The main reason people binge eat is due to restriction. There are two kinds of restriction that matter: physical restriction and mental restriction.
Physical restriction means dieting. It also means trying to lose weight intentionally (you may not call it a diet, you may call it a ‘lifestyle change’ or ‘eating healthily;’ while you may genuinely want to improve your health, one of your motivations is to shrink your body).
Physical restriction means restricting amounts of foods or types of foods.
Usually, people restrict amounts of foods in an attempt to lose weight – aka calorie restriction. They may also restrict amounts of foods because of a medical condition, or a low-grade condition. For example, you might find if you eat beyond a certain amount of cheese or chocolate that you get a migraine or eczema. Or if you have diabetes, you may restrict the quantity of simple carbohydrates you consume to help control your blood sugar.
People restrict types of foods for the same reasons. They may be subscribing to popular beliefs that avoiding carbs or dietary fat help with weight loss; cutting out sugar ‘melts the belly fat’ etc. Similarly, people with health conditions may need to completely avoid certain foods, as coeliacs need to avoid gluten.
Mental restriction is the inner dialogue (the Food Police) that monitors your food intake:
‘Don’t have that! It’ll make you gain weight!’
‘That’s enough of that now – any more and you won’t fit into that dress you want to wear to the party.’
‘You know that’s unhealthy… you really shouldn’t have it.’
Mental restriction is located in the diet mentality. It’s that voice that tries to control what, when and how much you’re eating in an attempt help you lose weight, maintain your weight, or at the very least, to stop you gaining ‘too much’ weight.
The trouble with restriction
Whether it’s physical or mental restriction – what tends to happen is that it leads to deprivation. If it’s physical deprivation in the sense that you go hungry or go into an energy deficit, your primal drive for food will kick in. Your brain will be on high alert for food. Sights, sounds and smells of food will be prominent and thoughts about food will be very persistent. There’s only so long that your willpower can last in the face of a biological drive for food. You can’t overcome your biology! This is ancient wiring that you are powerless over. It exists to help us survive famines. If we didn’t have this strong biological drive to eat, we wouldn’t bother eating. You could say that binge eating literally helps you survive self-imposed famines.
If you’re not calorie restricting and not even cutting out food groups, but you still have the Food Police in your head, you will also experience deprivation – but it won’t be physical deprivation – it’s a mindset of deprivation. If you believe you shouldn’t or can’t have something, of course you’ll want it! Your mind will fixate on it. Your brain won’t leave you in peace until you eat it! Know what I’m talking about?
After you’ve binged, the guilt and remorse will typically set in, with a determination to do ‘damage control’ by cutting down on or cutting out foods or compensating with exercise. And so the cycle continues: restrict-binge-repent-repeat. Whether or not you physically restrict, what typically happens is what we call ‘Last Supper Syndrome’ where you binge the day before you ‘get back on the wagon’ (of your diet/ regimen), to get your fill of the foods you can’t have, or get those foods ‘out of the way’ so they won’t tempt you. For people who don’t ever get to the point of dieting, this ‘Last Supper Syndrome’ can be a daily occurrence.
If you haven’t built emotional resilience – which is very common – perhaps you binge in an attempt to tolerate difficult feelings. Studies have shown the difference between dieters and non-dieters when it comes to binge eating. Those with a history of dieting beat themselves up for the binge, then try to restrict or over-exercise to compensate – which sets up the restrict-binge-repent-repeat cycle. Those without a history of dieting, might binge when things are particularly difficult – then move on without any compensatory behaviours, avoiding the repetitive cycle. I’m sharing this because, in my experience, most binge eating happens against a backdrop of a dieting history.
I categorise dieting as a trauma, but that is not what I mean in this case. I’m talking about sexual, physical or emotional abuse. If you don’t have a history of dieting and you do have a history of abuse, the abuse could be driving the binge eating as a way to protect you from harm (even if the abuse is long in the past).
How to stop binge eating
Look, this is a blog post of just over 1000 words. Reading one post is unlikely to end your binge eating! The best I can do here is lay out a basic roadmap for you. There are lots of baby-steps in between to help you gently let go of what is driving your compulsion to binge.
1. Stop trying to lose weight
I know this is hard! We’re all swimming in the Diet Culture soup. We’re constantly exposed to media images of bodies that are practically impossible to attain and sustain (even for the models themselves). We don’t see bodies like ours represented in the media. And on top of that, we’re bombarded with fear-mongering about how unhealthy it is to be over a certain number on the scale (which is complete BS).
Instead of making weight loss your goal, make getting to know, listen to and respect your own body your goal.
2. Build your emotional resilience
This means to build your skill in recognising, accepting and allowing any feeling that may be arising at any moment. I teach my clients how to do this with a combination of practices – it boils down to becoming aware of and accepting whatever is happening in your body – since this is where the emotions show up! If you’re an emotional eater, then this blog and this one might help you understand more about this.
3. Get treatment
Whether or not you have a history of dieting – if you’ve been abused, please seek help from a licensed professional in that field. Whatever happened to you is not your fault and you deserve to feel free in your own body and heart. Please reach out to your GP and get a referral. Help is at hand.
If you are ready to get out of the loop of binge eating (and you don’t have a history of abuse) I can help you! It’s not easy work. I couldn’t do it alone. Support makes a world of difference.