Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Putting "Brain Over Binge" to Work

I'm excited and nervous and happy and scared and all sorts of contradictory things right now.

Kathryn Hansen's excellent book--Brain over Binge: Why I Was Bulimic, Why Conventional Therapy Didn't Work, and How I Recovered for Good--has made me feel more hope (regarding getting over binge eating disorder) than I've felt in a long time. The concepts in the book aren't new to me; I've read about psychology, psychiatry, addiction, nutrition, lower versus higher brain, identification of the "addictive voice", neuroplasticity, etc. before. But there's something to the way Hansen has synthesized and presented this wealth of information that makes it click better. And there's something to the way she carefully distinguishes between terms like "trigger" (as in environmental, social, emotional triggers) and "urge" (urges to binge) that I find helpful. On top of it all, she tells her own story of recovery from bulimia very effectively. I recommend this book to anyone that binge eats.

So now it's time for me to make use of the things I learned from this book. I've already started; there was no "one last binge" or anything of the sort after I finished the book and decided to get going. That in itself is different from my usual pattern of behavior!

(The rest of this entry might not make total sense unless you've read the book...)

The thing I'm somewhat nervous about is my ability to disassociate from my urges. And I'm unsure where to draw the line in terms of food restrictions. Yes, it's my lower brain telling me to binge. It's also my lower brain telling me to eat mac and cheese for dinner when my higher brain/self has a weight loss goal and knows that other dinner choices would help me get there faster. The question quickly becomes: do I need to tackle everything at once? And how do I know, by cutting myself some slack (not by binge eating, but by eating less-than-stellar foods), that I'm not falling for the tricks of the lower brain and thereby strengthening it?

Hansen says she found it helpful to not be overly worried or restrictive about her food choices when she was kicking the binge habit. The main thing is to know what constitutes a binge for you, to eliminate binge eating, and then build from there as desired. (Read more on this, from her blog, *here*.)

So I'm taking that advice. Right now, I'm committed to NOT BINGE EATING. I don't view this as a license to eat junk for every meal and snack, but I am determined to not let the perfect be the enemy of the very, very good. And no longer binging would be very, very good indeed.

More to come on binges, separate nutrition goals, and the like!


  1. i am at the exact same stage you were at when you wrote this post, very hopeful (finally feeling liek the penny 'dropped') but apprehensive as to whether when it comes down to the wire (ie home alone pining for a binge!) if i will be able to power on with what i KNOW is right. i have a little page written up about the importance to regarding these urges as neurological junk and reassuring me that it will get infinitely easier once i have ignored the first really bad urge, so i think that will help me. here goes! i am so excited to recover, and i truly think that i can with this book.

    as the saying goes, if you fail, try try try again, and now i know WHAT i'm doing (ie not wasting anymore time trying to say affirmations to myself in the mirror (fat lot of good THAT did!) and improving my self esteem), i know that im tacklign the problem HEAD ON!

    hope you are well! x

    1. Hi Sarah,

      very happy for you! I'm interested in the little page you wrote up to summarize your new philosophy. Is it something you carry around with you at all times, something you keep on your fridge or mirror? Let me know if it helps! Wishing you the best!

  2. "how do I know, by cutting myself some slack (not by binge eating, but by eating less-than-stellar foods), that I'm not falling for the tricks of the lower brain and thereby strengthening it?"

    This used to confuse me also but I'm starting to think that any eating choices that DON'T benefit me fully (and by "full benefit" i mean eating things that have significant nutritional value, foods that make me feel good before AND after eating them, choosing to eat just when I'm hungry) are strengthening to the lower brain.

    Now that I've become much more educated about nutrition and healthy eating and cooking, I've fortunately realized that food can be delicious AND healthy. There's no need for junky or fatty foods, really. The artificial and/or overpowering tastes of them, coupled with their almost complete lack of nutritional value and scarily high amounts of artery clogging fat and processed sugars make them unappealing once I've started eating a much healthier diet. I can go to a fast food joint and not even WANT a burger, or an order of fries, if anything I'd take a grilled chicken sandwich and a cup of lowfat milk with a little sugar in it or something to mimic a milkshake. Stuff like that is satisfying to me when I'm making those beneficial eating choices and using my upper brain.

    But the SECOND I say "lemme just have a bite of that burger, I haven't had one in a while", my lower brain starts to get happy. By choosing to eat that unhealthy item, not only am I reinforcing the belief my lower brain possesses, that "pleasure comes first, who cares about the consequences/nutrition/how i'll feel after" but I'm also bringing back taste sensations that are so overpowering that they can easily become addictive. It's like I'm feeding the lower brain the same drug it craves, whether I do it with the intent of binging, or I just want "one innocent bite", the action itself is still pleasing to lower brain. At least from my experience that's what I've concluded. And I think until someone's binge eating is completely under control, they should completely avoid those types of foods.

    1. Hi Angie,

      thanks for sharing your experience. What you are saying makes sense to me, and I agree that the lower brain is behind not just binge eating, but habitual overeating and chronic poor food choices (reaching for unhealthy, hyperpalatable foods despite knowing better).

      I'm still sort of torn, though. On the one hand, there are people like you that find success by retraining their brain through avoiding problematic foods altogether. On the other hand, there are people that find success by retraining their brain to see that it's possible to have a treat but stop at a small portion, or to have those junkier foods less and less often, or some combination thereof. Those people might find that swearing off entire categories of food leads to repeated psychological and behavioral backlashes.

      I need to observe myself more closely and decide which category I fall into. I'd been taking the latter approach and seeing improvement with it, but it WAS disappointing to discover that even though the binge eating had settled down and I was *less* fat as a result, my lower brain still insisted on overeating hyperpalatable foods and therefore I was going to stay fat until that was addressed. It might sound funny, but I had been fixated on my binge eating disorder for so long and attributed my obesity entirely to it, somehow forgetting that before I was a binge eater, I was an overweight, run-of-the-mill overeater that liked junky foods. So sometimes I am not sure whether to plod along, building one small success at a time, or to rehaul my diet more dramatically (will that make me crash and burn? Or is the inevitability of crashing also in my head, part of the lower brain's arsenal of tricks? agh!)

      I will say this, though--I tend to think I want ice cream everyday and am sometimes surprised to re-discover how satisfying a cold glass of milk can be in its place. Or how a well-made salad can taste as good as a juicy burger. I wish I always preferred the healthier option. I don't always prefer it, but you are so right that people should give healthier substitutions a try as often as possible and that they might be pleasantly shocked by what they find delicious.