Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Cart Before the Horse?

WARNING: I've got some hard questions and some controversial thoughts floating around in my head. Although I'm not fond of riling people up, I also find it hard to be quiet when I see things that worry me. I honestly do care about people--be they strangers who are suffering from inner demons or children who are starving and suffering violence in far-off countries. So if I say something here that you find offensive, please be assured that that's not my goal.

There's a common denominator running through a lot (not all, but a lot) of weight-loss blogs: binge eating. I'm not talking about over-eating. Even thin people do that from time to time. I'm talking about stuffing; the all-encompassing urge to eat everything in sight; the inability to eat one or two, or even five or ten whatevers but rather to demolish the whole box or two at one sitting, no matter how physically sick that makes you feel.

I'm just describing what I've read on blogs out there. This is not an experience I've had myself, though yes, I know exactly what over-eating feels like.

I certainly admire the honesty these bloggers have shown--their ability to talk openly about their suffering, their painful self-awareness. What I don't understand is why the solution to binge eating seems to be first and foremost dieting: in other words, "wearing the diet-straight jacket" (I must only eat xyz...I must never eat abc...I must only eat at x time...I must never eat at y time...).

As an innocent bystander, I see dieting as putting the cart before the horse. In fact, I wonder whether dieting is a way of NOT dealing with the root cause of one's binge behaviour.

Self-awareness is a difficult, wonderful thing, but it is nothing but words unless we put it to use. Is the answer to never eat out, purge your home of every "offending" food, etc. etc. or is it to confront the demons lurking behind the disordered food behaviours?

We're all dealing with hard personal issues, though some of us more than others. Physical and mental abuse, especially spousal or directed toward children; illness; financial problems; deep-seated guilt, which is often totally unwarranted; feeling obliged to fit into a mould imposed by society, family, religion--all of these situations and more lead people to engage in extremely disordered behaviour. Sometimes this behaviour is highly anti-social (pedophiles who themselves were sexually abused as children), although more often than not, the disordered behaviour is turned in on oneself.

Binge eating is fundamentally a way to stifle emotions. It is a powerful control mechanism with powerful side-effects. But isn't dieting also a control mechanism? I must not, I will not, I cannot, I should not. And while bingeing can only make the pain go away for a limited time, straight-jacket dieting can only keep the beast at bay for a limited time. The underlying problems will still be there, festering, growing, unsolved, clawing to come back to the surface.

Binge eaters say that they cannot "do" intuitive eating. I can understand that. Following your intuition--your feelings--is seen as leading to a melt-down. Your feelings are telling you to eat, not your stomach, not even your taste buds. These feelings are so overwhelming that the food has nothing to do with eating.

For binge eaters, food is NOT just food.

So why are people dealing with emotional issues by imposing a food-based solution? Why are people using a bandage solution that can potentially add to the guilt and self-abuse when you go "off plan", as everyone inevitably does?

Eating a more wholesome diet is not a bad thing. Ceasing to rely on empty calories to keep your body going is a good thing. Appreciating a wide variety of food is liberating. That's what food's about.

It's probably much "easier" to engage in straight-jacket dieting than it is to go to couples counselling. leave an abusive situation, go into therapy, confront an abuser, consider new paradigms (you can be a good mom and work outside the home or conversely, maybe it's better to lead a more satisfying life with less stuff by cutting your hours at work, changing careers or taking a hiatus), etc.

Dieting is certainly a more "productive" short-term approach, but the statistics are there to tell us that it's a bust in the long-term. You can run, but you just can't hide. Isn't facing your non-food issues head-on rather than using dieting as a magic bullet precisely what you have to do to successfully deal with disordered eating and lose weight?


  1. A very interesting post. I have always felt that getting the head right, is half the battle to losing weight - and that is the hardest part, lol!

  2. I used to be a binger (yes, different than overeater, which I still do on occasion), and dieting was more than counterproductive there. Hell, if I wanted to binge today, I would get there by "dieting". It was a hard behavior to kill off, and I did it with lots of uncomfortable mind work (not really traditional therapy), mostly learning to tolerate discomfort and distress, and I had to give up thoughts of dieting/weight loss for a while, and just work on stabilizing. I used to comment to bingers that there's no point to dieting and trying to lose weight if one is still bingeing and gaining, but nobody wants to hear that, or maybe it's too disturbing conceptually, so I no longer bring it up. It actually makes me uncomfortable to read about bingeing, so I tend to avoid those bloggers now.

  3. You're so right about the cart and the horse. Until someone addresses her issues, the cycle can't end. I agree with justjuliebean that binge confessions are difficult to read. It's all above the head. I'm not totally there yet but I work it all the time. I enjoy your blog.

  4. Hi. How do you know that the people who binge haven't tried to sort out their emotional problems? You are making a very big assumption there. I am a binge eater and over the years I've had psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive analytic therapy, psychoanalysis, creative art therapy, tried numerous anti-deps and other medications, attended various groups run by the local health trust eg stress group, relationship group, and even self help groups eg social anxiety and depression groups. I've tried every which way of dealing with my emotional issues and no dice. I've battled for years to try and deal with them.

    What you read on someone's blog most of the time is just the surface. Because people don't want to put their full personal distress on there for fear of scaring people off or just because it's too personal etc.

    Why dieting? Well, the sad fact is that if you binge eat then you will end up overweight. And the only way to lose weight is actually calorie restriction (whether you count calories or not). And if you are a binge eater even "eating normally" is to exercise calorie restriction. So it's all the same I'm afraid.

    But then the "intuitive eating" method of losing weight is actually just about calorie restriction at the end of the day. It's just a way of conning yourself into feeling better about eating fewer calories. It's all about good choices - eg choosing green veg rather than chips and fruit rather than muffins, and portion control - eg deliberately leaving food on your plate.

    It's just the same thing as any other form of dieting except you have a neat trick of talking to yourself to try and make yourself feel you are not deliberately reducing calorie intake. But that is exactly what you are doing. And it works for some people and I'm happy for those people. Whatever works. Wouldn't work for me because I have to be honest with myself.

    I don't think conning myself about eating is going to be helpful.

    I also think that often a specific eating plan is necessary to calm a binge eaters blood sugar down and can be helpful in restoring sanity to eating habits.

    Best wishes,
    Bearfriend xx

  5. Bearfriend,

    Your experience is much appreciated.

    Yes, the bottom line is reducing the number of calories, but the difference between intuitive eating and diets is that nothing is "off limits" with intuitive eating. There are no good or bad foods, no good or bad times to eat. However, it is based on the assumption that you can (or will slowly learn) to only eat when you're truly hungry and stop when your hunger is satisfied. That's it, in its simplest form. Doing it is another matter entirely.

    As I said at the beginning of my post, I haven't set out to insult anyone or make the assumption that people are doing nothing about their problems. However, I have noted a number of bloggers who express great frustration with certain aspects of their lives, but then warn their readers that they have no intention of changing the situation.

  6. I had problems in the past with binge eating. What I like to do on my blog(or am attempting to do) is to get people to not deal with the behavior (it's a symptom), but the reasons behind the behavior. I have dealt with my childhood. My main issue is eating white flour and sugar. It makes me eat and eat and eat....I never fill up. LIke I could eat a ton of rice and then two hours later, feel hungry. So I don't eat it. some people and some food don't mix. I am a fast oxidizer and do better with lean meats and fruits and veggies, healthy fats and some whole grains. I am always going to have to watch what i eat. It's just one of those unfortunate facts of a regular metabolism. I am a 35 year old woman with a metabolism that works like clockwork. Calories in, calories out. I took my weight, and ate the calories to maintain. I stayed the same. I took my weight, knocked 500 calories off...I lose a pound a week. I excercise 500 calories off a day as well, it's two pounds. Sometimes people would love to do something about the things that are wrong and can't for various reasons. Usually these reasons involve other people who don't have a choice and would be very hurt. I know what your saying though. It's no good to go from dysfunction to dysfunction. Many binge eaters can end up as anorexic or bulimic. The sense of power and control they used to get through eating turns to restriction. You have to deal with the why. Good on you for bringing up a touchy subject. Someone has to.
    God bless.

  7. Very thought provoking. I am a binge eater and for me it easier to try to control myself then to get at the root of why I do it. That is too painful for me. I have some ideas about why I do it, but would never verbalize them, too private, too intimate and too frightening.

  8. I think you've hit the nail on the head... In my case binging is punishing behavior, and I believe that for most people dieting is punishment too. I refuse to diet, because I know that it would bring on more binges... We should stop seeing binging as a "eating" disorder and treat it as an emotional disorder.

  9. Hi - A really good post. I agree that binge eating, dieting, and other sorts of disordered eating such as orthorexia, anorexia - are all just different facets of the same item.

    Getting to the root of WHY we have some version of disordered eating is (or can be) a very painful, slow, intimate thing to do, but in my view it's the only way to resolve the disordered eating habits.

    It would also be true in my view to consider disordered eating as on a par with spending too much, gambling too much, drinking too much - they are all forms of compulsive behaviour.

    Anyway - thanks again for a really good post. The sentence that hit home to me the hardest was "maybe it's better to lead a more satisfying life with less stuff by cutting your hours at work, changing careers or taking a hiatus), etc" - Hmmmm things for me to consider!

  10. GREAT POST!!

    I haven't counted anything this time and this is the most successful I have been with weight loss in my life.

    I agree with everything you said!

  11. Hi,

    Just catching up on your posts. I am an emotional eater. Like someone said, a lot of binge eaters have gone to therapy. I believe I am a Food Addict, which is controversial but, that is my belief.

    If I am hving a crisis, eating high carbs-high fat food is like giving me vallium. It sedates me. Now, when I have a crisis, I blog. I call people, I talk about it and make sure I don't go to the corner store to get something that would numb the pain. I am not perfect, I have had failures, even during my pregnancy.

    An alcoholic or drug addict can't drink or use drugs by intuition, they can try but, they will end up going back to their habits of substance abuse.

    Which is why, I don't want 5 potatoe chips, I want the whole bag. I am actually fine not eating any and watching other people eating it. However, the minute those chips are on my tongue, forget it, not matter how much I talk to myself, I can't stop.