This is my attempt at a post which will serve as a disordered eating “start here” post. It’s not everything, and it’s not tailored to people’s particular needs–of course it can’t be–but it will certainly give you a feel for my ideas and philosophy. Start here, and email me afterwards if you think it would be helpful. I’d be happy to hear your story. There’s no question that you will find in me someone to support you unconditionally.
If you are a disordered eater, you are not alone. I know that you know this fact, but it never hurts to be reminded. People always seem comforted by that thought when they email me. Know that lots of people email me, and hundreds here at this site still don’t, and millions more in America struggle with the same issues. Know that you keep pretty specific company, too. I have spoken with smatterings of men and smatterings of older people, but the vast majority have been intelligent, ambitious young women. This demographic is perfectionist in a big way. This means that we expect our bodies to be perfect, and our diets, and our health, and when they’re not, things go wrong in a big way, too. If you’ve noticed this pattern in your life, and if you think it contributes to your disordered eating, welcome to the club.
I don’t say that flippantly. I have recently learned how to laugh at some of my disordered behaviors and coping mechanisms, and it’s been awesome, I recommend it, but disordered eating of course isn’t funny. It’s hard and painful and sorrowful and full of loathing, and I’m so, so sorry you feel this way. Gods, am I ever. It’s a world of pain, and there are no ways about that fact.
Fortunately, there are some things you can know and practices you can adopt that will help you move forward towards a more serene, positive, and loving future.
If you are a disordered eater, know:
1. Certain foods make you feel satiated and others do the opposite
Human beings have a protein requirement. Eat it. At the low end, eat .5 g/lb of lean body weight per day. At the high end, eat 1g/lb of lean body weight. I have 100 pounds of lean body weight, so I eat 50-100 g of protein each day.
Fat is uniquely satiating. I would argue that you cannot err with a high fat diet. Eat lots of animals, olive oil, coconut oil, and avocadoes. Some of my favorite, most energetic days start with four avocadoes, and I end up barely nibbling at dinner time because I’m still not hungry.
Many people think eating starches is ideal for health, and I recommend you to www.perfecthealthdiet.com if you want to learn more about that. In my case, they certainly are. For all disordered eaters, it’s a matter of personal experience. In general, I recommend that if you are obsessive about food that you try to limit your carbs, specifically fructose, for a while. Perhaps around 50 grams per day. It’s up to you whether or not you go into ketosis. There’s a lot more to that debate than I have space to cover here.
Of all the carbohydrates, fructose is really the only one so demonic to appetite. It directly inhibits leptin’s interaction with your hypothalamus and stimulates hunger, rather than suppressing it. Just one or two servings of fruit throws me off for an entire couple of days. Once I switched to a paleo, high fat diet, I was so amazed and relieved at how much less I thought about food.
Know also that there are a lot of different theories for why we have cravings. JS has a fascinating series on hunger, liking, and how poor nutrition might lead to a lack of satiety over at gnolls.org. Educate yourself about it as best you can, and learn that your hunger is not your fault. The Jaminets also have a thematically related theory about hunger and why people overeat: nutrient deprivation in lean tissue.
That isn’t to say it still isn’t a struggle. That’s what the rest of the post is about.
2. You have a chemical problem, like an addiction.
There’s no question about it. Sugar produces very real withdrawal symptoms in rats fed high sugar versus high fat diets. (They binged on both foods, but did not experience withdrawal with the fat.) Sugar acts on the same dopamine receptors that other addictive substances do. What’s so hard about food addiction, however, is that we cannot go cold turkey. We must keep eating. In any case, the important thing to remember is that there is something going on in your metabolism and your brain that is making this phenomenon happen to you.
3. In addition, we live in a fucked society. It makes more money the more you eat, and you eat more the worse you feel about yourself.
4. Given points 1, 2, and 3, therefore, disordered eating is NOT. YOUR. FAULT.
It’s not. But it still haunts you. What do you do?
- Practice forgiveness. Because it is not your fault, because disordered eating is a hell of a demon, and because you would grant forgiveness to anyone other than yourself, you must learn to forgive yourself for negative eating episodes. You are doing your absolute best to cope with a horrible problem, so don’t drown yourself in guilt. It’s painful and not productive at all. In fact, it’s counter productive, because the more guilt you feel, and the more you beat yourself up, the more you want to eat. Breathe deeply, let go, and love yourself as unconditionally as you can. Forgive yourself as you would forgive others. It is not your fault.
- Treat each negative eating episode as a learning experience. This and forgiveness are the two crucial elements for getting better. You have to learn about yourself—you have to understand why you binge, what your triggers are, and how you react to your bingeing—in order to begin mitigating your problems. In this way, each bingeing episode isn’t worthless. It’s teaching you something. Even if it’s something you’ve done a million times before, each situation is unique and can give you unique insights into your psyche. Forgive yourself for not being able to cut off the binge before it started, and learn from the experience.
- In this way, you are always moving forward. Learn from each experience, but do not dwell upon it. Forgive yourself for each experience, and move on. Love yourself always, and keep your eyes on the future. What’s important about looking at the future, however, is to stop shooting for perfection. Shoot for progress. Disordered eating is nothing something you will ever be cured of. Instead, it is something that will get better and better throughout time. Sometimes you will stumble. The progress is slow. But even while you struggle, you are learning about yourself. Two steps forward, one step back. That’s okay. Inching forward is the name of the game.
- Never have ridiculous expectations. Don’t expect yourself to get better fast. I’ve been working on this for years and years. Expect yourself to get better. Ask yourself to challenge yourself, but never too far outside of your comfort zone. Know your limits, and push them gently. Have as much patience as possible.
- Move on as quickly as possible. After an eating episode, don’t let yourself get sucked into the vicious cycle of depression and eating. Instead, figure out ways to move on and regain mental balance as quickly as possible. Many people write to me expressing that their biggest problem is getting back on their feet. With forgiveness, learning about yourself, and a steadfast refusal to dwell on negativity in your life and in your self image, you can do this easier and easier.
- Love. Love yourself as you love others. Love others as you love yourself. Don’t ignore the negative, but instead consider it a part holistically of who you are as a beautiful, very real, and very human, human. Know that it is a part of you, but it does not define you. Love yourself as holistically as possible.
- Fix the other crap in your life. For real. Stressors are a big part of disordered food behavior. Resolve your stress, quit your shitty job, see a therapist. Figure out what you need to be happy and go for it. One of my readers moved to Mexico for a while, and came back and got a new job, and started seeing a therapist and taking some medications. She’s doing lightyears better. Take action to make your life better. Fuck! Not a single person in the world cares more about your happiness. They are not going to do it for you. You are.
- See a doctor. Get a blood test. You never know if there’s something wrong. I started taking thyroid medication a couple of weeks ago, and it has helped enormously. There are also psychiatric agents and dopamine type things you can take to assist you feeling satiated. You would get these from a psychiatrist, normally.
- Eliminate as best you can the deprivation attitude. If we feel deprived, we want the things of which we are deprived far more than we would otherwise. Not having oreos, you are not deprived. We all have friends who can eat six whoppers in a day and not gain a pound, but that’s simply not you and you are probably better off for it. Don’t let people and phenomena like that make you feel deprived. Instead, feel blessed for the opportunity to eat real, healthful, natural food.
- Get your mind off of food. Find something else in life worthy of your devotion. Throw yourself into your work, your relationships, a new hobby, or volunteering. Have a sense of purpose and move towards it. There is not a single thing in the world better for mitigating disordered eating than making something other than food the most important thing in your life. I remember very clearly the first day I didn’t have the thought, “I’d rather be eating!” sitting at the back of my head for the entire day. What I wanted was to be doing exactly what I was doing.
What I listed above are what I think are the most important mental behaviors and ideas for mitigating disordered eating. In the meantime, and while you work on those issues, there are a lot of trick type things you can do to help ease the pain of bingeing. Sometimes the best thing isn’t to try to STOP a binge—that can lead to worse things down the road, especially if you fail—but rather to harness your need to overeat and direct it in less harmful directions. THEN, when you feel as though you aren’t being as harmful with your eating, you will naturally feel less guilt, and your desire to eat might be less and less.
- Get distracted. This is related to the last point above. You can engage your hands in other things, like knitting or drawing or fidgeting, but you can also engage your mind in other things. Engaging your mind is even more effective, because it actually gets to the root of your problem. Don’t just watch TV–that leaves your hands and mouth idle. Play a game, go for a walk, talk to a friend. The list is endless.
- Banish negative thoughts about food or yourself immediately. IMMEDIATELY. Hating ourselves is almost a habit. Get out of it and shift your mind into thinking about more positive things.
- Get happy neurotransmitters another way: exercise and have sex. These are excellent means by which to improve the chemical environments of our brains. Get to it! Life is short. What do you think you’re going to regret more on your deathbed? That you didn’t eat enough oreos, or that you didn’t try reverse cowboy?
- Never look in the mirror, good or bad. Ideas about food are tied up with body image. As they should be, in some way, since what we eat is directly related to our health. But this association means that when we look at ourselves, we often think about food right away. If I look good, I think “boy I can go eat!” and if I look bad, I think “boy I can’t eat at all!” and that’s awful, it makes me feel deprived. Instead, just keep fitting into your regular clothes and trust you look the same as always. Don’t dwell on your body image, there’s no reason to. Really. Can you think of one?
- Recognize trouble foods and keep them away. Really. Don’t make excuses for your families. They should support you. And if they insist on eating foods you normally binge on, or have unhealthy thoughts about, try having separate food storage locations. Have separate shelves, or drawers in the fridge, or pantries. Make it your habit to NEVER open their cabinets. When I am home with my mother, I do this with the fruit drawer, and it works quite well. I just don’t look in there, I don’t know what’s there, and that’s great for all of us.
- Recognize your habits and try to break them. A lot of our eating behavior is just a conditioned habit. Do you always eat when you get home, even if you’re not hungry? Try to change that. It only takes a couple of days for our ghrelin to respond to new eating schedules. It might suck at first, but it could really help you in the long run. On the other hand, there are a few other ways to mitigate the problem: try moving a meal to the time you arrive home, or make sure what you eat when you arrive home is just a low calorie snack like six heads of broccoli.
- When you can’t keep them away, just let yourself go. Seriously. Don’t go nuts, but I have found that resisting for short periods of time works, but for long periods of time can build up intense cravings that leads to really unhealthful binges. In these cases, if you know that you are being exposed to a problem food for a short period of time, forgive yourself ahead of time for anything you might do. Try and keep your hands off of the food, but if you don’t, just nibble slowly, and acknowledge that you’re doing your best. This might not work for everyone. It’s important to constantly over time learn what is the best way to handle the presence of trouble foods for you.
- Don’t eat carbohydrates. Fructose. Really. Don’t.
- Take a nap. Get good sleep every night. Often I eat because I am tired. People who sleep less are more overweight than well-rested adults. Presumably this is because being tired inhibits satiation signaling. Our bodies think they need more food for energy, even though they really don’t.
- Call someone. Often I eat because I am lonely or bored. Recognize these kinds of mental states, and mitigate them as best you can with different activities or thoughts.
- Drink tea. A great way for flavor and consumption without the calories or self-loathing! Switch up the kinds of tea you drink so you don’t over-do it on certain herbs. That can be problematic.
- Chew gum. It’s not the best solution, because it’s sweet and can make you crave more foods, but some people swear by it and it’s better than eating a whole cake.
- Eat vegetables. Move your bingeing from the tastiest to less tasty foods over time. This is one of my favorite techniques. People often binge on desserts and highly processed, nasty, addictive foods. One way to satisfy our bingeing needs is to substitute in different foods. It might be hard to switch right to cabbage from oreos, but what you might want to do is put in a slightly more healthful alternative each time. When you’re craving HoHos, ask yourself if four pounds of sweet potatoes would be equally as delicious and satiating. Or try citrus fruits (a bit harder to overeat), or berries, or even something like protein or Lara bars. Then move into the vegetables. Try sweeter ones like carrots, and then cabbage and Brussels sprouts. It can take you an hour to eat a head of cabbage, and it’s only a few hundred calories. It might make you feel sick—bingeing always does—but it’s a hell of a lot better for your physical and mental health then downing a whole cake. This method helps you satisfy your need to EAT while minimizing the nasty effects. I still do this, if not in full “binge” mode, on a regular basis.
- Eat all you want of paleo foods. It’s better to be overweight or an overeater on paleo foods than to not be paleo at all. Calories are important but are not the most important for our health (usually). It’s better to eat a whole chicken than a slice of pie. I mean that. DO IT.
- Fast. Fasting is a great way to decrease hunger. It’s a bit of a paradox, but it’s true. Give it a try. The longer I go without eating, the less I usually feel like I need to. Fasting is also a great way to recover from a binge. If you can go all the way to dinner the next day, you’ve spent all day burning what you ate before. You are also spending that time clearing up your cells from any garbage from your eating episode, and resetting your metabolism to more optimal levels.
- Establish a satisfying routine. This takes a while,but keep on troubleshooting and don’t give up. Figure out what kind of meal plan and what kinds of foods make you feel good about your eating habits and are still satiating. I enjoy eating a big fat rich meal in the morning which opens me up to nibble on veggies and protein at night. Of course I leave room for unique situations like dinner with my housemates, but generally my life runs by a good routine, so why not my food, too? An added bonus here is that the more routine you are, the less you have to think about what and when you are going to eat.
- Be poor. Having to keep a tight budget did wonders for my eating. Or you could start saving up for something. If you’re trying to save money, you might go grocery shopping less often, and naturally start eating less.
- Clean your room. Living in a clean space is important. I don’t know why, but I and a lot of my clients experience the power of clean living. If I am in a beautiful space that I feel proud of and comfortable in, I feel more serene. I feel more productive. I feel less like a typical slob, and therefore less like eating. I light candles and read books with tea and generally create a beautiful narrative around my life. It makes me feel so positive. Showering regularly and wearing flattering clothes that I love is a huge part of this, too.
- Get momentum and hold onto it as best you can. Momentum is about a million times easier to hold onto than to achieve. Once you’ve got it, run with it. Don’t question it or dwell on it, just do.
- Spend time with people who affirm you. This is a no brainer, but it’s amazing how many people I talk to who live with people who put them down, consciously or not. You are awesome. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I mean that. Try to spend time with positive people in general, too. The more positively you think about all things, the more positively you will think about food and yourself. Psychological literature has shown that positive thinking and gratitude are two of the greatest happiness generators in contemporary lives.
- Don’t read magazines or watch TV. Have your own standard of beauty, for God’s sake. When I am living abroad, I always feel comfortable, if not beautiful. The second I set food on American soil, however, I feel lowly and sluggish and silly. There are billboards all over, magazines, TV commercials, people themselves with bleached blond hair and perfect skin and bodies, and WTF. Turn off the ‘TV. Don’t look at them. The more you focus on the beauty of others, the more you are exposed to it, the more you compare yourself to it. Why must I be as beautiful as Scarlet Johannson? Because I am a perfectionist, and society says she is perfect. No! Fuck! I am equally perfect, and I’ll be damned if anyone is going to convince me otherwise.
- Fake it ‘til you make it. Put on a smile. Flirt. Wink until you develop a tick. Gods. Guys, I’ve walked around much of the two years with cystic acne on my face, and absolutely, I cover it up with make up, but it still shows and I feel hideous a lot of the time. All that said, because I demanded of myself to not let my confidence slide, and to still act like I owned a bar every time I went in it, I have actually increased the rate at which people are interested in me. Hugely! It’s so hard to grasp, gods, it’s so hard, but what’s so important for being attractive is being friendly and having a warm, confident smile. Put it on, try it, and see what happens. Then you’ll get affirmed, and you’ll have confidence naturally. And you might not care so much, or at least hate yourself so much, for how you look. Don’t waste your time worrying about your looks. (Do you care all that much about what other people look like when you meet them?) Instead, do your best to make good connections with people. If they turn out affirming you physically or sexually or whatever, that’s great. More often than not they won’t. But if you put on that smile, if you strut, if you dress to impress, you will impress. You will have confidence, and it will grow. You are not your body image or your relationship with food. You are an empowered human being. Be that, and damn everyone to hell who might stand in your way.