The One Thing That Stopped My Binge Eating Disorder
This post is an extract taken from the book ‘Mental Fixits’ and recounts my battles with binge-eating and how I overcame it.
"I started binge-eating as a teenager. I was taking ballet lessons and the dance teacher – who’d been a prima ballerina in her day – used to enjoy walking round the class and whacking our bottoms with her walking stick if she saw that our behinds were sticking out too much. Unfortunately, being a child with a sweet tooth, my bum was a bit chubbier than everyone else’s and despite all my efforts to try and squeeze my cheeks under, my bum just naturally stuck out. (How I wish Kim Kardashian had existed during my childhood!)
Although I didn’t seem too upset about such treatment at the time, I think some of her comments must have rubbed off on me. It was also around the time when aerobics burst onto the scene so we were always being subjected to Jane Fonda wannabes on the TV with their tight bodies in skin-tight leotards. It was then that I started on a cycle of binge-eating and then denying myself food. I was lucky in the fact that I was too scared to vomit, so at least my body got some nutrients and my teeth were saved from the ravages of stomach acid, but it meant that I subjected my body to extreme yo-yo dieting that lasted for over 30 years.
It wasn’t something anyone would notice – least of all my family – but I would do it in very surreptitious ways. We used to have a drawer full of chocolate and crisps which I would routinely raid. But then to atone for my piggy ways, I would spend the next day eating hardly anything except maybe a Lean Cuisine meal in the evening. My poor body didn’t know if it was coming or going. I was always tired and managed to pick up every cold and flu virus because I wasn’t looking after myself.
It reached its zenith when I was in my early twenties. I remember being invited to a friend’s party where we all had to bring a dish. I arrived at about midday and saw there were about 20 different dishes laid out on a table – trifles and pasta salads and chocolate cakes and quiches. I spent the rest of the day eating. I only realised this when one of my friends said: “Kat, there hasn’t been a minute gone by when you haven’t had a fork in your hand and something in your mouth.” I was sitting there with the remains of a cold macaroni cheese dish on my lap and I was horrified to realise that I had spent 11 hours straight eating. Ashamed (but also bizarrely quite proud of such a momentous feat) I decided it was time to leave. But when I bent down to put my shoes on I realised that my stomach was so bloated that I couldn’t reach my feet. I actually had to ask the guests to help me tie up my shoelaces. They marvelled at the size of my stomach. It had enlarged so much that I looked like I was eight months pregnant. I had to be helped into my car, and in order to get behind the wheel I had to put the chair right back so I was almost lying down.
When I went to bed that night – sore and uncomfortable – I tried to understand what made me do it. Why didn’t I have an off switch like other people? Why did I not get full up? There are some theories that people who can’t assuage their hunger are people who are constantly craving not food, but affection. I was lucky to grow up in a loving family, but maybe something about me thought I wasn’t loveable enough and so I fed that emptiness with food? If that’s the case I must have really thought I was undeserved of love because I never felt full. I had the capacity to eat and eat and eat and never get full up.
Part of the problem is also that I can’t bear to see food wasted. I think growing up in the Live Aid years with pictures of starving Ethiopians constantly beamed into our living rooms made me think that waste was an abomination. If there was any food left on anyone’s plate, I would scoop it all into my mouth, thinking that it was better that it was going into me, instead of being thrown out. But what I didn’t realise was that I was actually using my body as the rubbish bin. This conjures up a picture of thinking of myself as garbage which wasn’t exactly great for my self-esteem or my mental health.
Related article: How Improving Your Diet Can Improve Your Mental Health
There is an episode of Sex in the City when Miranda bakes a tray of brownies and dumps some of them in the bin to stop herself from eating them. And then later she goes back to the bin and takes the brownies out of the trash and actually eats them. I’ve done that. I’ve tried to throw away food, but then gone back and taken it out of the bin and devoured it. I knew it was disgusting when I was doing it, but there was something that just compelled me to do it. I couldn’t rest until I’d eaten it. I couldn’t get that the thought out of my mind about that bit of food sitting in the bin. And I wasn’t satisfied until I’d taken it out and consumed it.
This type of behaviour went on until I reached the age of 43. By then I’d reached an age when I’d had enough of going to bed every night vowing that I wouldn’t eat anything bad the next day and then of course, either eating hardly anything and feeling irritable and snappy, or more often than not, breaking that promise by binge eating a whole cake or two packets of biscuits or a family bumper pack of crisps. I’d had enough of feeling guilty and ashamed and greedy and pathetic. This cycle had chipped away at my confidence. It made me feel like I was worthless, like I had no willpower or strength, that I was ugly and fat and I would never be good enough.
Related article: The Best Way To Stop Your Inner Critic – Name It & Shame It
One of the things that made me want to change was my sons - I didn’t want to be the ratty mum, always shouting and stressed because I was in the throes of a sugar crash. By sheer luck I’d picked up a book in the library by Deepak Chopra and in that book he said that we would never treat our best friend in the same way that we treat our bodies. We wouldn’t abuse and criticise our best friends so why do we do that to our bodies? Our bodies ARE our best friends. They are the mechanisms that keep us breathing and alive and all we do is pick out their faults and abuse them with bad food and laziness. I kept that in mind during the next few months when I decided to do something drastic – give up sugar.
Instead of going on a ‘diet’ all I decided to do was to give up cakes, sweets, biscuits, fizzy drinks, sweet yoghurts and chocolate. Anything that had processed sugar in was thrown out. I really didn’t give myself much hope about being able to do this, but I thought I’d give it a bash. The only concession I made was that I was able to eat whatever else I wanted – crisps, bread, fried foods, fruit. As long as it didn’t contain processed sugar. Whenever I got a sugar craving I would have a glass of milk and a handful of almonds. This would immediately take away the yearning for sugar and also give me that all-important couple of minutes to just breathe and remind myself that if I did cave into sugar then it would just make me feel awful and would provoke a binge so it really wasn't worth it.
Three years later and guess what? I don’t have a binge eating disorder any more. What caused me to have a disorder was actually sugar all along. Now I no longer suffer sugar crashes, I no longer want to overeat. I rarely have second helpings. I can’t even get through a family pack of crisps anymore. Even though I allowed myself to eat whatever else I liked, I found that I didn’t want to because I was no longer having those lows that made me want to raid the fridge. It made me want to be kind to my body. Now I allow myself to have the occasional sweet thing, probably once every couple of months. But I'm really picky about it. It has to be something I really REALLY want. Like my favourite dessert of Arabic rice pudding with orange blossom. Or home-made birthday cake made by someone I love. And when I do eat something sugary I do so with mindfulness, enjoying every mouthful slowly, instead of cramming it down in a panic of self-destructiveness.
Now my stomach has shrunk, my weight has stabilised and so have my hormones. I no longer suffer from mood swings and bouts of extreme stress. And the wonderful thing is I no longer go to bed hating myself. My body isn’t perfect but I love it anyway because it’s pretty healthy and it has been very good to me over the years despite all the abuse I’ve given it. I would thoroughly recommend giving up reducing sugar to anyone who has a mental health problem or an eating disorder because just by doing this one simple thing has allowed me to be free of destructive feelings that have plagued me throughout my life. I still can’t believe that I – the queen of the sweet tooth – am no longer a binge eater…."
To sum up, the LightHearts UK resident psychiatric nurse Liz Axham explains: "Nutrition and mental health are closely linked. Everything we put in our bodies has an effect - not just alcohol or medication. Considering how we respond to certain foods and how it affects our mood and wellbeing is a good way to be more self aware and take control. And it's not rocket science either - food that looks like it did when it grew is going to better than food that needs a chemistry degree to decipher. Thinking about food in these simplest terms can make it easier to decide what's going to be the best choices for both your physical and mental health."
For more information on how to deal with getting rid of toxic habits in our lives, take a look a Week 4 of the FREE LightHearts Mental Wellbeing Course for extra tips on how to help your mental health through your diet.
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