For me, the major shift towards recovery came when I realized that my urges to binge were not simply an emotional problem or me trying to fill a “void” in my life by stuffing my face with food. The binges weren’t a coping mechanism or a response to some “unresolved emotional issues” I needed to fix.
Rather, it was way more simple than I had ever expected. The binge urges started because I was doing something that affected my physical body and, therefore, signaled my brain that overeating was needed for survival. And that “something” that triggered my bulimia in the first place was actually dieting and restricting.
Kathryn Hansen, with her book Brain Over Binge, was one of the first authors who showed me very clearly how dieting and restricting send your body and brain the signals to binge and overeat. Dieting makes you so obsessed and out of control with foods that you seriously think you are a mental nut case and need to be locked down.
But also, Kathryn Hansen showed me that when you eliminate dieting and restricting from your life, your brain and body are 100% capable of recovering without any need to “cope” with your emotions or have a pitch perfect life to be free from bulimia.
I am so happy and proud to bring you this interview with her!
1. Can you please introduce yourself. Who are you, what do you do?
I’m Kathryn Hansen, the author of Brain over Binge (2011), and The Brain over Binge Recovery Guide (2016). I recovered from bulimia almost 11 years ago, and since then, it’s been my mission to help others do the same. With both of my books, I aim to be an alternative voice in the field of eating disorders, by teaching brain-based reasons for why binge eating occurs, and departing from mainstream ideas that say eating disorders are the result of underlying emotional/psychological problems and require years of therapy to fix. I believe, with a different perspective, recovery can be much more efficient. I write primarily for those with bulimia and binge eating disorder, although anyone with episodes of binge eating or excessive overeating could benefit.
2. Please tell us a little bit about your journey from eating disorders and now being fully recovered.
My eating disorder started, like most eating disorders do—with a diet. In my teen years, I naturally put on some weight as girls do when they are developing into women; but with a family history of weight concerns and peers that were also becoming weight conscious, I was tempted into trying to control my weight. At age 15, I gradually started cutting back on calories and eliminated some foods I thought were too “fattening.” I lost a significant amount of weight over the course of about a year and a half, but I felt miserable. During this time, my appetite increased enormously and I thought about food more than I ever had before. Restrictive dieting, as it does for most people, had the opposite effect than I intended—it made me want to eat more, not less. At the time, I didn’t realize this was a very normal reaction to dieting—it was my survival instincts trying to protect me from what it perceived to be starvation.
Instead of listening to my body and brain going back to eating normally, I kept trying to fight my appetite and restrict even more. Eventually, my survival instincts won, and I binged for the first time when I was 17 years old. The binge eating increased gradually and made me feel completely out of control. I tried self-induced vomiting, but thankfully I was not able to do it, so I instead purged with excessive exercise and more dieting. I soon gained back all the weight I’d lost by dieting and much more. My binge eating habit eventually took up most of my life, and it continued to do so for 6 years.
About 7 months after my binge eating started, I began therapy, but it was not effective for me. In therapy, I learned that I binged for deeper reasons, such as: to fill an emotional void in my life, to comfort myself, to “stuff down feelings,” to deal with issues from the past, to cope with depression, anxiety, or low self-esteem. I learned that stressful events and/or negative feelings triggered my binges, and until I learned to cope better, I’d continue to binge. In short, I learned that I needed to travel a road of self-discovery and self-transformation to be completely free from bulimia.
To me, this theory felt too complicated and overwhelming, especially considering my age at the time. I was in college; I was just starting to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be, and the binge eating was, I felt, the biggest issue holding me back. After having some personal insights, I eventually left therapy after college to try to find another way; and about a year later, I came across a book called Rational Recovery: The New Cure for Substance Addiction by Jack Trimpey, and it completely changed how I viewed my problem. Although the book was written for alcoholics and drug addicts, I saw so many parallels to my binge eating.
Rational Recovery helped me start seeing my eating disorder, not as a disease or emotional problem, but as a very natural function of my own healthy brain. The book also showed me that I always had control of my own behavior, no matter what messages my brain sent. With the information in this book and my own insights, I learned how to—very naturally—stop following my urges to binge and then those urges just went away.
3. What is your opinion on diets and it’s link on developing eating disorders?
The reality is, the majority of people who have eating disorders would not have eating disorders if it weren’t for diets. Bulimia rarely develops without a history of dieting. Binge eating disorder more commonly develops without dieting as a catalyst, but typically, the binge eater will then attempt to diet to mitigate weight gain from the binges and the dieting makes the problem worse.
Dieting triggers an “adaptive response” in a primitive part of our brains. Our brains are, thankfully, wired to protect us from starvation. Our survival instincts—the automatic, animalistic, and powerful responses that occur when one of our basic biological needs is not met—cause dieters to have increased cravings, thoughts of food, and in those who are susceptible—urges to binge. When I was dieting and thought of food all of the time, this was only my brain doing its job. When I binged after dieting, I was only following my primal instincts; I wasn’t trying to cope with an emotional problem or showing a symptom of a disease. My behavior wasn’t uncommon—excessive eating after a period of food restriction or starvation has been shown in human and animal studies.
Survival instincts don’t let up easily either. Restrictive dieting causes a host of biochemical, hormonal, and neurological changes that can make food more attractive to the dieter even long after the dieting stops. The body and brain become more alert to any sign of “famine,” which the body and brain perceive a diet to be; and purging only increases and prolongs this survival response. All of this paves the way for binge eating to be repeated over and over and eventually become wired into the brain as a habit.
4. What is the brain link to eating disorders?
Thankfully, research into the brain’s link to eating disorders is increasing, and I believe that one day the idea that eating disorders are emotional problems or attempts to “stuff down feelings” will become obsolete. Research is now confirming that binge eating involves a temporary dysfunction in the primitive brain—more specifically, in the primitive brain’s “reward center.” The reward center is a complex brain circuit that ensures we build life-sustaining habits and keep repeating behaviors that the brain perceives as necessary. Habits are powerful tools of survival, but habit formation has a dark side. The brain’s reward center allows for destructive behaviors to become compelling and compulsive. Binge eating is an example of this—it actually becomes wired into the brain as if it’s vital for existence. Even if dieting isn’t the catalyst, repeatedly overconsuming highly stimulating foods can eventually lead to the same binge eating habit in the brain’s reward center.
The primitive brain is irrational, and because it senses binges are what is necessary, it sends out powerful urges to perform the behavior. These urges are the one direct cause of each and every binge. No one would choose binge without the urges, regardless of what problems or difficult emotions they were facing. When you don’t understand where the urges are coming from, they can seem very convincing and powerful. But when you know that the urges are just an automatic function of your primitive brain, you can begin to see that you have a choice.
All the primitive brain can do is “urge” you to binge. It cannot actually walk to the refrigerator or drive to the nearest fast food restaurant to commence a binge. This is because the ability to control your voluntary muscles stems from a different part of the brain—the human brain, and more specifically—the prefrontal cortex. This is the part of the brain that you identify with as the “real you,” or your “true self,” and it is independent of the binge urges.
Only “you” can choose which actions to take based on the messages coming from the primitive brain. You have the power to decide—with your human brain—what you will ultimately do when the urges arise. In my books, I teach readers how to take control back from the primitive part of their brains, and use their higher cognitive power to chart a path to recovery.
5. What are your 3 biggest tips on recovering from eating disorders?
1). Believe that you are healthy, and it’s the urges that are the problem.
Before pursuing a more efficient path to recovery, it’s really important to stop believing that you are diseased or are somehow using binge eating as a coping mechanism. When you binge, it does not actually help you cope with your life’s problems, but it does make one big problem—the urge—temporarily go away. So, the only thing you are truly “coping” with when you binge is: the urge to binge. That realization alone vastly simplifies recovery because it pinpoints the urges as the true problem.
My next two tips are how to deal with the urges, which forms the basis of recovery:
2.) Learn to Dismiss Urges: No one does this in exactly the same way, but what I teach, and what I believe is the most effective is learning “detachment” from urges. This means learning to experience them as separate from your true self—as just neurological junk that you no longer have to pay any attention to, react to, or act upon.
3.) Eat Adequately: To make it possible to stop acting on urges and for those urges to go away, you have to give your body enough food. Otherwise, the survival instincts are going to stay in high gear and you will continue to be plagued with overly strong food cravings and urges to binge.
Taking recovery down to these simple concepts can make a huge difference for people who feel like they’ve been stuck in a labyrinth of recovery without making much progress. Working on other goals is fine, but know that to actually recover from bulimia or binge eating disorder, you only need to stop acting on binge urges and eat normally—in a way that works for you.
6. Many people struggle with the fear of weight gain in recovery. Did you have this fear and how did you get past it?
I didn’t have to contend with this fear as much as some people do, because, by the time I recovered, I was well over my natural weight. Although at the time, I was still purging by over exercising after binges, I knew I was getting a large overabundance of calories; and because of this, I knew weight loss would likely occur if I stopped binge eating. I wasn’t sure how long it would take for the excess weight to come off, but I knew that turning to dieting to attempt to speed up the process would only make it worse. I lost the binge weight very gradually and naturally—over the course of about 6 months. I tried not to put emphasis on my weight during this time. I was so glad to have my freedom and my life back, and I tried to focus elsewhere. Focusing on other benefits of being binge-free is a defense against worrying about weight.
My experience of weight loss after recovery wasn’t uncommon. Restrictive dieting and bulimia often lead to some weight loss at first; but it’s not sustainable, and the majority of bulimics eventually reach their highest weight ever while bulimic. Even if self-induced vomiting is the form of purging, the body can still absorb up to 75 percent of the calories from a binge, even if purging occurs right after. The bulimic’s body also becomes more efficient at absorbing and storing calories. Once bulimia ends, all of this can regulate, and the body can move toward its natural, healthy weight.
For those who recover in the earlier stages of restricting and bulimia (soon after the initial weight loss), some weight gain is, of course, necessary and healthy, and well worth it to achieve the freedom of recovery.
7. In your experience, what is one of the hardest thing to overcome in recovery based on the feedback you have got from people. And what is your best solution to this problem?
There are definitely all sorts of issues that come up, but I think the one thing that prevents people from actually recovering is not having a desire to do so. Without a desire to recover, you aren’t going to have any motivation or reason to dismiss the urges from the primitive brain. My approach is based on seeing that the urges are not truly a part of “you,” but if you identify with the eating disorder so much, this will be difficult to see.
For many people, the feeling of not wanting to recover is just an illusion. Because the person feels like they “want” to binge in the moments of urges, they assume this must be real. But the feeling of primal wanting of the temporary pleasure of a binge and relief from the urge is not the same as truly wanting to binge, with your higher self. Helping people see that the urges only create an illusion of wanting to binge helps them start dismissing those urges.
Nevertheless, other women and men say that—even when not experiencing urges—they can’t see a reason to quit. In this case, it’s important to cultivate the desire to recover within yourself. It can help to try to think of things you enjoy or want to do that are incompatible with the eating disorder. It can also help to create goals for the future or seek personal counseling to help draw out a desire to move beyond the eating disorder.
8. Some people have lost hope to ever being able to recover. What was your biggest motivation to recover and keep pushing forward even when things got hard?
My biggest motivation was that bulimia was ruining my life. I didn’t know what life would be like after recovery, but I knew it had to be better than the daily trap of binge eating and over exercising. For me, once I understood my brain, and understood that my binges weren’t complicated or symbolic of deeper problems, recovery stopped seeming so hard. It was a little tricky at first to learn to recognize and dismiss messages from the primitive brain, but soon, it became effortless.
Prior to learning about the brain, I thought I wanted or needed to binge, and I thought I had to fight that desire within myself. I felt I had to argue myself out of it, or use every ounce of my willpower to resist. This was hard. After learning about the brain, I saw clearly that I’d only created a temporary glitch in my primitive brain that had nothing to do with my actual needs or wants. I no longer had to fight against myself or my desires, because I learned those desires weren’t truly mine. I let the urges come and go and come and go, without getting wrapped up in them, and the struggle ceased.
Contact Kathryn Hansen:
Brain Over Binge (2011)