The Diet & Binge Cycle - Where to Interfere?
After visiting my family for 2 weeks, I came back home this week. This means two whole weeks of eating out and eating meals that I really missed, which aren’t usually the healthiest options. Two years ago visiting my family was a terrifying situation, just because of how of a dietary shock it was. Although, I have a better relationship with food now, I still experience anxiety both when I visit my family and when I come back.
When I’m there, the anxiety stems from having no control over what I eat. I feel like even if I wanted to eat healthily, I wouldn’t be able to. Why? The issue is very simple, just because I know I will not be able to eat something when I return, I want to get the best out of all of my meals. I know for a fact that if I eat a salad, I’m going to regret not having that artisan burger when I came back.
The first feeling I get when deciding what I will eat is not anxiety anymore. I have trained myself to think about what I want to eat, rather than what I should be eating.
My cravings are my priority, always. I first think about what I am craving right at that moment. The trick is to imagine the 5 minutes after finishing my food, this is usually when I decide whether I am satisfied or not.
If it’s a yes, I have my answer. If I’m having second thoughts because of my weight, I remind myself that whenever I’m left unsatisfied after a meal, I always reach for more food, which usually leads to a binge. But sometimes my disordered thoughts just haunt me. They come right at the very moment I’m enjoying myself:
‘‘It’s all fun and games until you step on the scale’’ sinister laugh
The problem with these thoughts is that you are not sure if they are representative of reality or not. In recovery, you learn to challenge your thoughts, so you don’t believe in everything you think. But then there is a teeny tiny part of you that goes:
What if… What if this time I am actually gaining weight and being ignorant about it because I’m in recovery? What if I step on the scale one day and just break down because of what I see?
That is a very critical moment. If I give in to this suspicion, I find myself stuck in a bad body image day almost immediately. So I go against every cell in my body, shaking anxiously with the thought of weight gain, and tell myself repeatedly that food isn’t the main reason I've come to visit home. That is something I need to get it over with when I’m with family and friends. So why focus on food, instead of focusing on spending quality time with them? I challenge myself:
You cannot know if you never try. Let’s make this a behavioral experiment: will I really gain weight if I eat this burger?
A behavioral experiment is a ‘‘small’’ experiment you carry out to test your beliefs. It is commonly used in cognitive behavioral therapy. You state your prediction (‘‘I will gain weight if I eat a burger’’), then how you will test it (‘‘I will eat this burger right now’’). Then comes the tricky part: refraining from engaging in safety behaviors that are preventing you from proving yourself wrong. In this case, my safety behavior would be avoiding eating the burger at all costs. And because of this behavior, I cannot know if I will actually gain weight or not, because I never carry out the action. This is what maintains my unhealthy beliefs. And I need to break free.
Of course, my disordered thoughts don’t give up easily. Nonetheless, this is my best chance to stop the voice from causing me a full-blown anxiety attack. I also find it very interesting that they come up at my happiest moments. I think that says a lot about how worthy of happiness I feel. It sometimes feels like I never let myself be happy. Becoming aware of this changed my perception of my eating disorder completely. Now I see that it isn’t really about my weight. It is about the unhealthy parts of me trying to find a way to ruin my mood, which is something I’m done tolerating.
Even though occasionally, I fail to hit the brakes when I'm experiencing the voice, I know that I cannot be strong at all times. It is also okay to give in, when you know that when you get up, you will have different opportunities to interfere with what is coming.
Visiting my family, then returning back home, experiencing all these anxieties and emotions inspired me to make the following post, which I will break down and explain. I believe this post was of particular importance and I want you, my dear follower, to understand it.
1. Your first opportunity to interfere: Bad body image day
When I return from my parents’, there comes the second wave of anxiety: I get overwhelmed with the thought that I gained a lot of weight. I feel like if I don’t step on the scale right away, I will keep gaining weight, forever and ever. And this thought, if I give in to it, is a fast track ticket to the diet & binge cycle.
When I get the urge to weigh myself, I do my best to counteract it. An urge, obviously, doesn’t magically disappear just because I refused to do so. I have to do my best throughout the day to fight it. This can be especially hard when you have a lot of work to do during the day. It eats away your energy and lowers your tolerance against other stressors. The disordered thoughts wander in the back of my head, throughout the day:
Only if you could weigh yourself… If you’ve gained a lot of weight, this would be your chance to fix your mistakes… You will definitely be happier. Maybe the result isn’t so bad? Come on!
This is a classic trick played by my eating disorder. I know that whatever the result is, I will never be happy after stepping on the scale. While avoiding the scale, I steer clear from the mirror too; as I can easily fall into the trap of body checking. I also make sure that I’m not wearing tight clothes that might overstimulate my tactile senses. If I keep feeling that my jeans are squeezing the life out of my thighs and inner organs, of course, I will have a hard time shaking the feeling that I’m fat.
2. Having a bad body image day? Your second opportunity to interfere.
Sometimes I lose the battle against my urges. I weigh myself and I am left unhappy. My thoughts automatically go:
See how much you have gained weight? You have to go on a diet, like RIGHT NOW! If you don’t do so, you will keep gaining and gaining weight. There will be no end to it unless you control yourself.
Of course, to deal with these thoughts, I want to go on a diet. A very strict one. One that I won’t fail by binging. But does that diet even exist? I don’t think so. I know by nature that I will be already cranky and will have a lot of cravings. This is the truth of the low-carb diets. Trust me. I’m speaking from experience.
Being in quarantine also limits my exercise, which is also stressful. It clashes with my urge to go on a walk, just to clear my conscience. Another safety behavior there. However, we need to learn to be okay with not moving all day and eating normally. Of course, exercising is healthy, most of the time, but when it is done to compensate for food, it is most certainly not healthy.
3. Ate a forbidden food? Another opportunity to change your perspective!
Let’s suppose I just fell into a dieting mindset and then ate a piece of chocolate. The first impulse is to eat more. Why? Just because I was restricting. My thoughts go something like this:
Well, you already ate a piece of chocolate so today is completely ruined. Your diet needs to be perfect. Eat whatever you want for the rest of the day (*wink wink*) and restart tomorrow.
The wink is a call for a binge. This point is where we get pushed into a binge by our thoughts. Note how the use of the following words can influence our way of thinking:
‘‘completely’’, ‘‘perfect’’ - black and white thinking
‘‘ruin’’ - a bit strong for a piece of chocolate, isn’t it?
‘‘need’’ - who said so? are there rules? how are these rules helping?
This way of thinking still allows room for intervention though. If you frame a piece of chocolate as ruining your diet completely, any food you eat unplanned will feel like ruining your diet. But the truth is, nothing is actually ruined. Your body doesn’t go into a panic mode just because you had that random piece of food (Your body probably goes into panic mode when you go on a diet though, hence the binge). It was just not according to your plan. Sadly (or thankfully?), we cannot always control what happens in our daily life. Sometimes I plan on eating home and a friend that I haven’t seen for a long time invites me for a girls’ night with sushi and wine. Or I plan on grabbing just a coffee from my favorite place and I happen to crave a maple bacon bun.
These don’t mean I ruin something if I choose to eat them, they are just things that came unexpectedly. If I frame it this way; it stays only as a maple bacon bun.
4. Did you binge? Then comes your other opportunity!
Let’s say I had a huge binge as I was restricting heavily. Then what?
Then comes a rush of guilt, A very strong and mentally crushing guilt.
I go against every thought and every belief that I have and eat properly on the first meal that comes right after the binge. I find this to be a very important interaction because this is my way of saying ‘‘See? You can actually trust me’’ to my body.
Let me tell you, learning to manage these thoughts took me years. It wasn’t easy. Not even a bit. But here I am, the proof that it is possible. I’m still learning by trial and error. I still have days I can't manage my thoughts and I have made peace with that.
Next time you feel like a diet & binge cycle is coming:
Ask yourself: when exactly do you have disordered thoughts? What do they say about how you see yourself?
If you’re having a bad body image day: don’t engage in any action that might remind you of your weight and physical appearance (such as stepping on the scale, wearing tight clothes, body checks, …)
Do not deprive yourself of food for any reason.
If you eat something unplanned: name it as is, a piece of chocolate; not a binge or a violation of your perfect diet.
If you binge: no matter how hard it is, eat your next meal normally, so that you can make peace with your body.
Do not blame yourself. The guilt will hurt you more than any food could.
What I’m trying to say is, when something goes against the plan; we still have many opportunities to turn it around. The problem with diet & binge cycle is that we fall into the cognitive distortion of black and white thinking (all-or-nothing thinking). But there are many shades of grey to think in, even if we cannot always see it.