For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why I wanted to eat everything in sight or nothing at all. I couldn’t just eat one cookie. In fact, I didn’t even want just one cookie. I wanted the whole tray. I knew I wouldn’t and couldn’t eat the whole tray (even during my worst binges, I could only manage to eat about six or seven at a time), but I wanted it anyway. Along with a tray of cookies, I would buy a pint of ice-cream. Usually, I could only eat about a third of a pint before I had to stop.
I had no desire for one cookie or one bowl of ice-cream; I always wanted more than I knew I could eat.
I’ve only recently begun to understand why this is so as I’ve listened to the “Eating Disorder Recovery Podcast” hosted by Tabitha Farrar. She explains that when food supply is restricted (with anorexia or when dieting), the body and the mind interprets the restriction to mean a universal food shortage or famine. This is why so many people regularly feast eat and binge after a long period of being anorexic.
This made perfect sense. I had restricted my food intake for so long, my body began to think that food was a scarce resource. This is why I would binge on excessive amounts of food, even to the point of making myself physically sick.
For months, I continued in this binge-restrict cycle. I didn’t understand that my attempts to restrict only increased the likelihood that I would later binge. As I’ve come to this realization, I have begun working on giving myself permission to eat whatever I want. This is completely contrary to my anorexic mentality where I only allowed myself “safe” foods (aka salad and oatmeal). Unfortunately, changing my mentality and actions is easier said than done 🙂
Coming to this realization has allowed me to understand my previous behavior and not beat myself up about it. Because my body thought I was in a famine of sorts, telling myself I was only allowed to have one cookie was the very mentality that triggered a binge. Even though I knew I couldn’t eat a whole tray of food, it was comforting to my brain knowing that it was at least available. It was the lack of availability that scared my subconscious.
I was recently travelling and had a couple of hours to kill at an airport. I decided to eat some food (something that my anorexic self would never have allowed me to do). I bought a Greek pita salad and realized right away that it was so massive I would never be able to finish it. But somehow, I was comforted knowing that I had enough food to feed myself until I was stuffed, if that’s what I wanted.
Later during a layover, I decided to buy ice-cream. I knew I would probably only eat a scoop, but when it came time to purchase the dessert, I couldn’t bring myself to limit myself to a scoop. Rather, I bought a brownie sundae with ice-cream and Oreo-pieces on top. Just like I thought, I had a couple of bites of the brownie and not even a full scoop of ice-cream before I decided I was done and threw the rest away. I felt awful for wasting so much food (and money!). But that experience only solidified what I had been learning. Just by allowing myself to eat “unsafe” food and giving myself plenty of it, I took away my body’s desire to binge.
I am still in the process of retraining my brain. It needs to know that the food shortage is over for good and that my restriction days are done. And this takes time. I’ve come to recognize that even when I think about restricting (for example: maybe I’ll try the water diet; or, I’ll just skip supper), I am far more likely to binge.
Keep this in mind if, like me, you’re struggling with feast-eating and binges. Your brain only wants to know the famine is over. This can be one of the hardest things for recovering anorexics and restrictors to overcome, but it is absolutely vital to long-term health and healing.