I have no off switch for eating. I’m never full, and eating always makes me hungrier.
My constant battle with eating has shaped my health more than any other factor in my life. It’s made me, at different times:
- borderline obese
- significantly underweight
- obsessed with finding the perfect diet
- consumed with finding the perfect exercise
Not to mention an extreme familiarity with the emotions of shame, remorse, regret and self-disgust.
Here is my decades-long journey from out of control (with no understanding of why) to usually in control (but not always), and how you can begin to take your own steps to control your eating.
“How do I know when to stop eating? When I’m ready to throw up.”
The quote above came from a coworker in a moment of extreme candor during a discussion of dieting. Like me, she was overweight at the time. She was frustrated with her friends’ lack of understanding of her compulsions. Her main complaint resonated with me, and likely will with you:
“People who don’t experience this can never truly understand what it’s like.”
Food is the most powerful drug I’ve ever experienced. Every dose has a consequence: always an initial “high,” always a subsequent low. It’s taken decades for me to learn how to manage both extremes to keep my sanity and my health.For some, hunger is a hole that can never be completely filled. Click To Tweet
A lifetime of hunger
I was about ten years old and relatives were visiting. They brought a pull-apart sweet bread dessert; something made with apples, I recall. Although I’m sure it wasn’t the first time I’d lost control, it’s the first time I remember not being able to stop. I pulled off piece after piece and shoved them into my mouth until my mom admonished me for eating far more than my share.
Ah, my first painful memory of the sweet release and consequent remorse of a food binge. That feeling you get when you cross the line between control and lack of control, when your willpower dissolves and you think:
“I’ve blown it. There’s no going back. Keep eating now. Deal with the consequences later.”
I have no doubt that I became a food-seeking missile that evening, finding plenty of other targets for my unquenchable appetite after Mom thwarted my sweet bread consumption.
Been there, done that a million times since. A million times crossing the line. A million times feeling deep satisfaction followed by self-disgust and vowing never to do it again. Powerful emotions that last only until the food digests.
Living on the edge of binge-land
Remember this chart from my article on depression?
Let’s relabel it:
The biggest difference is that with depression, I can be completely without symptoms at times. But with eating, I’m always experiencing some level of food desire/hunger. I’ve just learned over time (most of the time) to ignore the lower levels of hunger.
If I’m off balance in any way, perhaps upset over something or taking some medication, then consuming massive quantities of food is always my default response. It’s the same thing when I’m tired; I’ve had at least 95% of my binges in the evening.
Driven by hunger, always seeking food, ready to gorge. Sounds like a perfect description of a caveman.
The perfect caveman
What makes for a caveman who has a high chance of survival?
Lots of things, but always being hungry and willing to eat anything that moves is a great start. To really survive, though, you have to overeat high-calorie food whenever you get the chance. Be a great binge-eater, in other words.
So, yeah, if it’s any consolation, your obsession with tasty, fattening snacks could make you the ultimate survivor if you are ever stranded in the wilderness. Assuming, of course, that cupcakes grow on trees and the streams run with mocha lattes. Our tastes have evolved even if our motivations haven’t.
Cave people obviously didn’t have to worry about working off their excess calories. We, just as obviously, do.The compulsion to binge is a survival mechanism that is out of control in the modern world. Click To Tweet
The body fat roller coaster
Currently, I’m a healthy weight. It has taken about forty years of trying everything, reading millions of words and making every mistake until I finally got enough things right to (mostly) stabilize.
Yep, I started obsessing about weight and food at around age ten. It has been exhausting and disheartening.
As the fat waxed and waned like the lunar cycle, I tried all manner of things to get a handle on it. For example, I still have copies of several “shame myself into dieting” photos. You know, you take a picture every week of your gut hanging out in the hope that it will motivate you to put down the fork. Another scheme that didn’t work. 1
Note: Always click on these → 2 for additional, slightly off topic but still interesting stuff. Go ahead, try it.
I’m fortunate that I’ve never been truly obese; I know many people reading this could post pictures that make my heaviest look thin. But obesity level is not the only marker for the seriousness of bingeing or the impact it can have on your life. An unhealthy relationship with food will torment you no matter how thick or thin you are.
I’ve been saved (if that’s the right word) by my obsessive-compulsive tendencies that convinced me there must be some way to control this thing… which led to a never-ending cycle of diets.
How many times has my ever-so-patient wife heard me announce, “I have a new eating plan?” Often enough that it could go on my headstone.
But oh… those diets…
Lies, damn lies and diets
“Eat what you want and stop when you’re full.”
Ah, a classic line from many natural food approaches, with just one flaw:
What if you never feel full?
No way of eating has ever made me not hungry, and I’ve tried them all: Low carb, no carb, low fat, no fat, high protein, liquid, paleo and the list goes on and on. I’m an equal opportunity binge-er; I’m as likely to overeat nuts or fatty meat as I am to scarf down cupcakes, depending on what’s available. Natural food is undoubtedly part of the solution, but it’s not the whole thing.
So what have I figured out and how do I control it? I start by OCD-ing the heck out of it with self-imposed rules that govern how, what and when I eat. Additionally, I live a life that doesn’t expose me to a lot of troublesome food triggers. (You’ll see both of these influences in what follows.)
Enough about me. Let’s figure out a few things that might help you.
Bingeing: In Search of Solutions
This is it: “The line.”
When you cross this line, you are acknowledging that you are a mature, thoughtful adult who is responsible for making your own health decisions no matter what anyone else does… including not-a-doctor Scott Weigle. You also promise not to be dumb about self-medicating or using stuff you find on the internet as an excuse not to seek professional help.
This line is like one of those tire-puncturing strips that you can only drive over one way. Once you cross, there’s no going back… so let’s keep moving forward.
No weird tips!
I’m not into writing Internet garbage filled with “weird tips” or “ten simple things.” Especially not when it comes to health and nutrition, which can be extremely complex and individual. I’m into writing detailed steps about accomplishing hard things.
And for this particular “hard thing,” this is just the start. We have to start somewhere, and I think the steps I outline will put you on the path toward your goal. And what goal is that?
Our goal is to stop bingeing.
This first step is not about losing weight. It’s about stopping bingeing. Period. It’s about starting to gain control over this aspect of your life, to feel the confidence that comes from beginning to succeed.
Understand that you will have to eat differently
Don’t lose sight of this. Eating a certain way causes you to overeat, so logically, you are going to have to change the way you eat. Forever.
To be clear: We aren’t intentionally cutting calories. You may or may not eat as many calories as you work through these steps. We are only working toward a place where you can eat and not feel compelled to keep eating forever.
This needs more explanation…
Video: Calorie types and bingeing
2 minutes, 19 seconds | subtitles available
So this is a “diet” in the sense of what you eat, but not in the sense of eating less.
This isn’t easy. But it’s possible.
Stop hating yourself
This may be the hardest step of all. It was for me. I hated myself for my weakness, for not being able to just stop eating. Over a long time span, I have finally learned that berating myself doesn’t do anything at all to resolve the problem. What it took was accepting that my brain is wired a certain way and I am who I am through genetics and conditioning. Telling myself to simply not be that way is useless.
What does help is learning how to work with what I’ve got. In other words, identify one reason that I overeat, then figure out how to address that reason and move on to the next one. It’s like a scientific process, searching for solutions step-by-step, rather than attempting to wave a magic wand and fix the entire overeating tendency by just telling myself to stop.
So after a binge, instead of waking up the next morning and wallowing in self-disgust, I ask:
“What happened? Why were you under control and then suddenly not?”
Something always happens to set me on the bingeing path. It’s like this:
Something always occurs before I leave the roadway. I just have to identify it so I can learn what to fix or avoid the next time.
Become a binge scientist
The reasons for missing the curve, so to speak, might be:
- Lack of sleep
- A few days of depression
- Emotional episode over a disappointment
- Eroding my willpower throughout the day by nibbling
- Cutting too many calories until even a healthy meal causes me to snap
So you see, I didn’t fail again. Rather, some chemical reaction in my brain caused me to lose control. Something set up that brain chemistry. So how can I better manage that chain of events to avoid a binge the next time?
It’s a scientific approach: I know the effect… what was the cause? Believe me, it’s more productive than mentally whipping yourself over and over again.
Let’s get started on helping you quantify some of your own causes.
Acknowledge that you cannot control your reaction to certain foods
The compulsion to overeat can be triggered by eating nearly anything, but some foods will be worse than others. You’ve heard this description of alcoholism:
“One drink, one drunk.”
This is how it applies to us with certain foods:
“One bite, one binge.”
So identifying the equivalent of a shot of liquor is paramount.
Identify your trigger foods
Here is the criterion for putting a food on this list:
- Any food that you have difficulty stopping at one serving.
When I finish eating an apple, I never have trouble walking away from a second apple. It’s not a trigger food.
When I eat a candy bar, it is tough to walk away from a second one.
This list could take a while to complete as you come across trigger foods at different times of the year. (I’m looking at you, holiday season.) There is no need to list every single food; it’s enough to list “candy bars” without specifying every type. But you can’t just list “carbs.” Here’s why:
Don't generalize about an entire category
What you are really addicted to is some characteristic of food, be it taste, texture, smell or (most likely) a combination of the three. So yes, plain pasta is a pure carb source and can be addicting to eat right from the strainer because of its taste and texture. If it is for you, put it on the list.
But lumping pizza, cookies and chips into the “carb” category ignores the substantial load of fat and seasonings that each includes. From a calorie perspective, it would be just as accurate to lump them into the “fat” category.
Binge scientists are precise with their assessment triggers.
This step – identifying trigger foods – is the key to finding your solution. Some foods are guaranteed to cause you to binge and you know it… so know them.
It’s too bad that modern food scientists have created some incredibly addictive foods. But there’s no point railing against them since it’s not going to change anything. And, frankly, there’s not that much difference between manufactured comfort food and home-cooked comfort food – a cookie is a cookie and your mom’s secret-recipe Fettuccini Alfredo will unravel your willpower as quickly as the same dish from your favorite Italian restaurant.
Understand when to apply willpower
I hope you haven’t arrived at this point in the article thinking that I have a miraculous cure for overeating that doesn’t involve some willpower. It does, as does the achievement of every meaningful goal in life. The key is WHEN to apply your willpower to turn away from a bingeing situation.
Most people try to apply willpower after taking the first bite. Here’s how that usually works out:
A rational person doesn’t open the gate in the first place.
As hard as it is to walk away from a trigger food, it will be infinitely harder to walk away after you’ve gotten a taste. Applying willpower up front is like using a giant lever to increase its effect. Trying to apply willpower after the first bite is like crushing your willpower into tiny bits with a hammer and sprinkling it over a problem… there is no effect at all.
Recognize situations that make bingeing more likely
Office potlucks. Family holiday meals. Girl’s night out. Poker night. Tailgating.
All those situations where eating is an expectation, and not eating might be taken as an insult to the host, or that you are passing judgment on those who are partaking.
You can start closer to home, though. Go ahead and put “Having trigger foods in the house” at the top of your list. You know it’s true.
Bingeing: Taking the First Steps
Lists are awesome but pointless if not used in some way. As I said above, we are only getting started here, not finishing the entire marathon. Now that you have put some thought into identifying causes, you are going to do three things.
1. Give up ONE food… forever
It’s the difficult steps that move us toward our goals. In a society where very little is denied, it seems almost inhuman to make a commitment never to do something again.
“What? I can NEVER eat this again? You mean, as in never-ever, for decades, not eat my favorite cookie?”
That’s exactly what I mean. You know there are foods that you should never eat again because past experience has told you that it always ends badly. You need to know how it feels, mentally and emotionally, to let go of a problem food forever. As a binge scientist, it will provide data that will be useful in the future.
Start with a baby step. Choose one particular food from your trigger list, not an entire category such as “cookies.” Rather, choose “Oreos.” It needs to truly be a recurring weakness food, just not your primary one. We want something that will allow success.
So you’ve (grudgingly) given up the food. Now learn from it:
- How long does it take for the memory of its taste to fade?
- How long does it take to quit thinking about it?
- How long does it take to stop desiring it?
And, if you experience a moment of weakness:
- How did you feel when you gave in?
- Did weeks of diminishing desire come back instantly?
- How long did the desire take to fade after this binge?
The binge scientist at work. It’s all data.
2. Come up with a plan to defeat ONE bingeing situation
This one is psychologically easier. All you have to do is cut one food trigger situation from your life. This can be as simple as never having “X” in your house again. Or finding a different route to and from the copier that doesn’t make you walk by the candy dish on Jim’s desk, even if your trip is fifteen seconds longer.
Here’s one that my wife and I practice: No food-based gifts for each other. Here’s another idea: Unfollow all dessert-based Pinterest boards and junk food Facebook feeds.
3. Experience a TINY bit of hunger
Just a little bit. No matter what eating plan you eventually settle on, you will end up being hungry at some point because no matter how well you plan:
- A meeting will run late.
- Your daughter’s dance recital will coincide with your planned dinner time.
- Your emergency visit to the vet will leave you in her waiting room for hours without all those nicely packaged meals you made the night before.
Life happens. You need to be a durable, flexible person when it comes to eating. Which means being able to be a little hungry without undue stress or panic.
So practice it some every day. For example, delay your lunch for half an hour or leave a snack sitting on your desk for 20 minutes without touching it (set a timer). Experience that seemingly unbearable hunger pang and work through it. Then eat precisely what you planned to eat – no more – and realize afterward that it wasn’t that big a deal.
… our caveman friend, didn’t eat on a regular schedule and it didn’t kill him. You won’t die. But you’ll be better prepared to succeed.
~ ~ ~
That’s your beginning: three tasks to get you on your way.
Winning your own battle of the binge
As difficult as addictive drugs can be to quit, at least your body can technically survive without them. Not so food, obviously. It’s like being in danger of bingeing on oxygen, afraid to take even a single breath but knowing that eventually you must.
Overcoming the “never full” syndrome may not be the most difficult thing you’ll ever do, but it will be the most difficult thing you’ll do every day.
But you can do it.
You may need professional assistance
Anyone can take huge steps in understanding on their own: sorting through triggers, learning patterns, learning to be more clinical, less judgmental, more forgiving and loving of themselves. This knowledge is the first and hardest step on your journey, and I want to help you take that step. But you may need professional help to finish your trip. Just keep it in mind.
This isn’t the last thing I’ll be writing about nutrition. But it’s a good start.
Until next time… remember: Think about it. A lot. Then do something.