Cereal used to be a binge trigger for me. I believed that the reason was because I no “self control” around it. (I’ve since learned that’s not the case.)
Breakfast cereal was one of the first foods I made rules around for myself because at the time, “sugary cereal” was a big health topic in the news. I’d grown up eating cereal for breakfast, and like any kid, I had my favorites: Fruity Pebbles, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and this cinnamon/sugar off-brand kind that my grandpa used to buy, which I cannot, for the life of me, find anywhere. (It doesn’t help that I don’t remember what it was called.)
My food rules around cereal in the early days of my eating disorder basically limited me to the kind that tasted more cardboardy than the cereal box itself. Then, one day at cross country camp, all the cheerios were gone, and my options were limited to my childhood favorites. I started with a bowl of Frosted Flakes because it seemed like the “safest” looking choice to me at the time, even though I’d never tried Frosted Flakes before. They were delicious, and before I knew it, I’d downed bowl after bowl, followed by bowls of Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies. It was the first time I can remember bingeing in my entire life.
Looking back on that time, the frantic shoveling of food into my mouth wasn’t out of the ordinary. I was constantly hungry, because I wasn’t eating nearly enough to sustain the amount of exercise I was doing. My teammates all ate enormous amounts of cereal that morning, but the difference between me and them was that I had strict rules about the amount and variety of cereal I allowed myself to eat, but they didn’t. A mountain of cereal was a normal breakfast for many of my teammates, but it wasn’t for me…and it totally wigged me out.
The mental cycle started immediately, from my very first binge. I was disgusted with myself. I felt ashamed. I felt like a failure for not complying with my rules. I felt a little sick to my stomach. I vowed to never, ever, do that again.
But just a few days later, as I reflected on the uncomfortable cereal experience, I started craving cereal. I’d rarely craved cereal before, and if I had, I hadn’t really thought twice about it. But this time was different. This time, I had put a huge amount of pressure on myself to avoid cereal. If you have any experience with binge eating, you can probably guess what I’m about to say: I binged on cereal again, but this time it was the cardboard, bran flake kind that was in my pantry. Binge eating cereal became a regular occurrence for me in the following years. Even when I thought I had a handle on it, and would buy some for a special treat, I’d end up finishing off the whole box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch in a single sitting. Eventually, I developed an intense fear of cereal.
Then, I recovered from my eating disorder. Obviously, that’s an overly simplistic statement, and there’s a lot more to that experience than can be summed up in seven words. But throughout that process of healing, I started eating and getting comfortable with lots of different foods, especially my major fear foods. For me, the foods I had the biggest rules around (and the most fear around) were sugary desserts and snacks, like cookies and ice cream. So, I started eating them every day until I stopped feeling afraid of them. I reconciled with sweet foods and I consequently stopped binge eating them. I became comfortable eating them on a daily basis, and still regularly eat dessert foods at all times of day, even today.
But as of late, I rarely eat cereal. I didn’t realize this until today, and promptly sat down to write this post. I think the reason I don’t eat cereal very often is because I don’t find it that impressive anymore. Cinnamon Toast Crunch just isn’t as appealing to me as a cookie now that I don’t have rules about cookies. In fact, removing the rules about cereal made me realize that breakfast cereal isn’t really all that delicious. Because I don’t find it that delicious, I don’t crave it very often. Consequently, I rarely eat it.
Recently, we had my young nephews over for a sleepover, and my husband and I bought some of our favorite breakfast cereals from when we were kids to share with them. They’re just little guys, and didn’t eat that much of the cereal, so we have a lot of leftovers. I’ve been snacking on Cinnamon Toast Crunch, and I’ve found it pleasant and satisfying to munch on in the afternoon.
As I was snacking on it this afternoon, I had the realization that it’s not nearly as delicious as I remembered it to be as a kid, and definitely not as compelling as I thought it was when I was struggling with disordered eating. I realized that the food rules had made the cereal seem so much more appealing than I find it now, when I’m not actively trying to avoid it.
The thing is, I never actually went through the process of desensitizing myself to cereal cravings, as I had with ice cream, cookies, and chips (eating it every day, as much as I want, until I stop feeling out-of-control). But once I’d done the work to reconcile with carbs and sugar, and gave myself permission to eat sweet foods, I no longer felt compelled to shovel cereal into my mouth. It’s amazing what happens when you’re not carb deprived, and you are actually allowed to eat cookies.
Ultimately, the reason I stopped binge eating cereal was that I got rid of my rules around sweet foods. That sense of permission paradoxically eliminated most of my uncontrollable cravings, and helped me realize that the reason I was binge eating had nothing to do with the foods themselves (i.e. cereal) and everything to do with my food rules (and the fact that I was spending most of the day in an calorie deficit). But once I moved past my rules about sugar and started giving my body the fuel it needed, my compulsions to binge completely went away…and they will go away for you, too!
[If you’re struggling in your relationship with food, you’re not alone. I’ve worked with so many women who have stories similar to this one, and together, we’ve been able to put together a plan for healing. Click here to learn more about my intuitive eating services.]