Why Do I Keep Binge Eating And How Do I Stop?

Contrary to what you might currently think, binge eating doesn’t make you a greedy, lazy, fat, disgusting piece of shit.

No one wakes up and says “You know what I’d love to do today? I’d love to completely lose control of my food intake!”

 

Eat All The Things
(This drawing was heavily influenced by Allie Brosh, of Hyperbole and a Half.)

 

No. They feel compelled to do it. They feel like there’s a voice screaming in their head, telling them to eat. If you’ve been binge eating then, at times, you might even feel like 2 different people. First, there’s this logical person, who knows this behaviour is destructive and self-sabotaging, but then there’s this other voice who, after a hard day at work, or even the second they wake up, is screaming EAT EAT EAT.

Binge eating tends to be a response to difficult emotions. For a lot of people, it’s a last ditch coping mechanism. A way to numb.

So while other people might throw a chair in anger, zone out on Netflix for 96 hours straight, or get themselves in crippling amounts of debt, maybe you binge on food. This is especially likely if you have a history of:

  • Dieting, including restriction of calories, certain foods (or entire food groups), and/or restricting the time of day you allow yourself to eat;
  • Excessive exercise;
  • Body image issues (for example, constantly feeling fat and inadequate, no matter how much weight you lose);
  • Something traumatic happened in your past (even if you don’t remember it);
  • All of the above.

The thing about binge eating is that it can also become a habit. So while originally it might’ve taken an event that you’d rate a 9 or 10 out of 10 on the distress scale (either emotionally or physically), now when something is moderately distressing, you might still binge eat. You can get used to binge eating for every level of emotional or physical pain.

I don’t say this to scare you. I say this because it means there is hope. Once you realize you’re simply in the habit of binge eating, you begin to realize there is nothing fundamentally wrong with you. You can change your habits, and you can stop binge eating for good.

I’m going to show you how.

 

Step 1: Realize Binge Eating Is Not Your Identity

The first thing to realize is that binge eating is not your identity.

Yes, you’ve binged in the past, but that doesn’t mean it defines you, and it doesn’t mean you’ll be like this forever.

I’ve done loads of stuff that goes against who I actually am, and I’m sure you have too (my teenage years were a mess!). But all that means is that your actions in that moment didn’t align with your values. It doesn’t mean that’s who you are, and it doesn’t mean you won’t ever stop.

I know, you keep telling yourself you’re lazy and disgusting but — think about it — if you actually were lazy and disgusting, then you’d feel fine. You’d even be proud of it:

 

I haven't showered in 96 days. I'm nailing this!

The very fact that your actions are bothering you shows what a mismatch it is for the person you actually are. The fact that you are beating yourself up about it shows that this is not what you value.

Moreover, if you define yourself as unfit, out of control, or having no willpower, then you’re actually setting yourself up for failure. So rather than labelling yourself as “a binge eater”, rather than telling yourself “I’m out of control”, realize that there is nothing wrong with you.

In fact, you’re actually trying take care of yourself.

It’s natural and normal to want to feel better. It makes sense that you want to feel better if you feel crap. So, even though binge eating might not be your ideal response to a tricky situation, or difficult emotions, what you’re doing is actually valuing your existence by trying to make yourself feel better. And that is both normal and human.

So, there is nothing wrong with you. You’re not lazy, or disgusting, and you are not a “binge eater”. It’s just an action you’ve done in the past, and it won’t be forever.

 

Step 2: Realize You Are Always In Control

I know, it doesn’t feel like it. But unless someone is physically tying you down and forcing you, you are 100% in control of the food you’re putting into your body. In any moment, you have the power to decide whether to take a bite, or not.

 

Feeling powerless is not the same as being powerless

 

For me, there was a great insight when I gave myself permission to binge. So rather than trying to fight this strong urge inside me, I’d say to myself:

I’m having the thought that I want to binge.

By labelling your thoughts you can reduce the effect they have on you. From here, you can ask yourself if this is something you actually want to do, or not. The conversation in my head would then go something like this:

Ok, I hear this thought. And I can totally binge if that’s what I want to do. But has this EVER been a good idea in the past? Have I ever been glad after a binge?

For me, the answer was always no. But the fact that I acknowledged how I felt, and gave myself the freedom to do whatever I wanted, meant I could logically assess what I actually wanted to do. And from there, I could choose to nourish myself in a different way, or I could choose to binge eat if I wanted to. Either way, I felt back in control of my actions, and I had the choice.

 

 

To really cement this idea in your head, let’s do an exercise. Grab a pen and paper, and write a list of the following:

  • Actions I take when I don’t feel good.
    • Examples: Binge eating; close myself off from the people in my life; sit or stand hunched over (trying to make myself small)…
  • Negative thoughts and feelings before and after I binge eat.
    • Examples: I am fat. I’m lazy. That person at work really pissed me off today…
  • My values. Try to focus on 4-6 key values. If you’re having trouble coming up with your values, take a look at my Values List.
    • Examples: Love, adventure, compassion, creativity, learning, strength
  • Actions towards my values and what matters to me.
    • Examples: Go for a walk in nature, take a bath, wash my face, draw, write down how I feel in my journal…

Now put your answers in the following table:

The ACT Matrix

Download a printable, PDF version of this table here.

This is a great exercise to do because you have it all clearly written down in front of you. You not only get to define your values, but you get to decide to act towards them.

So try to use those binge eating thoughts as an opportunity to check in with yourself. The next time you have the thought that you want to binge eat, try:

  1. Labelling the thought:

I’m having the thought that I want to binge eat.

This will help you to not get so lost and carried into a narrative of overwhelming thoughts and feelings.

 

2. Try to choose to take an action that aligns with your values.

 

Notice that you don’t have to feel like doing something to decide to take action. Parents don’t wake up every single day and feel like being parents, but they get up and do it anyway because they value raising their children. So you may not feel like walking out of the kitchen, but if you know that’s something you can do that will bring you closer to what you value, then try to just do it anyway.

This will be hard at first, and you might not nail it every time. There will likely still be times where you don’t manage to act in the way you wanted. But think of it like doing pushups. When you first start, your form might be terrible, you might only be able to do half a rep, and it’s ugly as hell, but the fact is you’re doing it. You’re showing up and practising. That’s what counts, and that’s how you’re going to get better.

 

Step 3: Focus On “Binge Loss” Over Fat Loss

There are many scientific studies showing a strong correlation between restriction and binge eating. If you’re finding it difficult to stop binge eating, one of the best things you can do is to stop restricting yourself. That means you can eat any food, at any time. It means not starving yourself the day after a binge, or doing excessive amounts of exercise.

When I suggest this to people, there’s normally some hesitation. I understand. You’ve been dieting and restricting your intake for so long that it’s scary to try something different. But binge eating isn’t serving you any more. And if you don’t eat enough, or eat what you’re truly craving, then you will never be satisfied.

Here’s my answers to some common concerns:

If I eat what I want, won’t I just eat junk food?
If you’ve been restricting junk food, and are feeling deprived, then you likely will eat some junk food at first as you reintroduce your “forbidden foods”. But, by allowing yourself to eat any kind of food and noticing how that food then makes you feel, you will reduce the power these foods hold over you. You will begin to be drawn towards foods that sustain your body and mood, and will therefore learn to eat healthy foods consistently, without the normal feelings of deprivation associated with a diet.

If I eat what I want, won’t I gain weight?
When eating within the confines of hunger and satisfaction, you will not gain weight. When you have full awareness of your body’s signals, your body knows to eat 400kcal worth of pizza, or 400kcal worth of salad. It’s the same deal, as long as you are psychologically satisfied and eating from a place of inner-calm. Try to slow down, and eat at least a couple of bites of your meal mindfully.

If I eat what I want, won’t I perform sub-optimally in the gym?
If you have been restricting certain foods then, at first, you may eat sub-optimally for your athletic goals, because you will crave the things you have been deprived of. However, giving yourself permission to eat whatever you want is a really important step to take for lifelong leanness and sanity. Then, by tuning into your body and seeing how foods make you feel, you will naturally begin to crave the foods that align with your athletic goals: the ones that leave you feeling light and energetic will naturally win over the ones that leave you feeling heavy, bloated and sluggish. The difference here being that the decision comes from the inside-out. Your nutrition choices are chosen by you listening to your body, rather than from some book, magazine, or article.

I’m scared to reintroduce my forbidden foods
Reintroducing foods can be scary, but if you’ve been craving it, it’s important to listen to your body. Make a plan for how best to support yourself while you do this. It may help to start by eating in a public place. For example, if you’ve been restricting cake, you might like to order a slice of cake at a café. Take your time with it, try to relax, and try to really taste it. Once you have mastered that, you could start bringing single servings into your house. (That way, if you do find yourself wanting to overeat, you won’t consume as much as if you bought a three-tiered wedding cake home.) Then, once you re-learn self-trust and master bringing the single servings into your house, you can bring bigger packs home.

 

Remind yourself that this doesn’t have to be forever, but for now your focus should move away from fat loss. Instead, try to make emotional wellbeing your goal. Losing fat and being lean require an enormous amount of emotional safety. Personally, when I feel heavy on the inside, I feel heavy on the outside, so when I made emotional wellbeing my goal, my relationship with food was a beautiful side effect. And so was weight loss.

I just want to remind at this point that you should keep trying to label those thoughts, and take actions that align with your values, but don’t be surprised if you do binge again. It’s part of the process of change. That’s why I put together a free guide for you: What To Do After A Binge. Just put your name in the box and I’ll send it over.

 

 

Step 4: Find The Diamonds In The Turd (Then Celebrate And Emulate)

No matter how bad it seems, there are ALWAYS things that are going right. The trick is to find those diamonds and clone them so their awesomeness take up more space in your life.

Maybe you only binge when you get home after work. Maybe there’s only actually 2-3 hours each evening where there’s a strong urge to binge. Right now you’re focused on that time, because it’s the behaviour you want to change, but think about it: for 21 hours of the day, you don’t want to binge.

That’s awesome. Seriously. That. Is. Awesome. Give yourself credit.

I mean it. Celebrating every win, no matter how small, is going to be the quickest way to end binge eating.

This guy is celebrating making a fort out of cardboard boxes and CD cases. Be more like this guy.

This guy is celebrating making a fort out of cardboard boxes and CD cases. Be more like this guy.

Once you’ve found a diamond and fist bumped the air, ask yourself:

  • What’s different about the times where I’m not binge eating / don’t want to binge eat?
  • Where am I when I don’t want to binge?
  • What activities am I doing?
  • Is there some way I can emulate these conditions?

For me, it really helped to be around other people. So a way to emulate those conditions might be to invite people over for dinner more often, or go to their house.

If you find you run to the fridge the moment you get home, try setting a timer for 10 seconds. Can you hold off for 10 seconds? If you can, try to do 15 seconds tomorrow.

I know, setting tiny goals like this doesn’t sounds cool or sexy, but progress is progress, no matter how small it might seem. Baby steps interrupt the pattern and add up to something big.

Maybe you notice that you feel more prone to binge after you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, or when you’re stressed, anxious, or worried. Is it possible to get more sleep? Can you plan to get more time in for your wellbeing in general?

You could make a plan to take a bath, talk to a friend, listen to loud music, take some deep breaths, or do whatever it is that you enjoy that will help you interrupt the pattern when those binge urges would normally take over.

Yeah, I know, it sounds soppy, but this shit is important. No one ever binged when they were feeling at ease and at peace. Dedicating time just for yourself is going to be crucial to stopping binge eating for good.

If you’re not sure where to even start, try making a tally chart of the number of times you catch yourself daydreaming about food. This will make you more aware of your thoughts, which means you’re more likely to be able to catch yourself and say:

  • “OK, I’m thinking about food. Does this mean I need something else right now?”
  • Or maybe just “OK, this isn’t helpful right now. Let’s focus on something else”.

It will also make you aware of how often your food thoughts aren’t occurring:

OK, so today I caught myself fantasizing about food 37 times, but how many thoughts go through my mind throughout the day? I’m not thinking about food ALL of the time. So when am I not thinking about food? Can I do more of that?

So, no matter how shitty and hopeless it feels, there are ALWAYS diamonds to find in the turd. Once you find them:

  1. Celebrate. You’re living with your values for the MAJORITY of the day. You didn’t binge yesterday. You got out of bed today. Boo yeah!
  2. Emulate. How can you clone these diamonds so there are more of them in your life?

 

To Sum It Up:

  • Binge eating is actually an attempt to take care of yourself. There is nothing wrong with you!
  • There’s already loads of times in the day when you’re not thinking of bingeing, and there may have even been times when you’ve navigated away from a binge. How can you emulate those conditions so they are more frequent in your life?
  • You’re always in control of your actions, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Is it possible to label your thoughts, then take an action that’s going to align with your values, no matter how you feel?
  • Progress isn’t linear. You’re practising something new, and trying to change a behaviour. Change is hard, so forgive yourself, no matter what.