I’m no longer captive to disordered eating. But that doesn’t mean I never struggle or feel the tug of old, destructive habits. Like a scar from a sutured wound leaves a permanent reminder of the event, so too did my stint with obsessive eating habits create a lasting mark on me. It fades with time, but it’ll never completely vanish.
Individuals battling their own disordered eating habits may think, as I did years ago, that they can “get over it” eventually and be completely free from its grip, never to fight mental battles about food again. Breaking away from disordered eating (and the ugly side of health and fitness all together) and adopting nutrition habits that are flexible, sane, and mentally healthy is possible. However, it’s naïve to think returning to or becoming “normal” is a likely outcome.
That may sound grim, but it shouldn’t. It’s simply a reality that a lengthy experience with disordered eating habits will leave its mark, just like an operation or serious puncture wound leaves a scar.
I’ve been free from the jaws of the monster that is disordered, obsessive eating and binge eating for almost a decade, but I still have occasional struggles, and many who have a similar history report experiencing these too. It’s time to bring them to light, and what has helped me stay free from previous obsessive eating habits.
No More Disordered Eating. But There are Occasional Struggles.
I no longer binge, but that doesn’t mean I never overeat. Binge eating means consuming a massive quantity of food in a short period of time and, for me, well beyond the point of feeling full. I no longer experience massive binges that easily accrued over a thousand calories and left my stomach throbbing in pain. However, I do overeat on occasion.
I’ve devoured four slices of pizza when I was satisfied after eating two. I’ve eaten too much candy because I gobbled it down too quickly and grabbed more before I’d even finished chewing what was in my mouth. I eat dessert even when I’m full from a delicious dinner. I’ve gone back for a second helping when I was no longer hungry but wanted to keep eating because it was so dang delicious.
And I will do all those things again.
A major difference now is that I accept these occasional events as a normal part of life and don’t get upset about them — or if I do start feeling bad, I quickly remind myself that it wasn’t a big deal. I make myself move forward and refuse to feel guilt or shame.
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Years ago, when I was breaking free from disordered eating, I accepted that striving for perfection with food — never overeating or making successive less-than-ideal food choices or eating too much candy — wasn’t going to happen. I don’t demand perfection, nor do I berate myself when I overeat or make a string of not-so-great food choices.
I don’t obsess about food multiple times a day, every day, but I do overthink on occasion. When will I eat again? What will I eat? What should I eat? When can I eat after that? Should I try a new diet? How can I avoid the next binge? Those thoughts plagued my mind when disordered eating habits consumed me. Thankfully, that’s no longer the case.
Overthinking still happens, however: I really want the French toast, but the veggie omelet is a better choice. Maybe I should get that because it has more protein and I should eat more veggies. But, man, the French toast sounds amazing. That, and similar conversations, run through my mind occasionally. They’re shorter than they used to be and occur less frequently; I catch myself overthinking a situation, like the French toast versus omelet example, that doesn’t require that much brain power and cut off the mental conversation immediately. Then I choose the food option I really want and enjoy every bite, then move on with the well-established nutrition habits I’ve created.
Just like getting sick or dealing with unexpected real-life events, the occasional overthinking episode happens. I face it immediately, cut it short, and move on. It doesn’t define me, it doesn’t control me, and I choose not to respond emotionally. The better I get at handling those events, immediately, the less frequently they occur.
I’m no longer on a never-ending fat loss journey because I dislike my body, but I don’t love my body unconditionally at every moment. Over a decade ago, all I wanted to do was lose the fat that accumulated from binge eating. Every action in the gym and choice in the kitchen was done in the name of fat loss, and that mindset had me in its grip for years. Now, I don’t fear having fat on my body and set goals that have absolutely nothing to do with fat loss, and I’m not relentlessly pursuing a better-looking body.
Recommended Article: Screw Fat Loss
I love my body and the amazing things it can do — but that doesn’t mean I love how it looks every day. When I see my bloated PMS belly in the mirror I don’t respond with joy exclaiming, “Hot damn I have never looked sexier than I do right now. Thanks, water retention!” I don’t always feel my best; I don’t always think I look my best. But that’s part of life. I refuse to feel bad for not thinking I look amazing all the time. Loving my body without fail every moment is pressure I don’t put on myself.
How exactly do I face those occasional struggles and successfully defeat them?
Not Going Back to Disordered Eating
Though some struggles are inevitable, I won’t return to obsessive, disordered eating habits. Below are some of the main things I do, and don’t do, and important lessons to quickly recall when old habits try to pry into my mind.
Avoidance is Useful
Restrictive diets, venomous snakes, someone spraying their surrounding area like a sprinkler because they don’t cover their mouth when coughing, any dish that includes beets — my response to these things is the same and immediate: I make haste in the opposite direction.
I do the same with anything that led to, or exacerbated, disordered eating habits.
Avoiding what got me there in the first place is helpful: obsessing over making the “best” choices with every meal; being too restrictive; dichotomous thinking (only eating “clean” foods and, by default, labeling everything else as “dirty” and “bad”); putting too much emphasis on my physical appearance and not on how I feel; berating myself for less-than-ideal food choices; feeling guilty for eating my favorite foods; thinking my way to failure. Those have no place in my life.
There is an exception to this rule. The past few months I’ve been running a muscle-building program and weigh myself occasionally. I knew tracking my weight could easily cause negative thoughts to bubble up like they did in the past when I stepped on the scale, but I remind myself that it’s just a number; a data point. I can choose to remove any emotional element related to that innocent number. Just because something used to disturb you doesn’t mean it must always have that power — you can defeat it.
Lesson: Know what works best for you and avoid what doesn’t. Old habits can be defeated with patience and persistence.
Talk About the Struggles
A few weeks ago, I found myself stumbling and felt the old familiar tug of bad mental conversations, and I told my wife about it. Immediately once I aired the frustrations verbally I felt better, lighter. Just getting it out of my head put everything into perspective so I could focus on what was important and let go of what wasn’t.
Lesson: Have someone to confide in when your brain is giving you a hard time.
Don’t Dig the Hole Deeper and Deeper … and Deeper
When my life was ruled by obsessive eating habits, my brain would rationalize I screwed up by eating this “bad food,” so I’ll just keep eating it until it’s all gone, if I ate a small piece of dessert. That small piece would turn into two more larger pieces, and then a string of less-than-ideal choices because, hey, I already screwed up so what difference did it make if I kept going?
That irrational response was akin to falling in a hole, deciding not just to spend time in it but to grab a shovel and make it deeper … and deeper.
If that old mental habit creeps up I catch it and quickly change direction: That cake was incredible. I enjoyed it, there’s nothing “bad” about it, and there’s no need to eat more. I also remind myself that if I eat more even though I’m satisfied I’ll end up uncomfortably full, and that never feels good.
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I still stumble into a hole on occasion (by eating a few too many tasty Halloween or Easter candies) but once I realize I’m there, I choose not to keep digging (I don’t keep eating more) and proceed to climb out of the hole and walk forward.
Lesson: Just stop digging.
Get Out of the All-or-Nothing Cycle of Destruction
Eating “good” for every meal, all the time, or giving up completely at the slightest set back or less-than-ideal decision. Sound familiar? I’ve seen too many people swing aggressively from obsessively “watching what they eat” to not caring about what they put in their mouth, because the former mentally exhausted them.
Nutrition is not an all-or-nothing lifestyle. Moderation and flexibility are the solutions, and not demanding the impossible — relentless perfection — from yourself.
Recommended Article: Eating in Moderation: How to Do It Right
Lesson: Screw perfection. Do the most important things most of the time.
Make Success as Easy as Possible
I keep myself set up for success by not needlessly testing my willpower. I know what foods are easy for me to overeat and don’t keep them in the house. They’re not forbidden by any means, but if I really want that food, I go buy a serving and enjoy it. Our home is stocked with nutrient-dense foods we love so cooking great meals and having healthy snacks isn’t a chore; they’re always right there within reach.
Furthermore, I identified situations that were likely to trigger old habits and created a simple, specific plan to handle them. For instance, eating food directly from a bag or container easily turns into me eating half of it. My plan for packaged foods: put a serving in a bowl or on a plate, and put away the rest.
Recommended Article: The Simple Guide That Shows You How to Eat Healthy
Lesson: Make the things you want to do the easy things to do. Don’t “wing it” with situations that previously led to disordered eating habits (i.e., don’t rely on willpower). Identify situations that create problems and have a plan for how to face them.
The goal, for me, isn’t to attain some elusive state of “normal” when it comes to food, whatever that means. Knowing I may always have to be vigilant to keep old habits at bay is fine with me. I aim to build upon productive habits, to replace those that don’t serve me with ones that do, to continue getting better at identifying struggles and handling them promptly and remembering that the main purpose of nutrition and fitness is to help me live my best possible life. Obsessive, disordered eating habits or anything resembling them clashes with that objective.
(Note: If you’re battling disordered eating, find a qualified professional who specializes in your specific issue and get on the fast track to recovery.)
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