Before we begin, I must make this clear – I am NOT a professional or expert in mental health, binge eating or eating disorders, and if you’re really struggling with these issues I implore you to talk to someone and go see a doctor.
All I’m offering here is what I’ve learnt in my journey to accepting my body, respecting my body and developing a more positive and balanced relationship with food.
Don’t restrict yourself
This is the biggest, biggest thing that has helped me prevent my binge eating and start to move towards a more positive relationship with food (though I’m not there yet, believe me). I wholeheartedly believe that if you suffer from binge eating, taking the decision to cut out huge food groups and even certain foods that you might normally binge on is a fast track to relapse. You might be able to hold on for a while, but all I’ve ever found from doing this is that soon the food you’re cutting out becomes all you can think about it, obsessive thoughts intensify and all it does is give the food so much more power over you – and eventually, you give in.
By not making any food off limits, even the ones I normally binged on, I’ve made the task of getting better not seem like such a big mountain to climb. I’ve took the power back from those foods. I’ve stopped them from controlling me (or am trying to). They’ve stopped being this big scary thing that I have to pretend I don’t want in public for fear of judgment and hoard for myself when I’m alone. If I really want chocolate, or a takeaway… I’ll have some. It’s slowing down, making the most of the food and not eating them in an emotion-filled stupor that is key from separating eating what you want from binging.
I actually was a vegetarian for about a year, until I made the decision to remove that label from myself a few months ago. I still very strongly believe in the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle, and eat veggie/vegan meals a lot of the time, but I realised that putting the pressure on myself to avoid meat was making my binge eating worse.
Being vegetarian put such a heavy weight on me, forced me to choose food I didn’t always want and left me seeking satiation from binge foods. And so, despite desiring to move towards a more vegan lifestyle, I’m currently eating what I want in that respect. When I’ve managed to construct a more positive relationship with food, I’ll start reducing animal products when I feel the time is right. But for now, giving myself freedom with food is important to help free myself from my disordered eating.
As I say, I’m no expert in this, but I see other binge eaters cutting out carbs or counting their calories and I can’t help but feel that it’s not going to work for them as a long term solution. Of course, I can’t know that what I’m doing will work either, but I just know that punishing yourself for eating any kind of food will not help you build that positive mentality you need to beat your binge eating habits.
Removing guilt around food
One of the most damaging effects of binge eating is that it can turn food into an object of guilt, shame and even resentment, instead of something to fuel and nourish your body and soul – and I’ve found that if you binge for long enough, you soon start to feel guilty for eating anything at all, whether it’s something considered ‘healthy’ or not.
This can make every day life such a struggle. I still feel panic and horror sometimes at the thought of managing to feed myself without binging. The bottom line is that everyone has to eat, and so feeling such deep rooted emotions around food can have a really negative impact on your mental health.
Working with myself to mentally remove this guilt around food has been a crucial part in the recovery I’ve made so far.
Practising mindful eating
Relating directly to the previous point, practising mindful eating is one of the things that really helped me to remove the guilt and emotion I feel towards certain foods.
My therapist suggested that I look up mindful eating videos on Youtube – I used this one and this one – and go through the exercise using a food I would previously have binged on, which for me is chocolate. This was such a scary idea at the time – I’m allowed to eat this food that I used to buy in bulk and squirrel away, inhaling it when I was alone?
I saw the mindful exercise as a huge deal, something I was building myself up to the whole week as this amazing chance to eat something I’d been trying to recover from and reduce my intake of for so long. I looked forward to it like you would a first date, got butterflies at the thought, and planned out the time and day I would do it, as well as meticulously choosing exactly what food I would do it with.
If you haven’t recognised this already, disordered eating tends to revolve around a compulsive need to control your food, and relinquishing that control is key.
And so, at home, alone, I pressed mute on the TV and sat quietly to carry out my mindful eating exercise. I listened to a video that helped me get into a meditative state and then began to eat mindfully. I smelled the food, absorbed how it felt on my fingers and against my lips, the texture of it, placed it in my mouth but didn’t chew…. when I did chew I noticed the way I did so, how it melted in my mouth, how the food changed form as I ate it. I chewed it over and over before I finally swallowed it.
It was a really interesting thing to do. The thing I noticed most is that this food that was so loaded with emotion to me… it took that all away. I saw it for what it was – just a pack of chocolate, just sugar and cocoa and biscuit, not some kind of emotional crutch or reward or punishment. Just food. It made me wonder why I’d feared it and yet been seduced by it for so long.
I’m fully aware that this isn’t a technique that everyone can apply to every meal – I definitely don’t – and it’s certainly not a quick fix to disordered eating. But I do believe it’s a good exercise to try and take away the stigma and emotion from a food, and see it for what it is instead.
Don’t focus on weight loss
This is a hard one, because I’ve been binge eating so badly for such a long time that I’ve put on a lot of weight. This has changed my body in so many ways – it’s affected my personal style, my self esteem massively, and my body confidence. But I know that the only way to truly find peace with food is to make peace with my body, love (or at least accept) it for what it is, and fully extract myself from diet culture.
I’ve noticed I have a dialogue with myself which essentially says that once I lose the weight, then I can start living. Then I can do the job I want, and the personal projects I want to do, wear the clothes I want and be the person I want to be. But there is zero point in waiting to lose some pounds for your life to start. You’re living, right now. So live as you are, accept who you are, and focus on healing your mind – that will help you to heal your body, and throw those scales out of the window.
Trying to learn to eat intuitively
This is something I’m fairly new to, and am just really starting to learn about.
It’s a complex concept and I’m far from an expert, so here’s how registered nutritionist Laura Thomas describes it:
Intuitive Eating is a concept that was designed to help people have better relationships with food, ditch the weird rules that makes us afraid of eating and to stop dieting (spoiler: clean eating is a diet, even if you call it a lifestyle). The central concept is eating according to your hunger and fullness clues – although there are circumstances where you’re not hungry but you wanna eat cake with your friend on her birthday, that doesn’t mean you’re fucking up at intuitive eating, that just means you’re enjoying life.
Eating intuitively is my new end goal, not weight loss.
It’s a very long road and a complicated one, but it was a methodology developed in the 90s as a way to truly recover from disordered eating and diet culture. If you want to find out more about intuitive eating, Laura’s podcast ‘Don’t Salt My Game’, and Christy Harrison’s ‘Food Psych’ podcast are great starting points, and both have online courses for working through this too.
Filling yourself up with stuff other than food
Lots of things I’ve read about how to improve your relationship with food talk about filling up your life with something else that makes you feel good or helps you express and connect with your emotions – something other than food.
This can be creative things like art, writing, music – or it could be going out to events, meeting new people, taking up a hobby, reading or just making stuff. It could be as simple as a day out with your partner or a friend, getting out the house and breathing some fresh air.
If I’m having a particularly rough or down time, taking part in some of the things mentioned above can have a hugely positive effect and lift me out from under the black cloud which so often leads me to binge eating.
Eating disorders can so often lead to isolation – pushing through that, if you can, can be crucial in recovery.
Understanding what’s behind the disordered eating
Issues with food are never an isolated thing – your relationship with food is impacted by your upbringing, how much money your family had growing up, your religion, your culture, your school life, your genetics, your size, and then there’s social conditioning on top…disordered eating is never just about food. And so recovering from it can’t just be about food either.
There could be all kinds of reasons for someone developing disordered eating or a full blown eating disorder; it could be a response to past trauma, compensating for scarcity mindset you experienced as a child, trouble you’re having with processing your emotions…it could be any number of things.
So don’t try and face this alone. Talk to your friends, family; see a GP or find a non-diet, Health At Every Size professional to guide you through it. The more self-aware you can become around your personal relationship with food and where your disordered behaviours are coming from, the better equipped you are to recover from them.
***This post was edited in May 2018 to remove any content that is triggering, fatphobic, weight-stigmatising or that feeds into diet culture, and to show my experience with disordered eating more responsibly. Since originally writing this post I have come a long way and now write from a non-diet, Health At Every Size perspective. If you’ve been affected by this post, please contact eating disorder charity Beat for support.***