I used to be a secret binge eater, a weekend binge eater, a whenever-my latest-diet-failed binge eater. I know all too well the feelings of shame and guilt that come with feeling completely out of control around food. It’s something that many people are dealing with and I see SO many popular diet plans that set people up to binge later.
My low point came one night when I lied to my roommate about her ice cream falling out of the freezer onto the floor…when really I ate the entire thing by myself and just didn’t want her to know. I don’t think she really believed me, and I felt horrible both physically and mentally. Since then, I’ve worked hard on my relationship with food, myself, and my body image. I’ve become a trained health coach, and studied the work of some amazing mentors. I don’t remember the last time I went on a mind numbing binge. It’s unrealistic to have the expectation of never indulging again and I still overeat from time to time, but it’s definitely possible to end the diet/binge cycle!
Why do people binge?
People binge for many different reasons, restriction, trauma, shame, guilt, stress, sometimes all of them, sometimes something different. It can be very individual. Today I want to stay mostly on the topic of restriction-based bingeing (with a dash of guilt and shame for good measure) as that’s what I’m most familiar with. A few disclaimers before we get going: I am not qualified to treat Binge Eating Disorder and this is not intended to replace medical advice. These are my own thoughts and opinions. You can learn more about Binge Eating Disorder here. Seeking help from a qualified mental health professional is always something that HHHM recommends if you think you may have an eating disorder.
I classify restriction-based bingeing as a binge that happens when someone physically restricts their food, either through intentional or unintentional means. I’m sure many of you are familiar with what this looks like in real life. You go on a diet, this diet severely restricts your calories and you need to use willpower to stick with your plan. You’re hungry, so you know it’s working and you keep going. The first few diets usually last the longest, your willpower is strong and you do well for a week, a month, maybe even 6 months. Along the way your cravings increase, and you ultimately find yourself face first in pizza, ice cream, chocolate, or (insert other delicious and calorie dense food here).
At first it feels amazing to eat these foods but you’re soon filled with shame, guilt, and regret, and you’re feeling like a failure. You may notice that each time you diet or restrict your food it takes a shorter amount of time before you binge. I’ve dieted so many times at this point that I can’t even think of restricting my food or I immediately start daydreaming of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, Dairy Queen, and french fries- the chili cheese kind!
How NOT to overcome binging
The totally logical response to binging is to lay on the shame and guilt, and then restrict again. What I always did after failing another diet was binge, and then continue to eat everything that was ever ‘off limits’ during my diets. I was already ‘cheating’ so I thought I’d get it all out of my system (while telling myself how disgusting I was) and then on Monday, or next week, or after the holidays, I would start fresh with a new restrictive program. Sound familiar? I followed this cycle too many times to count before I learned a better approach.
Realistic steps to stop bingeing.
Rip up your good foods/bad foods lists
We tend to have all or nothing approaches to weight loss and nutrition and in my experience that’s a quick way to a binge. There is no wagon to be on or off of. That cookie you had after dinner doesn’t mean that the vegetables you ate were any less nutritious, and vice versa.
When you realize there are never foods that need to be off limits (except allergies or medical needs) it takes away that deprivation mindset. Any time you want a particular food, you CAN choose to have it if you want, and when you truly allow yourself to eat without guilt some of those really intense cravings will lessen.
When you binge or overeat forgive yourself immediately
You probably won’t stop bingeing completely overnight. The most important thing you can do is to forgive yourself as soon as it happens. Easier said than done, I know, but shame and guilt will only increase your desire for comfort/numbing/binging.
Say no to restrictive dieting
Another diet is never going to be the answer with restrictive binge eating. Restriction is only going to perpetuate this cycle, so I urge you to stay as far away from dieting as possible. In fact, a history of yo-yo dieting and restrictive eating is actually a risk factor for developing Binge Eating Disorder.
Make sure you’re eating ENOUGH
Binge eating can be as much about physiology as it is about psychology. Your body needs energy to function, and it gets it’s energy from the food that you eat. Even if you aren’t following a specific diet, it’s still important to make sure you’re eating enough to sustain you throughout the day. This is what the majority of my days used to look like:
Your body needs calories and if you’re trying to eat as little as possible throughout the day, it will increase cravings for quick energy sources and high calorie foods. If this sounds familiar, try eating a much larger breakfast and lunch, I’m willing to bet that you’re cravings and uncontrollable urges to eat those cookies lessen dramatically!
Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep
Studies have shown that sleep deprivation is linked to excess cravings of less nutritious foods. I find this to be true for myself as well as for my clients. With that said, I know as mothers of young children sometimes it’s just out of our control. When your baby keeps you up all night please give yourself some compassion and know that this is just one small phase of your life. Prioritize sleep whenever can, and know that’s the best you can do right now!
How to work towards your goals without setting yourself up to binge
You know that restrictive dieting leads to binging but you still have weight loss goals. Are you doomed? Nope! This doesn’t have to be a choice between the restrict/binge cycle or no change at all. There is a middle road here and that’s what I recommend.
Pick one change at a time
If you’ve been following HHHM for any length of time you know this is what we stress over and over again. Changing all of your food, movement, and sleep habits overnight does not work. It seems counterintuitive but I promise you that changing one thing at a time will give results FASTER than changing everything tomorrow, or even changing 2 things tomorrow. Change one thing and focus on that alone until it becomes easy, then pick one more, and so on.
Stop setting outcome based goals
When we set a goal, it’s usually outcome based. For example, I want to lose 20 pounds, I want to make $10,000, or I want to run a marathon. I challenge you to stop thinking about those goals and instead, focus on the process that needs to happen in order to move forward.
Instead of ‘I want to lose 20 pounds’ it’s usually more beneficial to focus on that one habit you’re changing right now. ‘I will eat a serving of vegetables with each meal’ or ‘I will walk my daughter to school every morning instead of driving.’ Forget the burden of that weight loss goal, put away the scale for a while and give yourself a high five for the PROCESS of practicing your habits. The outcome will happen, and it will be much more enjoyable for you in the meantime.
Create a small calorie deficit
In order for weight loss to occur, you need to take in less calories than you burn, however, eat too little and your body will amp up those cravings and signals to eat. The key is to create a small calorie deficit to move towards your weight loss goals without going too low. I don’t usually recommend counting calories long term for most people, it (like dieting) tends to create that deprivation mindset we’re trying to stay away from. There are ways to create a calorie deficit without tracking every food, gram, and calorie. Learn how in our signature coaching program: BALACE 365 Your Journey to Health, Wellness, and Food Freedom.
Know your non-negotiables
What are the things you don’t want to live without? Wine? Cookies? Pizza night? Whatever that is for you, don’t run from it and try to banish it from your life to lose weight. Chances are that won’t last long term. Instead, I recommend figuring out what that is for you, and working it into your fat loss plan! However you decide to lose weight, you’ll need to keep those habits going long term -like forever- if you want the weight loss to also last forever. There’s no use in cutting out anything you love. There’s room for treats AND healthy weight loss!
Do you struggle with binge eating? Have you overcome it? Like everything, there’s no one size fits all approach. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.