Book Review: Brain over Binge

From the end of April until the end of May I was struggling with some of the most hard-core binge eating I have ever experienced (I know I owe you all a recovery update soon, because I’m now doing pretty well!). Nothing I was doing was improving my situation, meaning that I was ready to try absolutely anything- including buying this book. I had heard amazing reviews, and reports of people stopping binge eating immediately after having finished it. I was not one of those people. I have some severely mixed feelings on this book, and am still not sure entirely what I think of it, so this could be a long review.

Before buying Brain Over Binge I had a good long browse of the responses from readers on Good Reads and Amazon. They were overwhelmingly positive, but a few stood out to me as swinging the opposite way, claiming that the book was frustrating and disappointing, that the author (Kathryn Hansen) lacks the expert knowledge of the functioning of the brain to make the assumptions she makes, that the style of writing is awful, that the writer tells her story in pointless detail- and that the overwhelming message of the book was insulting to those suffering from binge eating. Because the message was : just don’t binge! Now, I don’t entirely agree with these reviews. I didn’t find the style of writing annoying, I found the details of Hansen’s journey interesting, and it was comforting to know someone had gone through close to the same thing as I was in that moment. I know that the author isn’t a brain scientist, but although her book is mainly theory based it does all make sense. She also does signpost the fact that she is drawing on her own experience and rookie research. I thought she had made links between other addictions and their treatment very well. However, I do have to agree with two things:

  • There wasn’t enough advice on handling the urge to binge, and so stopping (I did some research here: Hansen runs a podcast and has numerous blog posts and YouTube interviews, where she addresses additional questions such as these).
  • The “now you know this you can just stop binging” message did bite me in the arse further down the line.

I’m getting ahead of myself here. The main premise of the book is this: binge eating is always the result of restriction at one point or other. Unlike the information we are given from health care professionals, who say that eating disorders are a disease, usually trigged by emotional upheaval or trauma, Hansen suggests that this first restriction triggers a binge as the body is simply doing its job. The primitive, animal part of the brain believes we are in a time of famine, and so need to eat in order to create energy reserves. Now, and as much as we can. Following the first binge though, many of us restrict again- usually more severely to “make up” for the binge.The rational, more developed part of the brain feels guilt when we binge, and this feeds into the restriction to make up for it. This throws the brain into overdrive. The cycle of binge and restrict continues and we move into the disorder. Our brains are basically locked in a fight against themselves. But once the restriction ends many of us continue to binge eat (this is my case and the case of numerous others I have watched make their journey through the disorder in support groups and on platforms such as YouTube). This is where the controversy starts: Hansen suggests that the binging has become a habit. We gradually use food to cater to emotional needs, because we are told that is why we binge. We may binge late at night, and so it becomes a habit to reach for food in the evening. Hansen further suggests that being told binging is a “disease” takes away the power of stopping bingeing from the sufferer, as we believe it is something beyond our control. When you realise it is simply a habit, then you can just stop binging. There is no disease driving you, it is not going to solve an emotional problem, it is not because you feel unworthy/insecure/isolated. It is because it is a habit. Basically, it isn’t the mental illness we thought it was is what many of us would read into this. There is a lot of information there, and I have tried to give you just the essentials, so that you will understand the review.

So, what to make of all of that? From personal experience I found some of this to be helpful, and some to be very unhelpful. It all seems very logical, and that appeals to me. I want to point out that Hansen does not say binge eating is simply a bad habit that is our own fault, but I can see why many of us interpret it that way- and I did fall into that. Hard. I thought ‘Great! I can now just STOP binge eating!’. How wrong I was. My binges stayed exactly the same, in fact they became worse, but I simply began beating myself up more afterwards, because now it was just a bad habit I didn’t have the willpower to break. Although Hansen says that not binging shouldn’t take much effort, more of a cool refusal to engage with the thoughts and urges at all, I really struggled with this. This is where I can see the validity of the reviews saying the book is dangerous. I found it very hard to get up and carry on the day following a binge, because to me it was suddenly all my fault. I had no one to blame. I had to ring a B-eat helpline because now I was stuck between a wall and a hard place. Whilst the idea that I didn’t have to live with binge eating forever because I had the power to change my habits was empowering, it simultaneously became very unhelpful. For people in the same position of myself, but who perhaps aren’t feeling able to reach out for help (ringing the B-eat helpline is always a good option) it could just lead to a spiral of beating yourself up. There is a lot that makes sense in Hansen’s argument, but I really think that the book should signpost more clearly that if you do binge after reading it, it isn’t a weakness and you shouldn’t beat yourself up. For me the belief that I was just lazy and unable to shake a habit (I know this isn’t the intended message of the author), made my situation momentarily worse, and took me right back to how I used to feel when this all started. I fully accept that this is an issue in my own mind-set that I need to address, but I feel like for some others this could add to the low self-esteem eating disorders usually feed off of.

A lot of us definitely identify with binging being an emotional thing. Brain Over Binge argues the opposite. Although this book wasn’t everything that was promised by the rave reviews, it ended up making me take a step back and realise how just because I was feeling a certain way, or was in a certain situation that would usually “make” me binge, it didn’t mean that I had to. This was something I already knew (its similar to CBT therapy, where it would be recommended that if I felt lonely and that could cause a binge, I choose to go call or spend time with a friend instead).  Hansen’s theory overlaps with conventional therapy in this. Somehow though, Brain Over Binge made me realise I had a bit more control over not binging than I thought. I could have binge urges in one part of my brain (the “animal” part as Hansen dubs it), but they couldn’t make me physically pick up the food, because another part of my brain controls this.  This idea I found incredibly helpful, and I have begun to see binging as something which, when the urge arises, I can resist. It has simply complemented the other information that has become available to me over the years. The idea of a divided brain does fit with how, in eating disorders, you can “feel as if you have two heads” as one member of the support group I was attending put it.

Although the above was helpful my main issue with Brain Over Binge was the “just stop” attitude. Its very hard to “just stop” when you’re in so deep (ask anyone experiencing substance abuse, because that’s what binging is, though unfortunately we can’t remove food from our lives completely). The idea that you have a bit more control over your binging is empowering, but I also found the expectation that Hansen’s argument would enlighten you to the point where you “just stop” binging, fairly belittling. And I’m not a self-pity kind of person. This could also be because, admittedly, as someone still stuck in binge eating it can be hard to watch someone now free of it, however inspirational they are.

With recommending this book, I was also say take it with a pinch of salt and try not to be swayed by the rave reviews. I haven’t binged in nearly a month now, but this was after the binge I mentioned in this review, from which point I began ringing B-eat, and keeping a recovery journal again, so it is hard to say which has helped more, this or the book. I feel as if both have. Hansen’s theory may simply not be for you, and that’s okay. Perhaps bits of it make sense, and bits of it just don’t (this is where I fall on the helpful/unhelpful scale). Most importantly, don’t give up on other avenues of recovery just because you read this. Just because one book says they aren’t as helpful as we assume, doesn’t mean you aren’t getting something from them. Take what you need from both. Once I did that, discarding the “just stop” mentality and the guilt that came from being unable to do this, other bits of the book (such as the divided brain) became much more helpful and are now really playing into my recovery.

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