January 11, 2012

The End of Binge Eating as I Knew It

Previously titled "Binge Eating is SOOO Neolithic." In the Paleo/Ancestral community, "neolithic" refers to highly processed/refined/manufactured products.

This post is not for everyone. If you aren't a binge eater, you may think you understand but you don't because most binge eating occurs in private--out of guilt and shame. And since all binge eaters KNOW others don't understand I'm going to bare my soul in this post even though it makes me a little uncomfortable. We're not talking about having 2 helpings of dessert here.

Non-bingers are welcome to read the remainder of the essay but you still won't get it any more than you can really understand other problems you've never had--smoking, anorexia, migraine, alcoholism, etc. You just have to be there.

My Credentials

I still remember roaming the halls of my mother's apartment and feeling totally alone. She was working to support us so she was either gone or asleep. My father and brother were 1000 miles away and I missed them desperately. I was in a low place. I enjoyed school but I was a "brain" and had few friends since everyone knows brains are "weird." 

There was nothing else to do, really, a 15-year-old girl can't go walking around in the night so I started eating for comfort. What, you ask, was the magic food that plunged me into 50-odd years of binge eating? LIMA BEANS. Yes, because that's what was in the kitchen and not much else. Having a major binge on processed junk came much later as money became available and I could buy the stuff for myself. One element of emotional binge eating is that it's not about the food--if available, you'll go for junk but you'll binge one way or another.

At 17, out on my own and staying in a motel for a temporary job, I was so consumed with guilt after an evening binge that I threw the remaining food away some distance from the motel. But the next day I bought another supply so I tried to purge--I couldn't do that, and I'm sure my teeth and throat are grateful to this day. I had to trek back into the night again to throw away the remains of THAT binge. If you are a binge eater this is may be sounding somewhat familiar.

During my 21-year marriage I did most of my binge eating when I was home alone or the only one awake. It wasn't really a secret, of course, since junk disappeared from cupboards and my weight was out there for the world to see. I had enough shame that I started stopping on the way home from work to buy food to binge on before my family came home and I made sure to hide the bags and boxes. It was also during my marriage that I became a yo-yo dieter, losing and re-gaining the same 50-60 pounds four times.

After an involuntary divorce I achieved a truly lean and fit physique through heavy cardio--and stress of course--and maintained it for a few years which was really great. I was still having 1-3 binge days per week but I managed to burn it all off. Until I crashed because I have loose joints and had to stop all exercise and endure a cervical fusion plus shoulder surgery. I'd been doing so much that I pretty well destroyed all my joints. I rapidly found myself at a new peak weight and remained solidly in binge mode until April 2011 when I gathered my courage and decided to try ancestral eating.

A New Way of Eating

I had been Google-ing healthy eating because I was desperate to do something to feel better but also determined never again to try an extreme diet after 4 failures. Somehow I stumbled across Mark Sisson's book The Primal Blueprint and, gradually over the course of about 3 weeks, a number of books and web sites. Although I eventually purchased The Primal Blueprint and several other books, it was following conversations on a question-and-answer site called PaleoHacks that finally pushed me into giving ancestral eating a try.

The first week was tough but I was a pro at "first weeks." Between 2 and 3 weeks in, I noticed that I didn't need GERD medicine any more. My life-long stuffy nose (I was the classic runny-nosed kid) dried up. My bloated, sore gut started to feel better. And, magically, all the stinging and tingling in my joints and limbs disappeared. 

Something else happened too. The ancestral foods I was eating started to taste GOOD. I mean, biting into a plum was orgasmic. Meat and grapefruit started to taste SWEET. It was truly amazing. A life-changing success story, right?

Um ... no. I was still a binge eater. At about 3 months in, I started occasional binges on fruit. After all, that was better than chips and cookies, right? Then, 4 months in, I had the bright idea that every weekend I could have one, just one, soft-serve cone as a treat. Within 2 weeks, of course, I lost it and went out to buy all my binge favorites. Yes, I had a mental list and I got them all. It took me about 4 days to work through all the foods. For the first time in my life, though, the binge didn't follow the script.

All of those life-long favorites tasted BLEH. To be fair, they tasted exactly like what they are--manufactured food-like products. But my tastebuds and gut were now acclimated to real, whole food and they sent me very clear signals. In other words, rather than just being uncomfortably full as expected, I got sick as a dog. Down and out. I felt too bad to even be too guilty about the binge; I was too busy feeling sorry for myself.

So, I went back to ancestral foods and within a week I felt better. Once I was feeling better I did a really brilliant thing and convinced myself the first reaction was just because I wasn't used to those foods any more but I'd be okay now, right? So, out I went to buy them all again. On the second binge the foods tasted even worse and I got much sicker much faster so I stopped eating the junk halfway through the pile. I didn't realize it at the time, but that was the end of my career as a binge eater. So far. I have no crystal ball.

The second binge occurred in late August. Since that time, when I look at neolithic (manufactured food-like) products they register in my brain at the same level as plaster figurines. That makes sense as the nutritional equivalents probably aren't all that different. :-))

The result, or perhaps the final step, of my recovery was intermittent fasting also known as IF. There are many discussions about IF on PaleoHacks and a web site called leangains.com is considered the home of IF but I'll just provide a simple definition here: you eat a large, nutrient-dense meal and you don't eat again until you are physically hungry. In the beginning this could be only a few hours but over time the interval frequently becomes longer as your lean mass reaches good overall nourishment. If you find yourself indifferent about eating and deciding to skip a meal you just started IF and that's how it happened for me. I went from 3 meals to 2 and then from 2 to one. Recently, I added a small breakfast and still have my main meal in mid-afternoon. On a given day, if I feel no interest in food I don't eat even if it means I don't eat that day--that's happened a few times but I never plan/schedule it and it's a non-event on the same level that being unusually hungry and having an extra meal is. Most veteran IF-ers find they have a preferred "eating window" of 4-8 hours during which they usually eat their daily food but it's not a hard-and-fast rule.

The End of Binge Eating

The final chapter of my story is the holidays just past. In mid-November, my waist measurement was down 5" from early September and I was happily perking along with IF. I became slightly apprehensive, though, because the holidays were traditionally the time that I fell off the diet wagon and began the bitter climb back to my peak weight. After much thought, I decided to face the issue head-on. If I was going to fail in the long run there was really no point in trying to be perfect during the holidays.

I declared "open eating season" and planned for the season to be from mid-November to either early January or after my birthday in mid-February. On Thanksgiving I attended a neighborhood bring-a-dish feast and I chose to take a mixed fruit salad with no additives except cinnamon. To my surprise, I looked at the "plaster figurines" and just didn't want any of them so I grabbed some raw veggies, some of my fruit salad and a nice pile of turkey meat. The only person comfortable with that was me, so I left a little early. It's strange, isn't it, that all my friends exclaimed with delight over my improved figure but were unhappy with my food choices . . .

Since this was an as-desired open season, it turned out that I didn't eat any neolithic choices at all until mid-December. At that point, I bought some shortbread. That didn't turn out well as this post explains. But for the remainder of the holidays I enjoyed some ice cream, corn chips and other non-wheat treats without any problems. If I'm honest, I had a few momentary impulses to binge but my brain (I think it was the one in my gut) rejected the notion instantly. As there wasn't a single day on which the neolithic treat tasted as good as the ancestral foods/treats I wound up closing open season early and resuming my normal routine with a deep sense of relief. Assuming my waist would be the same or an inch or so larger, I took a measurement on the 3rd or 4th day after closing the holiday season and found it was an inch smaller.

If you are a binge eater, here are my closing thoughts:

  1. It's not hopeless! It's hard as hell and you have to be stubborn and really want it.
  2. Learn the difference between physical hunger and emotional cravings. This post may help.
  3. You may not be able to stop binge eating until you truly prefer real foods to manufactured food-like products. Work on that. Find out which meats/vegetables/fruits delight your senses.
  4. Binge eating is over when you see neolithic food-like products and they register in your brain as "not food." That has to follow step 2 though.
I hope this is the beginning of the end for binge eating in your life. Remember--neither fun nor comfort are spelled FOOD.

P.S. If you are a binge eater, you really need to get over your guilt and shame and translate them to living your way to a better life. An interesting post by Paul Jaminet this week hypothesized that food cravings are really your lean mass screaming for nourishment but we don't realize that so we eat more and more non-nutritious food instead. So give your gut what it wants--start eating real whole foods!


  1. Ah, secret binging, how well I remember it. Never lima beans, though! That must have been hard on your systm, poor you.

    Congratulations on your progress!

    (My birthday is mid-February, too! My treat will I think be a gluten free chocolate cake. Or cheesecake. Carrot cake? It's going to be fun.)

  2. Hi, Steph! Happy Birthday to Us! I'm not sure about my treat yet. I was never a big cake person so I may go for home-made ancestral ice cream. Or bacon bites again--those things were yummy!

  3. Here's a link to the recipe for bacon bites: http://www.foodrenegade.com/bacon-wrapped-sweet-potato-bites/ When I made them, I used cinnamon as my spice and that worked fine too.

  4. You are so brave.
    Alcohol - specifically, white wine - is my binge of choice.
    I had a glass last night... and it tasted like vinegar (odd really, because I have been having cider vinegar and ice water as a substitute!)
    The vinegar drink is cooling (it is VERY humid here right now) and satisfying... the wine was not either of those things.
    Leptin reset start tomorrow.

  5. Hi, Janet! That's interesting about the taste of your wine. I suppose it could be something with that bottle, but if not I wonder if it's one of your taste bud changes. Many people rave about the leptin reset. It worked for me even though I didn't always eat within 30 minutes every morning, it just took longer for me to become sensitive again. I'll be thinking of you!

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