Frequently I compare weight loss to down-hill skiing, a difficult skill set but not nearly as challenging as cross-country skiing, which is maintenance. On a cross-country trek, you have obstacles and struggles, and it’s lonely. I think it’s helpful to acknowledge this difficulty, and talk about the boulders under the snow that disturb your otherwise peaceful trip. Today I’m going to talk about the hidden boulder that I hate most: binge impulses. I started to talk about them here. Let’s go a little deeper.
First of all, I cannot speak to the experiences of people who struggle with a legitimate binge eating disorder. I don’t think I qualify. My experience, from what I can tell, is unusual, and may be one of the blessings that has permitted me to maintain radical weight loss when other people who are as clever as I am have not. I am different from many people, because while I do binge, at about 600 calories I reach a point where I suddenly can pause and even stop myself. I don’t know whether this is a gift or whether it’s normal. I haven’t seen any studies on binge stopping points. But in any event, I know I can pause and stop, and so I call them “mini binges.” I don’t think everyone else is this lucky, and I’d like to hear others’ stories.
Prior to a mini binge, I’m generally foggy-headed and having trouble focusing. Little problems and annoyances may build up. I’m not hungry, per se, but I find myself repeatedly in the kitchen, my hand on the refrigerator door. And repeatedly I back away. Cultural mythology would suggest that my problems and annoyances are normal, that I need to deal productively with them, and if I have a binge, or even open that refrigerator door, I am responding abnormally or inappropriately. According to popular women’s magazines I may be an emotional eater. Perhaps. But maybe that’s not how my body sees it.
Try on this theory: maybe the foggy headedness, which has contributed to the accumulation of little problems and annoyances, is a symptom of the body’s normal endocrine call for a binge. Perhaps the endocrine impulses that call for a binge usurp other, more productive, thought and reasoning activity in the brain. In other words, maybe a binge is not a misguided response to emotions. Maybe a binge is a normal response to a body’s confusing cues.
There are other models for this. We binge on things other than food. When we are sleep deprived, we become horribly drowsy, for example, and our endocrine impulses compel us to sleep. We cannot concentrate, sometimes even in life-or-death circumstances such as driving a car. We may only need a nap (a sleep mini-binge), or we may need a full sleep cycle (comparable in this metaphor to regaining a pound). Sometimes people are exhausted to the point that they require hospitalization. That metaphorically would compare to regaining a radical amount of lost weight in order to return the body to its preferred, highest established weight.
Another model might be breathing: when you are winded from running up two flights of stairs, you must pause to suck in some great gulps of air before you can think again. You need an oxygen mini-binge. Extending the metaphor, people with sleep apnea, a condition that includes prolonged oxygen deprivation during sleep, may need a CPAP machine prescribed in order to recover their daily oxygen equilibrium and their ability to concentrate and focus. That would be the equivalent of regaining lost weight and returning to one’s natural state of homeostasis.
Hunger, the acute gnawing variety, also makes concentration impossible, but consider that the body and its complicated system of endocrine cues may respond to more subtle food deviations than overt, gnawing hunger. Perhaps when your body’s regulatory systems detect that you are under-fatted, or rather, you need to replace some missing fat stores, your body compromises your concentration until it thinks you’re making progress toward that goal. Hence, you binge. It’s as normal as a nap or a gulp of air at the top of the stairs.
I suspect this theory could be true because my body rewards me for bingeing. Yes, I may gain a pound, but the body doesn’t see that as a punishment, it’s protection from starvation or it’s making progress toward regaining homeostasis, or it’s whatever the body’s silly goal is. Beyond that, in a binge, I enter a numb netherworld where I may contemplate minutia and mentally solve or come to peace with the little problems and annoyances of my life. I remember what I needed to pick up at the store and jot it down. And continue eating. I figure out how to deal with my son’s most difficult teacher. And continue eating. I craft how to word a memo to create harmony and get a stalled project moving forward. Solving problems feels great, regardless of whether you’re mindlessly munching. At about 600 calories, the fog clears, and I can stop. I know it’s 600 calories, because I look inside the bag or box and calculate the portions gone, count the ounces of cheese missing, calculate how many servings of everything I’ve eaten, then read the nutrition panels. That my total is so consistently 600 calories – give or take 100 – tells me something. If it isn’t “normal” by societal standards, it is my body’s norm. Perhaps your body has a norm too? Maybe yours is 400, or 1,000. I don’t know, but I suggest you be on the lookout for it. Tell me if you have one.
I used to be disgusted with myself after a binge, because 600 calories is a meal for me, and binge food is not generally meal-worthy. There were times when I would allow this disgust to disintegrate into despair and lead to more bingeing, of uncountable calories. I don’t allow myself to despair like that any more, and this may be another reason I’m in the three percent club and maintaining radical weight-loss. I just stop, add the 600 calories to my daily count and move on with my life. I may be able to adjust my intake some during the day, and only end my day 300 calories over my range. Or it may be an evening binge and I’m stuck with the full 600. I live with that. It doesn’t make me happy, but I’m okay the next day, in fresh light.
There are some ways to circumvent binges. And that’s a great topic for another day on the blog where I get to talk about whatever I want.