and by poor, I mean that we all use food as a crutch, a prop, as a coping mechanism.
At no stage did I see that this was escalating into a bigger problem until I finished uni and basically felt lost. The social support I had with great friends was all gone (we all moved back home and spread over the country) and I was attempting to start a personal training business with no personal training skills, and no business skills and the ongoing stress of this coupled with a feeling of being at sea led the binge bouts to ramp up in intensity. It certainly didn’t help that I was working 4 jobs, and cycling 8 miles a day to get to work an back on top of training 20 hours a week as a triathlete - looking back, I really don’t know how I managed to fit it all in and stay sane….oh wait...I didn’t...I wasn’t coping. I must have been really good at hiding it, because no one ever noticed what was going on.
So at this stage in my life I can look back and be stark about where this all came from, at a young age I taught my little brain that if I ate a lot of food, the sugar bell began to ring and the dopamine response was triggered, happy feelings ensued for a few minutes, a break from the anxiety, the stress, the hamster wheel. Chewing with punishing intensity, being fixated on that next bite, on finishing the bag was a goal that I could succeed with. I felt like I was failing all of the time, I felt like I was treading water constantly at risk of slipping under, so when I had a mountain of chocolates to work my way through, it was a distraction, it was something that I knew I could do easily when everything else felt really hard.
There must have been a point where I decided that enough was enough, sadly I just don’t recall what it was. Nothing momentous happened, nothing that I can pinpoint and say that this was my defining moment. I think perhaps it was the combination of learning more about self care and ramping down my lifestyle. I was lucky to stumble across people in the industry who had good heads on their shoulders and whom I resonated with (Alex Ferentinos, Fitter Food, Ben Coomber, Martin MacDonald, Phil Learney) and they were teaching about balance and looking after the basics. It took me a hell of a long time for it all to sink in and some of the stuff is still a battle today to pull back and take care of me. Over the years of learning, trying to implement, trying to teach this stuff to other people through my own work and trying to lead by example I think that something just began to settle down within me and the urges became less intense. There were those times that I had to be really hard on myself and say NO to break the habit loop. Later in life I came across a book that taught me about habit loops and breaking down automatic processes (feel bad - walk to shop - buy food - binge eat) and making new habit loops (feel bad - write down how you feel - identify with emotion and remember it’s ok to feel - do something joyful) and over time I became better at recognising the signs, I got to know myself better and I started to be able to process things differently and more positively.
I know that if you’re reading this and seeking out a definitive answer to your own binge eating issues, you might be thinking that you can’t draw any lesson from this, but I hope that you do and I hope that you can at least take away that recovery is possible. Like I said, I didn’t have any specific professional help for BED but through my constant learning for my work and for self development I kept coming back to the same message over and over again, when you take care of yourself and all of the basics (varied nutrition, hydration, sleep, mental health, self care, stress management, social health) the basics take care of you.
I hope that this isn’t anticlimactic but this is my journey with binge eating and I’m still figuring some things out which should hopefully allow me to keep on the track I’m on and remain firmly entrenched in recovery.
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