Overcoming Binge Eating
Brain ‘over’ Binge
So, I recently read a book by a woman who overcame her binge eating.
It is a book called, “Brain Over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn’t Work, And How I Recovered for Good” by Kathryn Hansen.
I do not aim to recreate her book for you here, and nor is this a book review per se.
But what I will say, is this book is one tool, one very helpful tool, that has helped me start to view my urge to binge, and binge eating in a completely new light.
And it is transforming.
I have not had a binge since when I first read her book a month ago.
Binge Eating Disorder and Bulimia
What do I mean by not having a binge?
Well, I have a binge eating disorder. You can have a binge eating disorder without having bulimia. According to Eating Disorder Hope, bulimia is defined as:
“an eating disorder described by the ingestion of an abnormally large amount of food in a short time period, followed by an attempt to avoid gaining weight by purging what was consumed.
Methods of purging include forced vomiting, excessive use of laxatives or diuretics, and extreme or prolonged periods of exercising.
Often, in these binge/purge episodes, a woman or man suffering from this disorder will experience a loss of control and engage in frantic efforts to undo these feelings.”
A binge eating disorder involves ingesting a large amount of food in a short period of time, often compulsively, but there are no efforts made to avoid gaining weight by purging (in any way). Most people with a binge eating disorder are overweight, and often obese. There is often a feeling of ‘loss of control’ or a feeling like you are unable to stop the binge.
Mainstream theories and therapy in relation to binge eating say that binge eating is:
- A way to cope with difficult or overwhelming emotions
- Indicative of an underlying psychological issue/problem
- A sign of ‘disease’
- A food addiction
However, according to Katherine’s research and ultimate recovery, she states in meticulous detail why she believes that:
- You are not diseased
- Your brain is healthy
- You don’t have an inability to cope
- You have power over your urges to eat
- You can end bulimia and binge eating disorder without having to transform your whole personality
I have not binged for one whole month
So in the last month, I have not binged at all.
I have had the urge to binge in relation to chocolate, lollies, biscuits and salty foods like chips, and sliced buttered bread.
When I had the urge for chocolate I consciously chose to go and buy the smallest size chocolate bar available and ate that and enjoyed each mouthful.
So, yes, I ate some chocolate — but was it a binge? Hell, no!
I have had 3 or 4 slices of sourdough bread in the middle of one afternoon because 1) it was freshly baked 2) I wanted to eat some BUT I did not binge. Did I NEED to eat that bread in the middle of the afternoon? No.
Could I have exercised some more self-control and denied myself some? Yes. But, did I binge? No
Brain over binge
On her website, Katherine highlights that:
“As humans, we have wonderful cognitive abilities; but we also have a primitive nature that’s only concerned with our survival and pleasure.
It’s this primitive part of us that becomes temporarily dysfunctional in binge eating.
Binge eating is actually a very natural, but “primitive” brain response to restrictive dieting and/or the repeated overconsumption of highly stimulating foods.”
Not giving in to my urge to binge
Have I had the URGE to binge? Yes, I have.
And here is where the difference has come in.
I have recognized the urge. I have said, “Yes, I see you, I hear you, I know you want to eat copious amounts of food.”
And then I have chosen NOT to do so.
I have repeated to myself over and over, ‘Brain over binge.”
I have visualized, my cognitive ‘higher brain’ my prefrontal cortex exercising control and executive function over my reptilian brain, the ‘lower regions’ of my brain from where primal urges arise.
I have not judged this part of my brain — my ‘lower brain.’
In fact, at times I have been in awe of it, and am thankful.
Survival mode of ‘lower brain’ function activated by starvation
As Kathryn says in her book, this part of your brain has just been trying to survive.
It recognized when you first started to severely calorie restrict (cut out whole food groups and/or radically shake up weight loss) and it realized you could be going into starvation mode, so it now kicks in with increasing severity and frequency the overwhelming urge to eat and consume vast and enormous quantities of food.
This is what this part of your brain SHOULD do when you have experienced a time of famine (even though self-imposed).
At numerous times in my past, and at one starting point (which I do not remember) there would have been a “first” time where I cut my caloric intake dramatically to well below what I needed to nourish and keep my body alive.
I thought I was doing the right thing when I did this (again, no judgment on past actions and attempts at weight loss).
Instead, now (equipped with my new found knowledge) when I feel a compulsion to overeat and binge I can quietly and calmly realize that:
- I no longer need to spend hours fighting my urges, at war with myself.
- I do not have to search in my mind for what unmet emotional needs I am trying to meet, and spend ages trying to figure out alternate ways to meet these needs.
- I do not have to search for triggers. Kathryn mentions that just like any addiction the ‘search’ for your triggers can take years, and often at the end of that time you realize that you will eat; when you are happy; when you are sad; when things are going well; when things are not going well. In fact, although you don’t need a ‘reason’ to binge the urges are there nevertheless.
- Instead of fighting with myself I kindly recognize this is my reptilian or lower brain engaging with me, as it has falsely set up a pattern of behavior initially triggered by starvation episodes, where it now feels I need to eat. Instead of ‘fighting’ the urge, I calmly thank that area of my brain, tell myself it is not necessary, and DO NOT give in and overeat but repeat, “Brain over binge.”
This is you recognizing that your ‘higher reasoning brain’ can control your lower brain function, and you can say NO as you know there is no survival need in play.
If you realize you are hungry then stop and eat. If you crave something sweet or a bit salty, allow yourself to have one or two pieces and then stop.
You can do it.
Urges to binge are not evidence of a diseased brain but faulty wiring that can be repaired
She firmly believes and rejects the notion that binge eating is a ‘disease’ that we have no control over.
Binge eating is a consequence of our lower brain being triggered into survival mode, and the patterns of behavior of continually giving in to the urge set up faulty wiring until this pattern takes on a life of its own.
The plasticity of the brain is now well known and recognized. New electrical pathways in the brain can be forged, old ones can be weakened, and weakened pathways strengthened.
Recognize that you are NOT broken. You are not sick. You are not emotionally damaged to the point where that is the food trigger or issue. You can choose to spend years in therapy to help you heal emotionally but it will usually do little or nothing to fix your eating disorder.
Traditional therapies show success rates ranging from 20–80% in effectively treating or ‘curing’ binge eating disorders, especially for longterm sufferers. “Success’ often involves continued treatment or ongoing therapeutic work on behalf of those in treatment. What defines success in treatment is often different which makes different therapies hard to compare.
She spends time explaining this and about the different variations of bulimia.
If you have past trauma then definitely access therapy to deal with those issues, but do not murky the water trying to link your binge eating with your trauma.
Katherine overcame her food addiction after decades of severe bulimia, once she fully understood how her brain worked and how addiction worked from the area of the brain related to fight/flight and the survival response.
She now has a website dedicated to explaining the concepts in her memoir (which is what I have read), along with a blog and podcast and has released a recovery guide with more specific tips to help people who are actively trying to recover from a food addiction/eating disorder.
My unhealthy relationship with food
For myself, I can clearly see that I grew up with unhealthy food patterns.
I had a mother who I believe had an eating disorder (not ever diagnosed) and who went through phases where she cut out whole food groups. Our food was often restricted or our patterns of eating meant we were banned from eating certain foods for long periods of time. She would then radically change our diet and we would all be trying something completely different. I am not blaming her for this. It was the reality of throughout my childhood.
Chocolate and love
My mother used to occasionally binge on chocolate, and the times where she and I lay on the couch watching a television show sharing chocolate are amongst some of my favorite memories where I felt truly loved.
I associate chocolate with feeling loved, so would always tell myself when I binged, that it was because in some way I was feeling unloved and trying to meet that need.
Yes, in some ways I often feel an emptiness, but realizing and separating in my higher consciousness that I could deal with this in therapy on a completely separate level than linking it with food addiction was enlightening.
Consciously ‘allowing’ myself to eat foods I would use to binge
It helped me see that sometimes, keeping the ritual of having a small chocolate bar or chocolate biscuit and a cup of tea whilst I watched a favorite Netflix series was totally okay.
What I wanted to stop doing, as it was unhealthy for me, was eating 12 chocolate bars, a whole packet of biscuits, a whole packet of licorice allsorts and bags of potato chips, and sliced bread and butter.
When I allowed myself to eat a “small amount” of food I previously have binged on, I now try to enjoy every mouthful and consciously eat it (this means not eating whilst driving, or standing up) but sitting down and savoring and enjoying what you are eating.
I also recognize that it is going to be temporarily uncomfortable to experience urges to binge and not give in.
To say, “brain over binge” and realize that your reptilian urge will just settle once it realizes you are not giving in, won’t fight it and won’t indulge it in time spent trying to ‘figure it out’ is wonderful.
Surprisingly the urges for me will now subside in 10 or 15 minutes, compared to fighting them for hours previously.
A change in mindset has made all the difference.
Urges are ‘neurological junk’ created by ‘binge created lower brain faulty wiring’ set up over the years.
Kathryn speaks about how she relapsed twice once she changed her mindset, but she has had nearly 13 years pass since she last binged.
She started to see her prefrontal cortex or ‘higher brain’ as her real self separated and superior to her ‘lower brain’ where the urges originated from.
It was the two parts of her brain competing with each other that created the food addiction, the urges and the binging.
Plasticity of brain
Once she learned and realized about the brains plasticity and its ability for neurological pathways to be strengthened each time she did not give in to an urge then it was the key to her overcoming her food addiction.
Each time she got an urge she was able to ‘step back’ as an observer of this lower part of her brain, realize what was going on, be sympathetic, and non-judgemental but realize she had complete control over what it wanted her to do.
She started to see the urge as ‘neurological junk’ and not indicative of some deep unmet need but rather on autopilot, trying to assume control.
Her job was to disconnect from those thoughts and feelings related to the urges and be an observer so she could get them to eventually subside altogether. And that is what happened.
It is important to note that she wrote the book in relation to:
- Bulimia (with vomiting)
- Binge eating with compulsive exercising for hours
- Binging but do not overexercise and do not purge by vomiting.
These are the conditions her book is addressing.
Tips on how to view urges to binge eat and overcome them
- Urges to binge are purely ‘neurological junk’
- Separate highest brain ‘real self’ from urges to binge
- Stop reacting emotionally to urges
- Stop ACTING on the urges
- Get excited about your successes
Anorexia is actually the opposite problem according to Katherine and will NOT be helped by her method and may, in fact, be worsened. She sees anorexia as originating in the higher brain, or prefrontal cortex and exercising control over the ‘lower brain’ and herein lies the tremendous difficulties in treating it, and why more people die of anorexia than any other eating disorder.
My journey towards overcoming binge eating
I can only state that this book has helped me change my mindset and after one month, and after experiencing multiple urges to binge, I have not given in to them, and I feel that so far it has been successful for me.
I see restoring my health as a journey, involving mindset, food, exercise and also for me, a spiritual component (healing). I certainly am far off saying I have ‘healed’ my eating disorder, and am recovered from binge eating but I am hopeful. Very hopeful for the first time in a long time.
I am starting to feel a real measure of control and hope, and it is related to what I learned in this book. I seriously recommend either to read her memoir, if you suffer from bulimia (whatever type) or look at the free information on her website.
Whether you agree with the underpinning philosophy, her method worked for her, and so far, it is working for me.