By Beth Riley, MSW, LISW-CP, CEDS-S
Author of “Break Through Binge Eating: The Simple Solution to Ending your Struggles with Food and your Body.”
If you have finally hit the wall and are ready to stop binge eating, read on.
In 22 years as an eating disorder therapist, I’ve sat across from hundreds of people who have come to find relief from their struggles with food and their bodies.
Although I’ve treated every type of eating disorder, early on in my career I began to develop a passion for working with those suffering from binge eating, emotional eating and related issues. Most of these clients would show up to their first appointment in a state of desperation after years of being stuck in a vicious cycle of dieting and gaining the weight back. Many of them had full-blown binge eating disorder. Most of the others struggled with overeating, stress-induced eating, or compulsive eating.
I was their last resort, they said.
In the beginning years of my practice, many clients came to me directly from weight loss programs where they had become obsessed with counting points – and in turn frustrated each time they got on the scale and it didn’t budge. Others came straight from their doctor’s offices after being told they were pre-diabetic, needed to lose weight and handed a sheet of paper with a diet to follow – as if they didn’t already think they needed to shed a few pounds and hadn’t been trying for years.
Health and wellness is a mega industry with little science to back up it’s services and products. The newer programs have catchy names and boast they will increase your energy, prevent or even reverse heart disease and improve the overall quality of your life. Their enticing ads are splattered across the media and seduce you into thinking this is the one that will finally help you shed the unwanted weight, get you into your desired jean size, increase your longevity and bring you happiness.
Going out to lunch with a group of women means a guaranteed conversation about the latest cleanse, fast, workout program or health regimen. The current buzz is about intermittent fasting. While there are some studies showing that that plant-based diets and intermittent fasting can help you lose weight and even live longer, there is a dark side to these extreme lifestyles.
What is not being talked about is the downside of this health-centric push – that when no one is looking, these same women are sneaking into the kitchen after everyone else is in bed and stuffing themselves with all the foods they aren’t supposed to eat. They are eating a plant-based lunch with their friends and then making a beeline to the nearest drive-through for some fries. They are miserable and are beating themselves up thinking everyone can do it but them. They think they are failures and berate themselves for the amount of money they’ve spent on diets they couldn’t stick to. One client told me she had spent “tens of thousands of dollars on diets and felt a growing sense of hopelessness.”
Sadly, these beautiful, successful women were out of control in this area of their lives. Many of them were not only turning to food to cope but were also trying to find an escape from their stressful lives with other substances or behaviors – wine and shopping were high on the list. In my practice, I also saw young children and teens suffering from binge eating, low self-esteem and even experiencing suicidal thoughts related to their weight.
A major problem with extreme diets is that they ask people to eliminate foods they enjoy which can lead to feelings of deprivation or even overwhelming emotions if they were turning to those foods for comfort or to manage stress. This can result in seeking out other behaviors such as increased drinking or excessive spending as alternatives to food.
It often begins in childhood or adolescence with someone telling you that you are fat and/or growing up in an environment where weight, shape and appearance is emphasized. One or both of their parents becomes concerned about their weight. Then at their annual physical, the doctor tells the girl – or boy- and the parent that the number on the scale is creeping up and that their body mass index (BMI) has increased – typically during pre-puberty, when girls are actually supposed to gain 20-40 pounds in their midsection to prepare for menses. Some boys gain during this time in advance of their growth spurt. Panic sets in for the child and parents. A diet or exercise program is recommended and the scene is set for a lifetime of poor body image, low self-esteem, disordered eating or a full-blown eating disorder.
Many clients tell me that when they look back at their teenage bodies, they were the normal size for their age. They wish they had seen that at the time.
Does this sound familiar? Are you tired of stepping on the scale and seeing the weight creep up? You have an event on the horizon like a wedding, college reunion or beach vacation. You decide to start another diet. You stock the fridge with everything you are going to eat for the next week and then set out to meticulously follow the regimen. You indulge in one final binge before you start.
You last a few days or maybe even a week on the restrictive diet – and likely rigorous exercise regimen. You have social events to attend or maybe even a work conference. There’s tempting food everywhere. You cannot continue this way for a prolonged period of time. It’s just too hard. You take that first bite of a cookie and the downward spiral begins. You immediately tell yourself you’ve blown it. One cookie becomes an entire box followed by other foods you’ve been craving. You might be thinking “I’ll start over tomorrow” but when tomorrow arrives, you are tired and stressed and beating yourself up for eating the forbidden foods. It’s over and the cycle begins anew.
Many peoplealternate between eating only “healthy” food and pounding on a treadmill every morning, and lying on the sofa eating junk food while berating themselves for being lazy. They feel out of control around certain foods and think the only way to avoid eating too much is to eliminate those foods completely. But that only lasts so long, and they end up consuming even more than before.
They envy their friends, coworkers or partners who can stick to eating only organic foods, who can forego bread, butter and desserts and still have the self-discipline to work out daily.
They feel stuck, even miserable, because their very existence is determined by how much they weigh and what size they wear.
By the time they reach my office or buy my book they are sick and tired of living this way.
Their stories share common themes: I’m not lovable. I am not enough. There’s something wrong with me.
Many of these women have been able to maintain a pace and level of competence that defied reason.
I counseled an endocrinologist who saw clients with Type 1 diabetes all day, advising them on the importance of regular eating. But she never stopped to eat herself. After a grueling day at work, she would go home, binge on junk food and then purge.
Another client, a nurse anesthetist, stood in the emergency room all day and never ate a bite of food. She admitted feeling weak and dizzy, but kept at it anyway.
I counseled a woman in her 60s who worked state agency for more than 30 years. She had Type 2 diabetes that was often unmanaged. Her diabetes was mostly stress-related; her stress level was so high that she regularly had debilitating panic attacks. Her go-to was food. She would head straight for a fast food restaurant on her lunch break and binge eat carbs, sweet tea and fried foods. Although she was able to identify her job as her main trigger to overeating and stress, her fear of not knowing what to do with herself when she wasn’t occupied kept her from retiring until her late 60s, when her health finally demanded it.
I’ve counseled many teachers over the years. Like nurses, teachers are great at taking care of others but struggle with their own self-care. So, they stuff themselves with doughnuts or whatever else may be in the staff lounge to help cope with their stress. These women are the supreme caretakers of the world and they were bingeing in an attempt to care for themselves.
I’ve seen lawyers, doctors, even high-powered executives who starved themselves, berated themselves and worked themselves to the bone, never taking time off to rest. Some would head straight to a drive-through or grocery store on their way home and then sit in front of their TVs numbing themselves from the day’s stresses with as much sweet, salty or crunchy food as they could eat.
For many of my clients, food was not their only escape. Some would drink a bottle or two of wine each night to achieve their desired state of numbness. Others used shopping or doing too much for others as a way to avoid facing the emptiness of their lives.
All of these clients thought they were losing their minds until I explained they had figured out their own way of surviving – that these behaviors were serving a purpose. They were keeping them afloat.
If you have been nodding your head or sighing while reading this, you’re in the right place. It’s okay that you still need help for your binge eating. You may think it’s your fault that you’re stuck in a vicious cycle of self-destructive behaviors and negative self-talk. Whatever you’ve done or thought doesn’t matter now. You can start over any time. It’s not too late.
The steps for ending your obsession with food, weight and your body:
- End dieting. It’s self-punishment, stressful and unhealthy.
- Stop binge eating
- Develop a realistic and sustainable approach to eating and exercise.
- Increase awareness of emotions, body sensations and thoughts that could be triggering overeating or other self-destructive behaviors.
- Reduce your stress level and learn real self-care.
- Treat yourself with more kindness and compassion.
- Align your life with your values, those things that give your life meaning and joy.
- Learn to eat what you enjoy in moderation without overeating or guilt – Yes, even chocolate cake and ice cream.
- Develop a plan for staying on course no matter what life sends your way.
My approach will help you:
- Learn to find a sense of peace with your body now and in the future so that you are able to stop the body/weight obsession for good.
- Take a hard look at the other behaviors you use to cope with life and learn the tools you need to reduce or eliminate them.
- Discover the joy that comes from living a life that is focused on what’s really important to you rather than on changing or perfecting your body.
- Uncover your creative self/inner longings.
- Make room to deepen your connections with others and have more meaningful relationships.
- Live in your body. Notice I’m not saying “love your body.” Not now. After years of hating your body, that is probably not going to happen any time soon. It may never happen. But if it does, it will be after a lot of healing and practice.
- Learn to live in the “rainbow zone” between black-and-white and all-or-nothing.
There is hope.
To get started on your journey to healing from binge eating and those other self-defeating thoughts and behaviors, click below to buy my ebook, “Break Through Binge Eating:
The Simple Solution to Ending your Struggles with Food and your Body.”