More on Binges: A Digression

In Weight-Loss Maintenance on October 25, 2010 at 2:47 pm

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.

  1. I like the sleep analogy and have often used it myself when trying to explain fat acceptance to people. Different people feel best with different amounts of sleep. What satisfies you may be an hour short for me. Cutting down on your sleep theoreticslly gives you extra hours of the day to use and enjoy, but it’s hard to enjoy that time when you’re feeling drowsy. If some institute came out with a study that said people who get between X and X+1 hours of sleep have the maximum life-span, does that mean the individual who is happiest with X+2 hours or X-1 hours should make a concerted effort to alter that time frame?
    People can agree with any and all of the above, and yet when I say similar things about fat, the blinders go on, the ears slam shut, and the mouth (or keyboard!) emits angry, jeering words. Maybe that’s why I haven’t been more of an activist – it’s difficult to get people to pay attention.

  2. Apparently I go months without binging, without *over eating*, eating about 1200 calories a day. It’s been this way since February. I don’t understand any of this. I don’t have a clue, to be honest, how one day I started eating so differently from before, with no urge to eat more, except for the passing thoughts of it that for some unknown reason I understand as passing thoughts. At first I was looking over my shoulder, a lot, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for it to get *too hard*. Now it seems like a door opened and I noticed myself walking through it.

    If I notice myself reversing direction, I’ll write here about it.

    • More than 1200 calories a day is “overeating” or even “binging?” Mom? Is that you?? LOL.

      Seriously, my mom tried really hard to get me to think that way when I was growing up – tried to teach me that way-too-small portions were the right size. 1200 calories a day was her magic number, although she would allow that maybe, since I was taller than her, 1500 a day might be all right for me. I ended up hungry all the time and often spent my own money on candy bars, chips and pop. I thought I was a disgusting pig and I assumed that all the thin kids ate less than I did (I was fat). Once I got to University and lived in a dorm and with roommates, I saw that normal people do not, in fact, eat that little. Those thin kids not only ate more than my mom thought was correct, they ate a lot more than I did.

      Once I’d figured out that I needed to eat bigger portions at meals, I lost my sweet tooth and junk food cravings.

      • First, I don’t advocate that anyone should eat 1200 calories a day.

        Second, eating more than 1200 would NOT be “binging” or “overeating”. (Those terms are subjective and problematic for many reasons I won’t go into.)

        Third, I would never encourage someone else to eat like me. However, eating more calories, at this time, is just not something I’m inclined to do.

        At 300+ pounds, I was very careful about trying to eat mostly unprocessed, whole grain, and very low fat foods. In other words, *healthy*. When I started tracking my food intake on line, I discovered that about 8% of my diet consisted of fat.

        After I decided to eat as much fat as I wanted (some days 50%), I noticed my calorie intake decreased (a lot) and I began losing weight. *shrug*

    • I said I would mention it here if my experience changed. It did. Hunger returned and I increased my calorie intake. For awhile I tracked it at 1400 to 1600 per day. I’m not sure what my intake is these days. When I tried to return to 1200 (to lose more), over a year later, my body was not comfortable (I always felt very cold and lethargic) and no additional weight came off–although *theoretically* it isn’t physiologically possible (hahaha!) to remain at 175 (or so) while eating 1200 calories a day, or less, month after month. That was an unpleasant experiment I will not repeat! BTW, I’m LOVING my re-read of your blog, Debra. I still think there is a great book here…I’m soooo glad you left it up! Maybe there can be a brief reunion post someday…

      • Thanks for coming back, RNengade-now-Hopefulandfree! You know, we are amazing creatures. Wouldn’t it be spectacular if empirical scientists actually took us seriously, tested and retested our endocrine profiles and found out what was really happening inside us. Chronic hunger, and cold and lethargic if you restrict to formerly easy levels. Hmmmm. That’s symptomatic of something, and not pop psychology’s great idealogical contribution: “emotional eating.” And NO ONE can accuse you of losing this weight with the idea that you’d return to your old ways after you’d done the “hard” part of dieting — that you didn’t understand it was a “lifestyle” change. Puh-leez! Over time, something real has changed and you’re now living in an n=1 personal scientific experiment that is not as forgiving as the one you were living in a year ago. Woof.

        In my quiet reading times, I’m getting more and more convinced that leptin replacement is necessary. It may not be the chronically suppressed leptin itself that causes particular unpleasant symptoms in weight-loss maintainers, but if leptin is replaced, in trials anyway, it seems to set off a chain of hormone-, peptide- and neuro-reactions that bring a body closer to its own “normal” — the one that maintainers knew at their highest established weight — and it permits weight-loss maintenance without the horrible consequences. For you it might warm you up and restore your energy, for me it might get my foggy brain to focus and help me keep from mindlessly grabbing the refrigerator handle. Now how do we get scientists to try this in larger trials? Hmmmm.

      • Oh, and as for the reunion post. Hmmm to that too. I graduate next week from my chaplaincy class and don’t begin seminary until the autumn. Maybe.

      • Yes, please continue, as you mentioned in the 4/27/12 post I thought I was just now replying to! I discovered your blog literally the week you were stopping it, I think!

  3. I honor and believe your experience RN. And, like you, I’m amazed that 1200 calories does it for you. That ain’t much. Cherish it for the blessing it is!

    For what it is worth, I was fortunate to have a really prolonged “honeymoon” phase, almost three years after losing the weight (I had become a runner) where I had no binge impulses to speak of. When I gave up the running to preserve my joints, the maintenance progressively got harder till I reached a nadir about a year and a half ago, with increased binge impulses and more difficulty staying motivated with regard to the exercise. (Everything was also complicated by a couple of emergency gut surgeries.) I didn’t seek a depression diagnosis, but I suspect I may have been. From that point, I started pulling out, slowly. About six months ago, I also started radically limiting my grain-based carbs — Barbara Berkeley’s prompting. I consider myself still in the experimental phase with that, but I don’t think it’s hurting. Sadly, it hasn’t eliminated the binge impulses. I have good days and bad.

  4. It sounds like you’ve had some big challenges during maintenance, regarding the knee issues and surgeries. 😦 The latter can be particularly stressful!

    If the benefits did not outweigh the costs (in time, effort, etc) you describe, would you continue to work at maintaining? What do you experience as the greatest benefits (in spite of the costs)?

    • Would I continue? That’s a $64K question. The benefits. Sigh. That’s a post in its own rite.

      Suffice it that I do this because I can. I have certain blessings that make it possible. I don’t think everyone can do what I do, and those people’s voices are covertly marginalized or they are overtly accused of being in denial. As marginalized people, they receive compromised healthcare and suffer other cultural and personal disadvantages. It raises my hackles. Some of these people are close friends and family. Weight-loss maintenance is an enormously complicated issue, and I have recently become mission-driven to point that out: to tease it apart and parse both the personal and the scientific aspects of it. I don’t think we make cultural progress or advance health by hating on fat people, and especially hating ourselves — whether hating our currently fat selves or our formerly fat selves. This sense of mission has become enormously important. It keeps me going, moreso than “thin privilege,” which I regard as embarrassing and wrong. One of the thin privileges that I’m claiming, however, is the privilege of being taken at my word, without qualification.

  5. Hey there, Dee. Undergrad was a big wake-up experience for me too. I didn’t understand how my junk-food addict roomie could be so thin. I thought maybe the kind of food she chose just didn’t stick or something. One weekend, I decided to match her bite for bite, Friday – Sunday. We hung out together enough that a little extra time together wasn’t too noticable, and I could do this. The most difficult part was being as inactive as she was. She loved “laying out” in the sun, while reading and eating chips. I just got fidgety, but I hopeful: “maybe the sun burns off the calories.” On Monday, I’d gained three pounds.

  6. Sounds familiar. I gained 20 pounds eating very normal amounts of dorm food freshman year. I’d never seen vegetables with butter on them before – my mom only served them steamed with salt and pepper, or – to be fair – occasionally sautéed or stir-fried. Food cooked the way regular people (not a chronic dieter trying to set a good example for her fat daughter) made it was completely new to me. And it seemed like the normal kids ate the same servings of the dorm food I did, and junk food on top of that. I found that it didn’t work at all according to the stereotypes about how kids get fat, and how fat kids eat.

    I lost the 20 pounds without trying when I moved to an apartment sophomore year and cooked for myself, though it came back 15 years later when my hip went out. That was 20 of the 30 or 35 pounds I kept off for so long. I’m never sure how much of it to count, since it was a short term weight gain. On the other hand, I suspect that I’ve always suppressed my weight a bit, so maybe that gain up to 220 was a brief lapse in weight suppression rather than a brief upward deviation due to eating to much unhealthy dorm food, as I’d thought. I started high school at 180 pounds and ended it at 200, and the freshman 20 brought me up to 220. I weighed between 180 and 195 for a long time as an adult. Now, in my forties, I probably weigh close to 220 again. I’m actually amazed by how good the extra weight looks on me. My upper body and lower body are balanced, for once. Maybe this has always been what I was supposed to weigh, but I never let myself finish growing.

    And, RNegade? Sorry, I guess I must have misread your post. To me, 1200 calories a day will always be the ridiculously inadequate amount of food my mom is always trying to eat, and always tried to get me to eat. I can see that you’re saying that for you, it’s the surprisingly small amount that you feel like eating right now, and that’s you’re not endorsing that for other people. Sorry about that.

    • “To me, 1200 calories a day will always be the ridiculously inadequate amount of food my mom is always trying to eat, and always tried to get me to eat.”

      Dee, I’m sure you’ve seen this, but I’ve read – I think it was in Marion Nestle – that 1200 calories is the minimum number the human body requires daily to maintain normal bodily functions … you know, like fucntioning organs, and a brain.


      • 1200 can even be too little for minimal maintenance, depending on body size. I wear a device called a BodyBugg, which tracks calories burned via a combination of movement, skin temperature, skin conductivity, etc. It tells me that on a minimal movement day, where I do little more than lie around reading a book, I burn close to 1700. Just to say where I’m coming from, I lost 60 pounds in 2002-2003, and have never regained more than 20 of that. Last year I got to 7 pounds below my 2003 low and held it for almost a year; right now I’m 3 pounds above my 2003 low.

        Re: binge impulses (or maybe just maintainer extra-hunger) I can generally stop myself within a few hundred calories, like you can. Tonight, I really should have eaten a PB&J on whole wheat for dinner. I was craving that. But instead I ate something different, and then I drank a bunch of water so I know I’m not just thirsty, and now I will go have the PB&J anyway, and then my body will be quiet, and tomorrow will be another day.

  7. Cynthia, it’s been my experience that if you’re craving food-food (as opposed to – and I hope this phrase does not annoy; if it does please let me know and I will figure out another way to put it next time – “junk” food, or food with more chemicals) — then there’s a nutrient your body needs.

    Supporting anecdata – the only time I eat red meat is right before my period.

    Hope you enjoy your PB&J. 🙂

  8. Debra, I haven’t measured the calories closely, but my mini(?)-binges are more on the 1000-calorie level, so that I feel desperate during them and then suddenly things just “turn off” and I feel full and not at all interested in anything else. It’s an interesting observation, though. I wonder if “allowing” myself, say, 500 calories on one of those afternoons (it’s almost always afternoons) would be a way of managing it with less damage?

    I realize I’m commenting many months after the most recent comment and almost a year since the original post, but I didn’t discover all this until this weekend! 🙂

    • Ah, nevah too late, Cindy.

      You know, if I were still doing posts, I’d try to chase down a study I once saw that essentially posited that we establish “hunger rhythms” (I would call them impulse rhythms) that repeat day by day. My rhythm is most intense in the mornings. That’s when I’m most likely to binge or mini-binge. You, obviously, are an afternoon person.

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