Binge eating is a common concern among the clients I see. It affects people of all shapes, sizes ,and backgrounds. But why does it happen? (hint, it’s NOT about will-power!)
Getting to the root of a binge-eating episode
Binge eating is a common (and even natural) response to restriction.
Sometimes the restriction is physical, due to not eating enough.
Physical restriction can take many different forms, such as under-eating early in the day, skipping meals, “saving” calories for later, cutting carbs, sugar, or fat, and even being on a diet.
Think of it this way: if you’re swimming underwater, you’re holding your breath. When you come up for air, do you take a nice, quiet breath ?
Your body’s reflex is to take in a loud gasp for air, to make up for the lack of oxygen. When we restrict the intake of oxygen, our body wants to compensate and make up for it.
The same thing happens when we’ve been restricting the intake of food – our body is going to swing the pendulum and make up for it. You’re not broken, or lacking in willpower. You actually have a body that’s doing a good job in keeping you alive!
When I first meet with clients, I like to look at their typical food intake and eating patterns. Most of my clients who deal with binge eating have a few common intake patterns:
- They are trying to restrict or control their caloric intake
- They don’t eat much earlier in the day, sometimes in an effort to “save up calories” for an inevitable binge
- They are trying to limit certain food groups (often carbohydrates or fats)
- They are following some sort of diet or eating pattern which limits 1) overall intake, 2) types of foods they can eat, or 3) the timing of eating
- Their eating patterns are inconsistent or chaotic, sometimes skipping meals or grazing in an effort to avoid eating a full meal
All of the above patterns are a form of physical restriction and over time will lead to overeating or bingeing.
When I see these patterns with clients, our first plan of action is to get back to good nutrition hygiene. We all follow many daily hygiene routines for our personal well-being. Many of us think of hygiene as bathing and brushing our teeth, but we don’t often think of our habits with food.
Eating regular meals and snacks is an act of self-care.
Eating in a regular, predictable way is the foundation for good nutrition hygiene.
How does this look from day to day? I encourage most people to start with a few key tenants of eating:
- Eating 3 meals per day
- Eating snacks between meals, usually 2-3 times per day
- Trying not to go longer than 3 hours between meals or snacks
- Including a variety of foods, across all food groups (if you have to avoid certain food groups for medical reasons, work closely with your dietitian to come up with a plan for you, as well as to maintain a positive relationship with food)
“But what if I’m not restricting food at all – in fact I feel like I’m doing the opposite!”
Here’s where the second type of restriction comes to play– mental restriction.
This type can be harder to spot, but oftentimes mirrors the types of restriction mentioned above.
When it comes down to it, mental restriction is connected to our thoughts and beliefs about food. These thoughts and beliefs may be coming from:
- Old diets we’ve been on, which preach things like: “sugar is poison” or “carbohydrates cause weight gain” (both of which are untrue, by the way)
- “Healthy lifestyles” which are just diets in disguise
- Statements made by loved ones, either made about themselves or directed at you (examples: “I shouldn’t eat this, I’m being so bad” or “If you eat that food, it’ll go right to your hips”)
The mental restriction can be the more tricky piece to the binge eating puzzle. This is an area that I help my clients work through in my nutrition counseling and coaching, as it can be difficult to spot, and equally challenging to come up with a strategy to work through.
Take a moment to reflect: what type or types of restriction are showing up in your life right now?
If you like to do journaling, begin to get curious about how restriction is showing up in your life. It can also be helpful to reflect on your circumstances and emotions– what was happening in your life leading up to a binge episode. Looking back the hours or even a day or 2 before a binge can be really eye opening to begin to connect the emotional dots of binge episodes.
Here are a list of questions to ask yourself (or journal about) post binge-eating episode:
- Do I keep these foods around regularly?
- How often am I allowing myself to eat these foods?
- Am I feeling shameful about the fact that I enjoy the taste of these foods?
- Am I labeling these foods as bad or wrong?
- Do I allow myself to eat whenever I get hungry or do I ignore my hunger cues?
- Have I been dieting or restricting my food?
- Am I eating a wide variety of foods regularly?