I spent four weeks in June 2016 on a “squeaky clean” paleo diet—and spent the first week of July 2016 on an almost non-stop binge. It started with a jar of chocolate-hazelnut spread (not Nutella, but a fancy organic brand I’d purchased as some sort of clean-eating compromise). I was 33 years old, and had never tasted chocolate-hazelnut spread. I’d planned to have one teaspoonful after dinner.
My partner was away on a week-long business trip, and evenings were especially demanding. While cleaning up the dinner dishes and getting two children ready for bed, I ate the entire jar of chocolate-hazelnut spread. I’d load a few dishes into the dishwasher and grab a spoonful. Field a homework question, sneak a spoonful. Supervise tooth-brushing, bathroom time, pajama selection, grab a jar spatula so as to load as much sweet brown goo into my mouth as possible. As I was going for the last of the spread, my daughter padded up behind me, bedtime stories in hand. I thought, “Leave me alone so I can just do this!”
The week continued in a binge-grazing haze: a handful of crackers here, a gob of peanut butter there, every time I passed the pantry, multiple times per hour. At mealtimes, I’d make beautiful food for my children and throw some salad odds and ends in a bowl for myself, maybe add a glob of Dijon mustard, as an afterthought. Then I’d shovel in coconut ice cream and pea crisps, or chocolate-peanut-powder-and-almond-milk paste when the house was dark and quiet. When my partner returned home, I was battling burps that tasted like rotten eggs, and I turned away from kisses. He was exhausted from travel and went to bed early; I stayed up with my humiliation and ate three chocolate bars, binge-eating to cover the shame of having binged, certain he would wake up any minute and catch me.
Unsurprisingly, this led to some weight-gain. My body had been expanding slowly for a couple of months, a natural side effect of the diet/binge ride. By the end of this particular week, I was a full size bigger than most of the clothes in my closet. I diet/binged through July, running on the elliptical to try to force myself into a caloric deficit. But my body was used to the elliptical: the exercise was easy, and therefore not “effective” for my purposes. If I was going to lose “the last 10 pounds” again (and then some, because let’s be honest), I would need to do something more intense.
That’s when a free workout challenge showed up in my Instagram feed. It seemed reasonably hardcore: weights, sprints, HIIT cardio… I’d been working out with dumbbells for over 10 years, but sprinting scared me, and I’d never done a burpee. As soon as I signed up I felt the dread of “what have I gotten myself into?” But there was a workout schedule to follow, and I’m a sucker for a plan. Give me something I can write on the calendar and then put a little check mark next to and I’m yours forever.
The workouts were tough. Tougher than anything I’d ever subjected myself to, even in my deepest self-loathing “fitness” efforts. It was clear just days in that the challenge, combined with the demands of parenting two children (both still on summer break from school at this point), and a restricted food intake was too much for my body to handle. I was weak and shaky. My feet felt heavy all the time. I started waking up several times a night.
I need to eat more.
It was the first time I ever thought about deliberately increasing my food intake. I hated the thought at first, but I couldn’t argue with it: if I wanted to complete this workout challenge, and take care of my family, and not get sick or injured, and not lose my mind, I had to eat enough food to fuel my activity.
Discussing habit-change, Gretchen Rubin talks about “The Strategy of the Lightning Bolt.” Some incident or new idea rocks our world, and a longstanding habit is replaced overnight: slow, incremental behavioral shifts not required. It’s not how change usually happens, but it’s ridiculously effective.
This thought—I need to eat more—was my anti-dieting Lightning Bolt. Interestingly, it never occurred to me to continue dieting but quit the workout challenge. I’m very competitive—especially with myself—and I’d committed to doing this fitness thing. The workouts were on my calendar, and it was just a given that I would check them off, as planned.
The gradual realization that restriction was the root of my binge-eating had been powerful, but it didn’t shock my system. Hearing I need to eat more, in my head, in my own voice, did. I had to stop dieting. There was no going back.