This post is going to be timely! I had not anticipated it working out this way, but this post is going up on the same day I am recording a podcast focusing on disordered eating over with the amazing women at the Balanced Bites podcast. If you are coming to my site from that podcast, you can find in the rest of my writing information on women’s hormones, PCOS and hypothalamic amenorrhea, weight loss, feminism, and body image / disordered eating. I like to spit fire at society and to inspire women, too, which can be accessed by the “self-love-spiration” category tab.
My work in women’s health began as an eating disorder counselor. These two issues are, in my opinion, intrinsically linked. Disordered eating in my own case led to poor physiological health. I would argue that this is the case for a large proportion of reproductively hindered and unhealthy women.
Sometimes the problems are treatable separately. Sometimes they are not. If I had to choose which I deem more important, it is a woman’s relationship with food first and foremost, hands down. Reproductive health does not eat away at the soul the way psychological health does. It does not follow us with all of our actions and behaviors. It does not have the immense power to cripple us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. At least most of the time.
So I have been counseling people on their relationships with food for several years now. I have become familiar with the important trends and issues. We disordered eaters generally fall into a few of broad categories. One of the largest, and the most prevalent in the paleosphere, is that of bingeing/restricting. The one question I get asked over and over again is: How do I stop overeating?
While there are dozens, if not thousands, of separate motivators for bingeing, and I cannot possibly address all of them at once, I can still speak to a more general and popular trend. Most of us who struggle with overeating do so because we are in a constant battle with our bodies and our self-esteem.
Having a negative self-esteem, particularly with regard to body image, generates a vicious cycle, which often proceeds as follows:
A) Negative self-esteem and self-talk, ie: “I want to lose weight / I don’t have chiseled abs / I am not pretty enough / I am not enough.”
B) Decision to eat less / exercise more.
C) A state of both physiological and psychological deprivation.
E) Increased negative self-talk.
F) Increased restrictive behaviors.
G) Increased severity and frequency of overeating behavior.
H) Increased desperation, negativity, and restriction.
I) Ad nauseum.
The thing is is that most disordered eaters are well aware of the surface problem. We have an inordinate desire to eat all of the time. Or we cannot stop eating once we start. Or both. And it adds even more frustration to our weight loss efforts because it makes us binge, and therefore stops us from losing weight as we would like to. This we understand well. Few of us understand truly, however–because it is such a difficult and deeply-rooted notion to confront–that the true problem, the real root of it all, is our lack of positive self-esteem, body-acceptance and self-love.
When we decide to restrict ourselves, we enter into states of both physiological and psychological deprivation. Our bodies become starved– depending on our behavior, for example, if we are fasting, or not, or eating very-low-carbohydrate, or not, or exercising too much, or not– and this manifests itself in several different hunger-inducing mechanisms: one example is a decrease in micronutrient stores, or another is simple sluggishness of satiation signals. In sum, when we restrict our energy intake, we become hungrier beings. We try to live in energy deficits, and for some reason we think it is going to be totally okay, yet it is impossible to trick the body out of knowing and responding to that fact.
One biological mechanism by which this increased need to eat occurs, among many, is the activity of neuropeptide Y, about which I have written before. If it is detecting lowered leptin (and other hormone) levels in the blood, it does several things: it up-regulates hunger signalling, it emphasizes sweet foods in doing so (partly why so many disordered eaters struggle with carbohydrates in particular), and it sends activation signals to hypocretin neurons. Hypocretin neurons, about which I have also written before, up-regulate wakefulness and the stress response. Hence why many women on restrictive diets have a difficult time resting and sleeping well.
The psychological deprivation may be worse. It puts us in a state of hyper-awareness about food. The decision to restrict induces a constant struggle to eat less and exercise more, and it makes it nearly crucial for a woman to constantly check herself against her desires, lest her stock-piled hunger pick her up and shove her head-first into the overeating rabbit hole. The more a person thinks about food, the more he doesn’t want to think about food, but the more he ends up emphasizing it in his brain and thinking about it anyway. Then the more he messes up, and the more guilt he has, and the more negative he feels, the more strongly he needs to eat. So deprivation is one huge psychological factor. And so is the need to medicate against negative self-talk. Food is a powerful, powerful drug. And this whole process, a vicious, vicious cycle.
Moreover, many women approach meals with the mentality: “how little can I eat?” which is perhaps the most fucked thing about many Americans’ relationships with food. Then they (we) approach exercise with the mentality: “how many calories can I burn?” and each day with: “how am I going to get into an energy deficit, in order to make sure I get or stay lean?” Yikes. JS of gnolls.org has called this in personal correspondence with me the female half of the population’s desperate attempt to live at a “misery set-point.” Far too many of us challenge ourselves, and then congratulate ourselves for, eating as little as possible.
We often, in fact, fall into cycles of under-eating early in the day and over-eating later in the day. There are many physiological mechanisms behind this, but there is also a potent emotional factor. In America today, it is generally better–hell, it is even more moral –to eat less rather than more. So we wake up in the mornings, and we do not eat much. And this is great all day, we get to feel great! By the end of the day, however, our willpower (a real and limited resource) has met its end, and we over-eat. We feel guilty. The good thing is, however, that in the long run, we get to spend more time being self-congratulatory than feeling guilty because we typically spend most of the day in an energy deficit. This is as good of an emotional satisfaction that we can achieve when we have this kind of behavior. Still, though, it is a far cry from happiness. And it continually begets itself as guilt and the counterbalances we have in place to mitigate that guilt’s crushing weight become increasingly extreme.
If it hasn’t become clear on its own yet, I’ll state it outright, and many times over:
The restriction that comes of negative self-talk necessarily begets overeating.
And when you overeat, it is not. your. fault. It is not. It happens to you.
As awful as that is, however, the most wonderful thing in the world still follows. It is that you can gradually shrug off these demons perched on your shoulders. They attack you, but you can build up an arsenal of nourishment and love, and then the demons have lost their grip on you.
Many women who binge and restrict would like to stop bingeing before they stop restricting. They think that they will lose whatever progress they have achieved, in terms of caloric deficits, if they stop restricting first. They anticipate continuing to over-eat, even while they are not restricting. This is an understandable fear — and trust me when I say that I understand how powerful fear can be as a human being in this precarious state. However: this is impossible. Deliberate restriction necessarily begets bingeing behavior. Necessarily. Restriction must be phased out of our lives before we can stop over-eating. Willpower does not do the trick. Hard-lined restriction does not win. Love does.
We fear weight-gain. We fear failure. We fear our bodies. Because we have always been at war with our bodies, and because we are probably frustrated with our bodies because of particular health struggles, we do not trust our bodies. What motivation have we so far, honestly? We do not know what powerful and beautiful partners they can be. We do not remember what it is like to eat intuitively. We do not really know how. Because of this, we fear letting go of our strict cognitive monitoring and control. Without it, we may fail.
But leap we must. This is why:
The only long-term solution to overeating is to stop restricting ourselves out of a need for self-worth.
This solution, I understand, can require a Herculean effort. I have done it. So I know. The effort requires trust, it requires letting go of a bit of control, and it requires a bit of a leap of faith. The thing is, however, that it does not have to happen overnight. We can ease into intuitive eating gradually. We can let go of a few of our controls, slowly, over time, and we can watch the trust and power of our bodies come to life. This process is a longer journey towards physiological health than a wholesale “forget it, I’m going to eat a lot all the time until I no longer want to,” but it enables us to work on our self-love continually while we are easing into the style of intuitive eating. These two facets will end up playing off of each other beautifully. The more we love and nourish our bodies, rather than restrict them, the more they respond to us, and the more we can love and cherish them. It’s a phenomenally beautiful and harmonious thing. It really, really, really is.
All we have to do is inch into that trust.
All of which is to say that it is scary, but it should also be exciting to embark on this journey. And liberating. And beautifying. The more we love ourselves, the more free we are from our obsessions, and the more self-confidence and happiness we can garner. Letting go of social norms and of negative self-talk– this is a long journey. But it is a beautiful one of progress and self-exploration and growth, and for that reason I would not have it any other way.
It is 100 percent possible to be beautiful and non-restrictive. In fact, I would argue exactly the contrary, that the less restrictive a woman is, the more self-love she can have, and the more empowerment and pride and health, and therefore the sexier she is. I believe this fully, I really, really do.
Additionally, as a final note, there is a way to restrict and to do so healthfully. This is important. I want all of us to achieve healthy weights. I believe this is achievable by entering into relationships with our bodies that are not based on warfare, but rather on partnership. We need to stop inflicting things on our bodies, and forcing it to do things it does not want to do. Instead, we can love ourselves, and treat ourselves gently, and move forward in productive partnership. We can approach a meal and say: “Do I feel satisfied at this point? Will I happily make it to my next meal if I do not eat more, knowing that I can always eat more if I feel the need to?” And we can approach exercise as: “Would you, my body, like to go for a run today? It could be fun and healthy for both of us.” And we can approach every day of our lives with nourishment, healing, and health primarily in our minds. Instead of forcing our bodies to become shapes they are not ready for, we can try to nourish them back into a healthy hormonal state that will become the real, powerful foundation off of which we achieve and maintain healthy body weights. This is good for our bodies, and it is good for our souls.
To read another perspective on the binge-restrict cycle, visit Dr Dea Robert’s blog on restrict/rebound.