I used to be obsessed with food.
I’d think about it all the time. I’d sit at my desk and drool over what I could eat now, what I would eat next, and what I could eat later. Whether I was out catching up with friends, sitting in the cinema, or lying in bed, it didn’t matter — food would constantly call to me.
Back when I was binge eating, I felt completely alone. I was ashamed of my actions. I’d eat in secret, and hide the food packaging “evidence”.
I’d go to shop after shop (so I wouldn’t be judged) buying chocolate bar after chocolate bar, wishing that someone would stop me and say: “I think you’ve had enough.”
But it wasn’t just that I felt alone, and completely out of control. It was that I had standards. I wasn’t some lazy, disgusting slob. I worked hard at the gym. I was an intelligent, kind person, who cared deeply about the people in my life.
I had integrity.
Binge eating took me away from the person, not only that I wanted to be, but the person I knew I could be.
I read articles online about how to stop binge eating and they’d say stuff like “try chewing gum”, or “try eating with your left hand”. Needless to say, that shit doesn’t work.
When I reached out for help, some “nutrition coaches” told me to weigh my food, to count my macros. Another one told me that I should “fill up on vegetables beforehand” so I wouldn’t overeat at a party. They didn’t understand the panic that filled me at the mere thought of eating in front of other people. They didn’t understand how much I hated myself for what I’d become. They didn’t understand that when my kryptonite foods were around, it didn’t matter if I’d “filled up beforehand” or not. They were trying to put me on a diet, but I didn’t need another diet.
I needed to heal.
I needed to learn to trust myself, and my body, again.
It took me years to learn the lessons and skills I needed to stop binge eating. Years to understand and internalize that me and my body, we’re a team. We don’t need to be at war because we’re actually on the same side.
I know how painful it is to feel completely out of control, to feel like you can’t trust yourself anymore. That’s why I want to help anyone else who’s going through this.
That’s why I wrote the Ultimate Guide to Stop Binge Eating.
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!”
No. They feel compelled to do it. They feel like there’s a voice screaming in their head, telling them to eat. At times, you might even feel like two 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.
(This image was heavily influenced by Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half.)
Binge eating tends to be a response to difficult emotions, like sadness, anger, frustration, boredom, or even joy. 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 to cope with 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.
- 1 Binge Eating Is Not Your Identity
- 2 What To Do After A Binge
- 3 Why You Feel Like Two Different People
- 4 The 4 Steps To Stop Binge Eating
- 5 How To Shut Down The Binge Voice
- 6 The Science Of Creating Habits That Stick
- 7 Deal With Setbacks By Becoming Mentally Tough
- 8 What To Do When You Feel Unmotivated And Shitty
- 9 How To Measure Your Progress Without The Bathroom Scales
- 10 TO SUM IT UP:
- 11 Answers To Common Questions
- 12 Feeling Overwhelmed?
Binge Eating Is Not Your Identity
“What the fuck is wrong with me?”
That’s what I used to say to myself after devouring an entire loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter without even breathing between mouthfuls. I was lazy, disgusting, pathetic. Broken. I was all these things and so much more. But the worst part wasn’t actually that I was binge eating; it was that I was a binge eater.
It was that I had become out of control, not just of my food, but of my life.
I was so sure no one else behaved this way, so what the hell was the matter with me? I felt like a broken, piece of shit, who would be like this forever.
Listen up: the first thing you need 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:
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.
With that said, let’s go through the three essential steps to get you back on track as soon as possible after a binge.
What To Do After A Binge
After a solid binge episode, I’d be convinced I was the worst person in the world. I’d always be completely disgusted at myself; a total failure. I hated what I was doing, I hated myself for doing it, and yet I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t believe I kept filling my body to the brim when all I wanted was to be lean.
Each time I binged, I told myself it was the last time. Never again, I’d say. So when I did binge again, I was even more disappointed in myself. Goddamn, I desperately wanted, and needed, to stop.
The truth is that everyone has blips along the way when trying to change behavior. If a baby is learning to walk, and they fall down, do you tell them they are a disgrace? No. You forgive their “error” because you recognize they’re learning a skill.
Only through kindness and self-compassion can you let go of what’s happened and move forwards, in the direction you want to go in.
Next time you binge, follow these three steps to get back on track fast.
Step 1. Forgive Yourself Immediately
Yes, there’s the physical discomfort of the amount of food in your stomach, but the biggest pain you’re experiencing right now is all emotional. When you forgive yourself, you soften that emotional pain. You can separate that emotional pain from your physical discomfort.
So no matter what happens, you must forgive yourself, over and over again. What would you say to a friend who was going through the same thing? There’s no way you’d call them the names you’ve been calling yourself.
Instead of beating yourself up about how much of a failure you are, when you’re lying in bed, stuffed to the stomach, cursing yourself for “blowing it yet again”, is it possible to soften? Can you take some big, deep breaths and say:
This is a great reminder that I don’t want to be doing this anymore. In the moments leading up to this, I didn’t use the skills I’m learning, but it’s OK. My body will forgive me, and I’ll be hungry again at some point. And when I am, it’s another opportunity to listen to that hunger, and to nourish myself and fuel my body in the way that I choose.
That’s the brilliant thing about this: you’re going to get hungry several times a day, so you get the opportunity to practice the skills I’m going to teach you in this guide several times a day. And, like anything, if you practice enough, it will eventually become second nature. You’ll be able to eat more intuitively, listen to what your body needs, and start living your life again.
Step 2. Retrace Your Steps
After moving away from this blaming and shaming mindset, the most useful thing you can do is use the event as an opportunity to learn. No binge ever happened in a body and mind that was calm and at peace.
Therefore, you can use what happened as an indication that something was wrong, and you used food to cope.
Think back to the moments before the binge. Get back into that frame of mind. Can you figure out what the trigger was?
Maybe you ate a cookie and figured what the hell, I may aswell have the rest of the pack. I’ll be “good” tomorrow. (By the way, this what the hell mindset is a totally normal response to the diet mentality, as I discuss in this article).
Or maybe someone upset you, and you turned to food to help numb your emotions.
Or maybe you were just bored.
Can you establish which emotions were present in the moments leading up to the binge? Can you find a pattern in this, and your other binges? Do certain emotions, people, or foods trigger a binge response for you?
By becoming aware of your triggers, you can use that information to plan and strategize around them. But the first step must be awareness.
Remember that failure is an event, not your identity. The binge you just had is simply a reminder that you don’t want to continue with this behaviour — that eating in this way doesn’t actually comfort you — and you are working towards finding the solution.
Step 3. Wait Until You’re Next Hungry
No matter how much you’ve eaten, no matter how full you feel, your body will let you know when it gets hungry again. All you have to do is wait.
If possible, do something kind for yourself. Listen to your favourite music, run yourself a hot bath, talk to your favourite person.
Remind yourself that you are human.
Once you’re hungry again, try to nourish yourself with a well-rounded meal. Don’t restrict yourself. As tempting as it is to starve and restrict after a binge, that’s actually going to make the cycle continue. You’re going to be much better off in the long run if you forgive yourself and try to eat a normal, well-rounded meal.
Take your time, be kind to yourself. Breathe. Trust that you are moving in the right direction.
So now you know what to do after a binge, let’s dive into what the hell is going on in your mind and body, and how to stop binge eating for good.
Why You Feel Like Two Different People
My heart was racing because I was about to get home. Being at home meant I could eat. It meant I could hit the fridge, hard. I unlocked the door, saw that no one else was home. I dumped my bag on the floor, but didn’t have time to take my shoes off, because I had business to attend to.
I made a beeline for the kitchen and standing — it’s always while standing — I devoured Nutella, a jar at a time. A bag of M&Ms inhaled in one. I’d been looking forward to, and dreading this moment all day, but I didn’t even taste a single second of it.
At some point, I’d snap out of it. I’d wake up from the food blackout feeling like I’d just been taken over. When reality returned, I couldn’t believe it’d happened yet again.
If you’re reading this, there’s a logical part of you that knows binge eating is something you want to stop. But so often there’s another voice who — after a long day at work, or even the moment you wake up — tells you to eat everything in the Universe (and then get dessert).
When I was binge eating, this other voice would shout loudly, over-powering any rational, logical thoughts I had about how bad binge eating was for me. I wanted to lose weight, I wanted to be lean, didn’t I? So, after I’d eaten the contents of the fridge, I couldn’t help but feel like two different people.
Actually, I felt insane. How could I be acting in a way that was so destructive, so against everything I was working so hard in the gym and on my diet for?
I’m going to explain the science behind what’s going on in your mind. I’m going to show you that there is nothing to be ashamed of. There’s a scientific reason behind all of this. You’re not crazy, and you’re not alone.
Don’t Worry, You’re Not Insane (Backed By Neuroscience)
Your brain is made up of three parts. The oldest, most primitive part of the brain — known as the reptilian brain — is located in the brain stem (just above where the spinal cord enters the skull). This system is already online when you’re born.
Above the reptilian brain is the limbic system, or mammalian brain. We share this brain with all mammals. It was developed after you were born, and it’s where your emotions are processed.
These two, older brains are in charge of moment-to-moment registration and management of your body’s physiology and the identification of things like safety, threat, hunger, fatigue, desire, excitement, pleasure and pain. They are 100% unconscious.
That last part is the rational brain (the neo cortex), which is at the top and is the youngest part. It occupies only around 30% of the area inside our skull. This rational brain is concerned with understanding the world around us — how things and people work, problem solving, accomplishing goals, managing our time, and so on. We can use language and think abstractly because of the rational brain. We can plan, reflect, imagine, invent, and visualize.
To summarize, this (triune) model of the brain has three separate parts:
- Neo cortex — Rational (What can I learn from this?)
- Limbic System — Emotional (Am I loved?)
- Reptilian — Survival (Am I safe?)
Taken together, the reptilian brain and the limbic system make up what I’ll call the “emotional brain” throughout this guide.
The emotional brain is at the heart of the central nervous system, and its key task is to look out for your welfare. If it detects danger, or a promising partner, it alerts you by releasing hormones. The resulting sensations (a grip of panic in your chest, butterflies in your stomach), will interfere with whatever your mind is currently focused on and get you moving, both physically and mentally, in a different direction.
Danger is a normal part of life, and the brain is in charge of detecting this danger and choosing a response. Sensory information comes in through your eyes, nose, ears, and skin, and make their way to the emotional brain first, before getting sent to the rational brain.
You see this in action every time someone or something “makes you jump”. When I was a kid, one of my older brothers used to love hiding around corners, then jumping out at me. I’d always be scared, get a dump of adrenaline, and then — once my brain had caught up and I’d realized it was just my brother — I could calm down again. The emotional response comes first, then the rational brain catches up.
I like to think of the whole system like this:
Imagine the Queen of England’s Crown Jewels are encased in glass, and surrounded by a high-tech laser security system.
This system detects a threat if it thinks the crown jewels are unsafe. The alarm goes off. This is the initial, emotional reaction.
Luckily, there are Royal Guards stationed upstairs. It takes them a bit longer (because they need to come downstairs), but when they get there, they can logically assess what’s happening. They can see there’s no one is in the room, and it was a false alarm. They can turn the alarm system off.
Problems arise when the security system is too sensitive. The alarm goes off, even when there isn’t a burglar in the room, and the noise it makes is so loud that the guards upstairs become paralyzed and can’t move. And then the ones that do make it downstairs try pressing the reset button, over and over, but they just can’t seem to turn the bloody alarm off.
This is essentially what happens in the brain. Neuroimaging studies of humans in highly emotional states reveal that intense fear, sadness and anger all increase the activation of brain regions involved in emotions and significantly reduce the activity in the rational brain.
This is important because the rational brain is the one that allows you to inhibit inappropriate actions. It’s the one who told you it’s probably not the best idea to spread whipped cream on your colleague’s chest and lick it off (at least while other people are looking). It’s the one who told you not to max out your credit card this month, even though you really want that shiny, new phone, that sweet leather jacket, plus Spotify, Netflix, and Amazon Prime subscriptions. It’s the one that tells you binge eating doesn’t solve any of your problems.
If your emotional brain interprets a threat as being too intense, and/or your brain’s threat-filtering system up to the rational brain is too weak (imagine the staircase is blocked so the Royal Guards can’t run downstairs), then hormones will be released, your rational brain will become partially shut down, and you will lose control over logical thought, while your automatic, emergency responses take over.
Only once you “escape the danger”, will you return to internal equilibrium and “regain your senses”. That’s the moment when you come out of a food blackout, wondering what the hell just happened.
So it’s no wonder you feel like two different people — because your rational brain is actually being shut down in those moments.
And it’s no wonder you feel out of control — your emotions have overridden any logical thought, and it’s all about making yourself feel better right in that moment.
Cool. So, how the fuck do I get out of this?
We need to restore the balance between your rational and emotional brains, so you can feel in charge of how you respond and conduct your life. We have to repair the alarm system, restoring the emotional brain to be a background presence that quietly watches over you.
This means adding more Royal Guards, while improving the alarm system that protects the Crown Jewels.
Dealing with your emotions will go a long way to dealing with binge eating. But when the compulsive behaviour is coupled with feelings of isolation, disgust and fear, it can become habitual behaviour. So we also have to address the fact that you are probably in the habit of eating large quantities.
That’s why I like to use a 4-prong attack.
The 4 Steps To Stop Binge Eating
- Improve your emotional alarm system — make your emotions more tolerable in the first place, so you’re less likely to set the alarm off and go into the “I NEED ALL THE FOOD” mode.
- Outsmart those binge urges — improve the number of Royal Guards, so that if the alarm does go off, your logical brain can intervene. “OK, part of me wants to eat all the food, but I know that I am safe right now.”
- Get out of the habit — create a fail-safe system that doesn’t rely on willpower or self-control. Communication between neurons is strengthened as a result of experience. That’s why you need to start by using small habits, and create an environment that will support you.
- Deal with setbacks by becoming mentally tough — failure (which I call learning) will happen. It’s totally normal and part of the process. You must plan for it and learn how to use setbacks to your advantage.
Let’s get to it.
Improve Your Emotional Alarm System
Sensing, naming and identifying what’s going on inside you is the first step to improving your alarm system. Once you can do this, you’ll develop more advanced techniques that allow you to deal with any emotions on-the-fly, as they arise. You can learn to sit with any emotion, with the confidence that you will be OK, no matter what comes up.
This is powerful not only because you learn to deal with negative emotions, but also because you become more aware of positive ones. This focus can change your life.
I have a background in Mathematics. Growing up, I remember learning Pythagoras’s theorem, complex geometry, and differential calculus, but I was never taught with how to deal with my emotions. When difficult emotions came up (which they often did for me), I didn’t know what to do. I would often become overwhelmed and just shut down. I spent most of my life depressed. In fact, it wasn’t until I was 23 that I had ever experienced what I would call “true joy”. I was so closed off to the world, and my own body, that I simply didn’t know how to feel or experience true happiness. (Happiness can actually be an intense and scary emotion for a lot of people.)
It’s only because of the internal work I did that I learned how to deal with the bad stuff, while being present and aware of the good things in my life, too. To me, this was the difference between existing and living.
I know it might seem scary acknowledging how you’re feeling, and you might think you’re going to unleash some kind of Pandora’s Box. That’s why we start small. But this is essential work, that can’t be ignored.
When your car isn’t running efficiently, and the engine is making a strange noise, you have to pop open the hood and take a look inside. You could pretend the noise isn’t happening and continue to drive, and yeah, your car might still run — it might even make it in one piece — but the journey will be rough and sketchy.
Regardless of whether you acknowledge your thoughts, feelings and beliefs or not, they are still happening.
In every moment, you get to choose: you can act out of fear, or you can act out of love.
Recognizing your feelings is the only path to change.
Own Your Story To Write The Next Chapter
Chances are you have a tonne of thoughts swirling around your head every day. That’s cool, because that’s what the rational brain is built for. But how do you deal with all of it?
The first step, as simple as it sounds, is to write stuff down.
Grab a pen and paper, then write whatever thoughts come to your mind.
Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or how your handwriting looks. Just get those thoughts out on paper.
Schedule a time of day to do this (either a certain time of day, or when you notice you’re not feeling good).
When I started doing this, I’d write until I had nothing left to say. Then I read my thoughts over. And when I did that it was pretty amazing — I actually found my thoughts weren’t as serious as they seemed when they were in my head.
Getting thoughts out of your head and onto paper is going to allow you to become aware of what you’re thinking and feeling, and also see them from a more logical viewpoint.
Rather than trying to change how you feel, you can ask yourself: is it OK to feel like this? Is it manageable right now, in this moment?
Here are some more questions you can write freely about:
- What are the advantages of binge eating? (It’s serving a purpose in some way, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it.)
- What are the disadvantages of binge eating?
- What are the advantages of stopping binge eating?
- What are the disadvantages of stopping binge eating?
For example, here’s a list I wrote:
The advantages of bingeing:
- It numbs my feelings, my anguish, my pain.
- It stops me from feeling empty.
- It “proves” that I can eat anything I want (there was a time that I wouldn’t allow myself).
- No more feelings of deprivation.
The disadvantages of bingeing:
- Weight gain, skin problems, stress on my stomach and the organs involved with digestion.
- It makes me unhappy, feel greedy and worthless.
- It makes me feel uncomfortable in my own skin and ashamed of myself.
The advantages of stopping bingeing:
- I would be free from problems involving food so would worry less about that aspect of life.
- I would not be as fat.
- I would be healthier.
- I would be able to enjoy my food more (because I would actually taste it!) and relax around it.
The disadvantages of stopping bingeing:
- I would not be able to numb my distressing feelings as easily – I would need to face them; be at peace with them.
- Possible deprivation feelings would return.
Here are some more questions you might like to write freely about:
- Does the food you currently eat nourish:
- your body,
- your soul,
- your connection to others,
- your activities,
- your life?
- In what ways would life be different if you had a strong connection to (and tolerance for) your natural sensations of hunger and fullness? What would be better? What would you have to give up? What scares you about this idea?
- What makes someone worthy of love, acceptance and connection to others?
- What makes you worthy of love, acceptance and connection to others? (Is it how lean you are?)
- What are the social and community expectations around appearance?
- Why do you think these expectations exist?
- How is our society influenced by these expectations?
- Who benefits from these expectations? (Hint: There’s a
$38 billion hair industry
$33 billion diet industry
$24 billion skincare industry
$18 billion makeup industry
$15 billion perfume industry
$13 billion cosmetic surgery industry)
- Start a daily gratitude practice: Make a list of 3 things every day that you’re grateful for. Try to make at least one of of them a part of your body. Even if you hate the way you look, your body is amazing and does so much for you without you even thinking about it. As Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “As long as you are breathing, there’s more right with you than wrong with you”.
Example of daily gratitude:
- I’m grateful for my eyes, because they allow me to see the sky.
- I’m grateful for my toes, because they allow me to walk on this earth.
- I’m grateful for the kindness in the smile of that stranger this morning.
By the way, writing and journaling isn’t something you need to use “because you’re broken”. Most top performers use some form of journaling. Check out these quotes:
“Writing down your feelings in a notebook or journal can help clear out negative thoughts and emotions that keep you feeling stuck.”
–Serena Williams, Tennis Champion, 23 Grand Slam Titles
“No one likes skiing with a cluttered mind, so put it on paper and free some space.”
–Carter Robertson, Alpine Ski Racer, Burke Mountain Academy
Journaling is one of the best things you can do to figure out what’s going on upstairs. Don’t just think it. Ink it.
Get Out Of The Diet Mentality
To reduce the emotional alarm system, you must create a safe environment. One where you know food is available at all times.
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 right now 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 because you “slipped up”.
When I suggest this to people, there’s normally a lot of hesitation. I totally 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.
Study after study shows that diets don’t work because they:
- Intensify cravings
- Make you preoccupied with food
- Disconnect you with your natural hunger cues (making you eat when you’re not hungry, and eat more than you need)
- Increase emotional and psychological distress, and the likelihood that you’ll eat in response to that stress.
Diets are actually the reason you’re binge eating in the first place. People who are “naturally lean” don’t restrict food. In fact, they eat for emotional reasons all the time.
The Difference Between Emotional Eating And Binge Eating
Emotional eating gets a bad rep, and it’s often confused with binge eating. To see the difference, let’s use an example Isabel Foxen Duke uses: birthday cake.
Birthday cake has no nutritional purpose, but that’s because it doesn’t exist for “nutritional purpose”. It’s about celebration, it’s about friends, family, love, joy, community. Everyone who has a slice of that birthday cake is eating for emotional reasons.
That’s because it’s totally OK to eat for emotional reasons (in fact, it’s more than OK). Using food to cope with emotions is also totally OK. You know, I eat chocolate when I’m not feeling great. It’s delicious and — when I use it strategically — can really help lift my mood. The difference is I feel totally in control of that choice, whereas when I was binge eating I felt totally out of control.
Look at it this way: feeling utter despair over eating a Snickers is going to make you eat more Snickers’ because of the emotional pain you’re in. Whereas eating a Snickers because you were feeling a bit sad, then moving on with your life is totally fine and human. The strict diet mentality — that level of perfectionism — is actually holding you back. Try, instead, to be compassionate towards yourself, no matter what you eat, do, or don’t do.
Because, unless you’re a robot, you’re going to eat emotionally, and that is totally fine.
I realize you may still have some reservations about ditching the diet mentality, so I encourage you to write freely about any fears you have (and also take a take a look at my answers to common questions).
Now, while emotional eating and binge eating are different, binge eating is still largely driven by emotions. Except with binge eating, it’s a big hairy emotional alarm system. So if you’re going to get out of the diet mentality, you need to learn how to get in tune with your feelings so your alarm system isn’t going berserk all the time.
Let’s take a look at some other ways to improve your emotional alarm system.
Reconnect Your Head With Your Body
Until I was 23, I didn’t even know I had a body.
I will never forget this: one day, I was walking up a hill on my University’s campus and suddenly I just felt terrible. All these negative thoughts came rushing in. Then I was frustrated that I’d been feeling OK, and suddenly everything had become unbearable again.
I had just learnt about mindfulness, so I did a quick scan down my body, mentally feeling each body part in turn. You know what I discovered?
I was just really hot from walking up the hill.
I took my coat off and felt instantly better. The negative thoughts quieted, and everything became bearable again.
That moment was huge for me. I realized I’d spent my whole life trapped in the thoughts in my head, that I didn’t even realize I had a body. When my body felt bad, I was so disconnected from it, that I’d get negative thoughts in my head, having no idea where they came from.
Your body can’t speak a language, so it tries to communicate to you in the only way it knows how: through pain, anxiety, happiness, and a whole other host of emotions. But you have to know how to listen.
If you’re binge eating, your mind is likely disconnected from this language of your body. Even if you’ve exercised your whole life, there’s a difference between moving your body on automatic pilot, or ignoring what it’s trying to tell you because you’re trying to be a badass, versus focusing on the way your body feels in the present moment.
For years I would train through pain until I’d get seriously injured. We’re talking unable to walk pain-free for 1.5 years on one occasion, and for 6 months on another occasion. That’s two years of my life I’ve spent where every step I took was painful. Both of those incidents could’ve been totally avoided if I’d paid attention to how my body was feeling in the present moment (and honoured that feeling).
On top of this, neuroscience research shows that mindfulness (the ability to be aware of the present moment, just as it is, without judgement) increases activation of the medial prefrontal cortex (in the rational brain), and decreases activation of structures like the amygdala that trigger our emotions responses.
This means that mindfulness increases our control over the emotional brain. As we saw earlier, that’s just what to need!
Let’s take a look at some great ways to become more mindful.
What Story Does Your Body Tell?
- I recommend tapping as the first way to get back in touch with your body. Here’s a video I made that will explain everything. Start trying this out once a day, or as much as feels manageable to you.
- The second step to getting back in touch is the body scan. I recommend doing this every day (or as often as you can) for at least two weeks. You can alternate between the body scan and tapping, or pick which one you prefer.
- Once you’ve got the body scan down, I recommend checking in with yourself throughout the day using the breathing space. Try to set a time, at three different points throughout the day, where you use the breathing space to check in with what’s going on for you right now — your thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Additionally, you can use the breathing space to cope whenever a difficult emotion arises throughout the day. It’s a simple but incredible effective tool. Use it.
- I also highly recommend practicing a Loving kindness meditation once a week, because all of us need to love ourselves, and others, a little more.
I know you’re wondering where you’re going to find the time for all this, but actually mindfulness doesn’t need to take up any extra time. Once you can feel the sensations in your body, you can use mindfulness throughout the day whenever you remember:
- Find yourself standing in a queue, or sitting in traffic? Take a few deep breaths. Feel your feet on the ground, feel your hands.
- When you’re at the gym, feel the barbell in your hands, tune into your body as you do the movements you’re doing.
- When you’re in the shower, focus on how the water feels against your skin.
If difficult emotions come up, you can bring awareness to them by naming and labelling them, then feeling them in your body. For example,“I’m currently experiencing sadness. It feels like an emptiness in my chest.”
I recommend breathing deeply, along with these sensations, and saying to yourself:
“It’s OK, whatever it is, it’s OK. Let me feel it.”
When you do this, you might begin to notice that these sensations are manageable and tolerable. They may not be pleasant, but in the present moment, they are OK.
The Guest House – Rumi
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
By the way, many top performers meditate daily. Notice that the methods and skills I’m teaching you here will not only help you stop binge eating, but they’re going to support you to thrive going forwards.
How To Shut Down The Binge Voice
Being able to let go of thoughts, feelings, and emotions is an incredibly useful tool, that will help you in pretty much every area of your life.
We can get so wrapped up in our thoughts, so overwhelmed by the stories we tell ourselves, that we don’t realize we can actually take a step back and just observe what’s going on in our minds.
Remember when you were a kid, and you’d lay on the ground and watch clouds pass by above you? And you’d make pictures out of them: that cloud looks like a dog, that one looks like a skyscraper. The same is true of thoughts.
You can watch them, just like the clouds. You can label them as they arise: “that was an angry thought”, “this one is planning”, “this thought is about food”.
You can actually learn to observe your thoughts as they come and go. You can choose to get involved with them, or not.
The exercises in the last section are going to help you. But you may notice some thoughts are “sticky” — they don’t seem to want to go away. Here’s how to handle them:
Letting Go When The Binge Voice Keeps Coming Back
Step 1: Taking long, deep, breaths, notice the thoughts and feelings that are present in your body and mind right now. Ask yourself: Can I accept how I’m feeling in this moment?
Step 2: Consider if, just for this moment, you could simply let these feelings go. Could you stop grasping onto them? Ask yourself: Is it possible to let this feeling go, just for this moment?
Step 3: Ask yourself, Can I let this feeling go?
Step 4: If the answer comes back as yes, the last question is simply, When? The invitation is to do it now.
When I used to implement this, the conversation in my head would be as follows:
I want to eat everything in the Universe. I feel empty, hurt, sad, tired, lonely…
Can I accept how I am feeling right now? — yes. I am not alone in feeling these emotions. I am human. These emotions are human. It is OK to feel this way.
Is it possible to let this feeling go? — yes, it’s possible. Other people don’t feel like this all the time, so it must be possible.
Can I let this feeling go? — yes, I’ve done it before. I don’t always feel like this, so I know I can do it.
When? — Now. There’s no point waiting. I want to be free from this now.
At first, the aim is to just notice that you’re feeling like you want to binge. Take a deep breath, then ask yourself if it’s possible to accept how you’re feeling. If you go ahead and binge immediately after that, that is totally fine. I want you to give yourself permission to binge. We’re trying to break the pattern here, so being able to stop for a second to breathe and check in with yourself is a huge win, even if you then go onto binge afterwards.
Maybe next time you’ll get further along with the questions. Maybe you get to the end of the questions and have to instantly repeat them all over again. That is totally fine too. Repeat the questions as many times as necessary, until you can continue with your day.
After practicing this skill enough, what you’ll notice is that, rather than trying to fight the messages your body is sending to you, when you open up to them, and listen to what they have to say, that’s when they become manageable, and you can choose how to react, and what actions to take.
How To Take Back 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.
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 you. 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?”
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. Either way, I felt back in control of my actions, and I had the choice.
How To Take Back Control Instantly
Next time you’re having a “food moment”, try this 3-step Control Tool.
Step 1. Ask yourself: How in control do I feel right now?
Rate your answer between 1-5:
- I am in total control.
- I feel helpless.
Step 2. Ask yourself: What is the smallest step I could take to get myself up one rating?
Notice how we’re not trying to get up to a 5 straight away, we’re just trying to go up one step in the scale.
Step 3. Do that thing.
You get home after work. No one is around, and there is a box of chocolates in the cupboard. You stand at the kitchen counter, inhaling them, three at a time. After a few handfuls, you can feel your heart beating hard. You pause just long enough to ask yourself: How in control do I feel right now?
This might be a tough moment for you, and you can’t seem to stop eating the chocolates. You might rate this moment as a 1. Something inside you seems to be screaming for you to keep eating, but you tell yourself to finish the Control Tool exercise. It’s not going to work — nothing ever works — but you figure you may aswell try. If it doesn’t work, you can just go right back to eating the chocolates again.
So you ask yourself: What is the smallest step I could take to get from a 1 to a 2?
Maybe you decide the smallest step, to get yourself up to a 2, is to close the box of chocolates. That’s all. So you close the box. You breathe. You ask yourself:
How in control do I feel now?
Maybe you’re feeling pretty good after regaining control of that chocolate box. Maybe you’re actually at a 3. To get up to a 4, you think lying on your bed, taking deep breaths, will help you out. You set a timer for 5 minutes, and just breathe deeply until the timer runs out.
Once you’ve done that, you ask how in control you feel, and you think leaving the house to get some fresh air will get you up to a 4. So you go for a walk…
Do you see how this works? You start by deliberately interrupting your “eating flow”. And even if you think the tool won’t work, just do it anyway. Tell yourself you can go right back to eating in a few seconds if it doesn’t work. Then, you take a baby step towards the behavior your logical brain would prefer. Little by little, you take yourself away from those cravings and back into logic.
Now let’s talk about how to act in the way your logical brain prefers, without even thinking about it: by creating habits.
The Science Of Creating Habits That Stick
You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” — John C. Maxwell
What I’ve been trying to tell you, over and over, in this guide is that you’re not broken. Binge eating is a cover-up for something (often emotional) that your body has been trying to let you know about. This means you need to learn to tune into your body so you can understand what it’s trying to say, and deal with whatever arises in a way that will truly nourish you.
The thing is, you need to actually get into the habit of tuning in, otherwise you’re going to miss the signals your body is sending, and keep turning to food to cope. As well as getting into this habit, there’s going to be other habits you can form which will help support you on your journey to stop binge eating. I’ll go through some examples of these below, but right now let’s talk about the best way to form a new habit.
Both good and bad habits follow this pattern:
- Trigger (the reminder to do the action)
- Action (the habit itself)
- Benefit (a reason why you’re doing the action).
Most people just think about the action they want to do, but to act consistently, you need all three components.
In my experience, the benefit aspect of habit forming is most often overlooked: “Great, I ate a lettuce leaf… Now what?”
Celebrating every win, no matter how small, is one of the best things you can do to solidify a new habit. When you celebrate your actions, you’ll get a hit of dopamine every time you act in the way you want to. This will accelerate your progress, boost your confidence, and increase your motivation.
When I’m starting a new habit (in fact, whenever I do something which takes me closer to the person I want to be) I reward myself in this simple but effective way:
I fist pump the air.
Think of a tennis player after a winning shot.
- I went to the gym today? HELL YES.
- I didn’t eat all the chocolate in the house? YOU’RE DAMN RIGHT!
- Today I acted in the ways that I truly value… I was kind to my husband, I listened when my friend reached out to me. YES I DID.
You got this!
In the example habits, below, I’ll go through some triggers and benefits with you to give you even more inspiration. But before we do that, there’s still one thing standing in your way of creating new, healthier habits.
The Willpower Myth
So many people think the reason can’t keep their hands away from the cookies is because they “don’t have any willpower”.
If you had no willpower, you’d be in chronic debt and kissing every man and woman on the street that you found attractive. Believe me, you have willpower. Plenty of it.
However, research has shown that willpower is a finite resource that — like a tank of fuel in a car — gets depleted over time. That’s why athletes, entrepreneurs, top performers, and anyone who has lost weight in a healthy way (and kept it off) don’t rely on willpower to consistently act in the way they want. Instead, they create habits, routine and ritual.
The great thing is that new behaviors only require willpower until they’re ingrained in us; until we no longer have to consciously think about them. But we can minimize this initial need for willpower even further by creating what Stanford professor BJ Fogg calls tiny habits. According to him, a tiny habit is a behavior you do at least once a day, takes little effort and usually lasts less than 30 seconds.
What makes tiny habits so effective is that they don’t require much effort to start. These small wins then give you momentum and, before you know it, you’ve hit your goals without depleting your energy.
I want to illustrate this with an example from my own life:
2016 was a tough year for me, and I distinctly remember one day in particular when I was feeling seriously unmotivated. I was in a total slump. Somewhere, in the depths of my heart, I wanted to train, but I felt like shit. I felt like I just wanted to go home after work and close the door to the world.
I’m a big fan of James Clear, and his advice was to make the task so simple you can’t say no.
So I broke everything way down.
I told myself the goal was just to go to the gym. Just turn up, and then I could go straight home if I wanted.
When I got to the gym, I went to the changing rooms and asked if it was possible to put my left shoe on. That was the new goal: left shoe on. Could I do that? Well, yeah, I could do that, so I put my left shoe on.
Then I asked myself if it was possible to put my right shoe on. I did that too.
Then I said, I’m just going to get a barbell and feel it in my hands.
Then: I’m just going to do one squat.
In this way, breaking everything right down into tiny steps, I built up to an entire session.
So while you might feel like an idiot asking if it’s possible to put on a shoe, I know I’d rather ask myself those simple questions than go home and numb myself out on Netflix and ice cream.
You’re not going to feel motivated and happy every day. It’s just not realistic. So do whatever you need to do to get started.
In the immortal words of Cormac McCarthy:
When you’ve nothing else, make ceremonies from the air and breathe upon them.
In the next few sections we’ll be covering some ideas for habits you can start to implement into your daily life (including ideas for triggers and benefits to make that habit stick). My advice is: start with one of these ideas, and make it tiny.
Everyone is different, so shrink the habit as much as you need to to get started.
Watch Those Hunger Games
Hunger Games are those times when you keep thinking about food, but you aren’t sure if it’s real hunger or not. It’s when it’s 9am, you’ve just eaten breakfast, and you’re sitting at your desk daydreaming about chocolate brownies, our drooling over what you’re going to have for dinner. How can you be sure if it’s real hunger or fake hunger?
When I first started addressing this, I started slow. I made a tally chart. Every time a food thought popped into my head, I tallied it up.
This is a great place to start. Recognizing and acknowledging the existence of these thoughts is the first step. Rather than trying to shut them down, becoming aware of them allows you to ask: is this useful right now?
After I got used to counting these food thoughts, and realizing they mostly weren’t very helpful, I started to tune into my body’s internal cues. Every time a food thought popped in my head, I rated my hunger using the hunger scale:
The hunger scale:
1 I’ve gone way past my initial hunger cues. (HANGRY territory.)
2 Pleasantly hungry. (This is a great place to start eating.)
3 Not hungry, not full. Neutral.
4 Pleasantly satisfied.
5 Stuffed. I feel sick.
If a food thought pops into your head, try rating your hunger. This will give you a better idea of when you’re experiencing real hunger, or when it’s fake hunger that’s calling you.
Remember that fake hunger arises suddenly. There is an urgency to eat, and eating never actually satisfies it. If you’re not sure what kind of hunger you’re experiencing, just set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes, then reassess.
I know, the thought of being hungry can be scary, but hunger is not actually scary, and it’s not an emergency. If you’re reading this then you have plenty of food around you, all the time. You are completely safe. It is never an emergency to eat. Take a deep breath and try to tune into the sensations in your body. Try to figure out what your body is really trying to tell you.
If it is truly hunger, you’ll see for yourself that it’s not scary: your body is gently letting you know that it needs some fuel. You might even find that food tastes even better when you allow yourself to be slightly hungry.
And if you eat when you’re not hungry, please don’t judge yourself for it. You’re getting used to being back in tune with your body, and that takes time. This is not some kind of “eat only when you’re hungry diet”. (That’s the diet mentality again, which we don’t want to get back into.) People who are “naturally lean” don’t eat only when they’re hungry. It’s just not realistic, and there is absolutely no need to feel bad about it.
Trigger: A food thought pops into your head
Action: Assess how you feel (quick scan down your body), or use a hunger scale
Benefit: Fist pump the air.
Plan For Pleasure
I’d finished dinner. Knife and fork down, plate empty. Now what? I looked around the kitchen for more. I scraped the burnt remnants of potato off the baking tray. It wasn’t enough. My heart was racing. I could barely breathe as I dipped my fingers into jars of peanut butter, jam, honey. A loaf of bread, inhaled in one.
When you’re in “eating mode”, man can it be hard to switch back out of it.
Inertia is a bitch.
Since you can’t go “cold turkey” from food, you need to find a way to deal with this inertia. One you’ve finished dinner, you might find it helpful to find a way of switching out of eating mode and into something that’s going to continue to actually nourish you.
That’s where planning for pleasure comes in.
If, at the end of a meal, all you’re planning on doing is the washing up, then you’re not really going to want to stop eating. Eating is pleasurable. Washing up ain’t.
So once you finish a meal, it’s a great idea to put any leftovers out of sight, then move straight into a fun activity.
If you’re anything like me, then you don’t ever want to rest. You never want to give yourself any down time.
For example, I like drawing, so I used to start drawing after dinner, but then, of course, there was all this pressure to actually achieve something each evening, or to improve my technique in some way. And, then before I knew it, I was back in the kitchen eating, trying to deal with the difficult emotions of procrastination, fear of failure, not being good enough, and never amounting to anything.
Give yourself permission to chill. Again, athletes, entrepreneurs, and other top performers all know how important it is to prioritize rest. Roger Federer took 6 months off to deal with niggling injuries, only to come back — at 35 years old — and win a Grand Slam.
I know you want to crush it at all times, but it’s just not possible or realistic. So firstly, try to take time off on a daily, weekly and periodic basis. As JP Morgan said: “I get more done in 9 months than I do in a year.”
Secondly, for a lot of people, eating feels like the most exciting part of their day. Can you make a list of (low energy) activities that you enjoy and can do right after eating?
It’s a good idea to make a list of things you enjoy now, so that you don’t have to think about it when it’s crunch time. You could write out the items on separate pieces of paper and put them all in a hat. Then when you’re feeling low energy, just pull out an item out of the hat, and go do it!
Here are some examples:
- Look at images of cool stuff on the internet
- Watch your favourite comedy show (Futurama or Louis CK does it for me every time)
- Go for a walk, feeling your feet on the ground, and the wind flowing through your hands. Really take in and notice the surroundings.
- Listen to funny, interesting podcasts (like No Such Thing As A Fish)
- Play an instrument (your own voice is an instrument, I promise you)
- Write, doodle, draw
- Spend time with someone you love
- Listen to some seriously epic music while breathing deeply
- Take a shower/bath
- Read a book. I recommend something truly healing, like Radical Acceptance.
- Listen to the sounds of breathing, gentle rain and heartbeat
Here’s a painting I made of a panda smoking a cigarette. I thought you might like it. (Art is cool, and can be a great distraction from food and uncomfortable feelings.)
It used to help me to write out a plan for the evening, so that when food thoughts came up, I’d just check the piece of paper and find the answers:
- Straight after dinner, I will _____________
(e.g. listen to loud music and breathe deeply. This will get you out of the inertia of wanting to keep eating)
- Then, I will ______________
- When I feel the urge to binge, I will ________________
(e.g. hold my breath for 10 seconds and remind myself that I am safe, food is everywhere and I will never have to restrict again).
Come up with a plan. Again, don’t just think it. Ink it.
Trigger: You put your fork down
Action: Post-meal pleasure
Benefit: You get to do something you enjoy!
Feel Your Tongue While You Eat
How many times have you inhaled an entire box of chocolates without even noticing? How many times have you basically blacked out and woken up later, having no real recollection of eating, apart from the pain in your stomach, and an overwhelming feeling of sadness and disappointment?
The way to minimize a food blackout is to focus your attention on the food. Bring awareness to your tongue. How does your tongue feel in your mouth? How does the food feel, and taste, on your tongue?
If you’re completely new to this, here’s a 6 minute video I made to get you started: your first taste of mindful eating.
Once you’ve practiced along to this video with a single raisin, you can bring this awareness to single bites of your meals. Aim for one mindful bite per day.
When you’re happy with that (say after a week or so), you could aim for one bite per meal, or the first and last bites of your meal.
It might be useful to rate the taste between 1 to 10:
1 – This sucks ass.
10 – Best. Meal. Ever.
Maybe you notice that the first few bites are amazing (a 9 or 10), but that the taste diminishes as you continue to eat.
If your first few bites aren’t at the high end of the scale, this might be an indication that you weren’t hungry, or you didn’t pick what you actually wanted to eat.
You can also ask the Next Bite Question: will this next bite make me feel better (emotionally, physically and psychologically), or worse? Will it move me in a direction towards health and well-being, or will it move me away from my goals?
When you bring awareness to your tongue, rate the taste and ask the next bite question, you not only minimize the chance of a food blackout, but you can end meals more easily, and walk away from food because you know you’re done.
I encourage you also to bring this mindfulness and awareness to your tongue when you binge eat. If you can manage to eat just a few mindful bites when you binge (even if immediately afterwards you just numb out, back on auto-pilot), that is a breakthrough, and you’re going to be well on your way to ending this.
Trigger: You’ve put food in your mouth
Action: Feel your tongue
Benefit: Food tastes a shit tonne better (or you realise you didn’t actually like/want/need this food right now, which is also a great realisation).
If you’re up for a challenge, I highly recommend the 5-day Mindful Meal challenge each week over at Summer Tomato.
Pop Open The Hood
As we’ve seen, eating when you’re not truly hungry means you’re eating because you’re trying to manage some kind of emotion. Boredom, procrastination, happiness, anger, disgust, tiredness, sadness, these are all reasons people eat. So, if you’re finding it difficult to just “will yourself away” from food, then be prepared to do some internal work.
Emotions are completely human and natural, and they need to be felt to run their course. I know, you want to be happy all the time, but that’s just not how life works. But by acknowledging how you’re feeling, and by communicating it in a healthy way, you can reduce the intensity of difficult emotions, and the desire to eat in response to those emotions.
When we really open up to this stuff, we often find it’s not as scary as it might seem. It’s like when you walk into a dark room and you see a figure in the darkness; you think it’s a burglar or someone scary. But when you turn on the light, you realize it’s just an old coat that’s hung up on the door. Maybe it’s a coat you don’t need anymore.
When you can’t see your emotions clearly, they become this scary shape in the darkness. But when you turn on the light, you actually realize that they aren’t as scary as they seemed. You realize you’re stronger than you thought, and you can manage whatever is happening. It might not be pleasant to sit with sadness, and pain, but it is manageable.
I’ve found this out many times in my own life. For example, I realized I was scared of being hungry (because I’d been so used to pushing that sensation way, way down while I was dieting). But when I actually sat there and tuned into that hunger in my body, I saw that it wasn’t scary at all. It’s actually quite a gentle, even pleasant sensation — my body’s natural way of telling me that it needs some fuel.
So take a long, deep breath. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Then ask yourself:
- What emotions are present right now?
- What sensations are here in my body?
When you get the urge to binge, your body thinks it’s under threat (remember the Crown Jewels and Royal Guards). This is a great moment to say to yourself “I’m safe.”
Remind yourself eating is not an emergency.
Take a deep breathe, and say it again: “I’m safe.”
Throughout the day, open the fridge, look at all the food around you and tell yourself “Food is everywhere. I will never be deprived. I’m safe”.
When you get the urge to binge, I encourage you to see it as a reminder — your body is trying to tell you it needs some attention right now. Say to yourself: “Thank you. I’m safe. I love you.”
Once you get into the habit of tuning into your emotions, you can begin to deal with them in a way that will truly nourish you.
Trigger: Set a reminder on your phone to check in with yourself.
Action: “What emotions are present right now? What sensations are here in my body?”
Benefit: Thank yourself for taking the time to listen to how you’re feeling.
Make A Plan For Your Kryptonite Foods
We all have kryptonite foods. They’re the foods that drive you wild, make you weak at the knees. You’d rip your own arm off just to get a taste of it.
For me, it was peanut butter, brazil nuts and chocolate (and especially chocolate covered brazil nuts. OMG STFU.)
While the effect these kryptonite foods have on you will lessen over time once you stop restricting, it’s a good idea to lay out some boundaries for your relationship, until you can start seeing each other on equal terms again.
Here are some ideas:
- Eat it while other people are around / you’re out in public
- Order it in a cafe / restaurant and eat there
- Buy a small, individual packet to take home with you. This will minimize the “EAT ME” effect, where you leave a packet of something in the cupboard and it keeps calling you, over and over, until you’ve finished the bastard thing.
- Rather than eating straight out of the packaging, or while standing up, put it on a plate / in a bowl, then sit down with it, and do your best to focus your attention, and savour it.
This is not an exhaustive list, so feel free to come up with ideas that are going to work exactly for your personal situation.
Remind yourself that this is not forever, and that you CAN trust yourself. It’s just, for now, you’re choosing to not have those foods at home because it makes your life easier.
The same goes for other environmental triggers. Are there certain people, places or situations that make you want to binge? Can they be avoided?
The key here is to create a supportive environment for yourself. There is no need to invite struggle into your life.
Deal With Setbacks By Becoming Mentally Tough
“Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” – Robert Schuller
As well as beating myself up after a binge, I often had thoughts like “I’ll never get over this”. I would hear and read about people that had managed to get overcome their issues with food. They had figured it out, but what if I couldn’t?
What if I had to live like this forever?
Every single person has uncomfortable thoughts, limiting beliefs and just straight-up bad days. What sets mentally tough people apart is how quickly they get back on track.
It’s their ability to treat failure as a scientist would: as an opportunity to learn, tweak, and try again.
Recognize that failure is an event, not your identity.
When it comes to eating too much, problems arise comes when we get caught up in the feelings of being ashamed and disgusted with ourselves.
I know a guy who is really skinny. He loves food, he loves to cook for his wife, it’s a great passion of his. He’s naturally in tune with his body. Well, a few years ago, we had a big celebratory dinner. The restaurant was amazing, and everyone really pigged out because the portions were huge, the food was amazing, and we all really wanted to sample starters, mains and dessert.
That evening, I ate so much. I was so full, but when we left the restaurant, I was completely horrified with myself. To try to cope with those feelings, I got some chocolate bars on the way home and continued to eat into the night.
Well, the next day, my friend just calmly said to me “I got up this morning, and thought ‘Hm, yeah, I don’t think I need breakfast this morning’.”
He wasn’t ashamed of how much he’d eaten. He’d had a great time and trusted his body enough to know he would just listen to it again when he was next hungry.
Everyone overeats sometimes. Sometimes they overeat a lot. But the difference between someone who is continuously binge eating, and someone like my friend, is the reaction to the event. He listened to his body and said “OK, I ate too much there, I’ll just wait until I’m hungry again”, whereas I — at the time — was thinking “I’m a terrible human being. I’m such a failure. I hate myself and I can’t believe I have no restraint or control. I’m disgusting.”
I was experiencing shame. Here’s the difference:
Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am something bad.
This simple definition comes from Brene Brown (whose work I highly recommend).
The remedy to shame is compassion. If your self-talk is negative, telling yourself that you’re disgusting is like being in an abusive relationship, and you’re going to numb your feelings by coping in a way that you know how: by binge eating.
On the other hand, if you say to yourself “OK, I didn’t act in the way I wanted to, but that’s OK. I’m just going to try again,” then there is no blame and shame, just a clear intention of the direction you want to go in.
Learn How To Trust Yourself Again
Mental toughness, self-confidence, and self-trust is built, iteratively, over time using these three steps:
Step 1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
Step 2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.
Step 3. Celebrate those wins.
Below is a great exercise to address Step 1 and 2: to find out what is truly important in your life, and the actions you can take to help move you towards becoming your ideal self.
I got this exercise from Josh Hillis of One By One Nutrition (by the way, their courses are totally free and highly recommended for anyone struggling with their food and nutrition).
You need two things for this exercise: a piece of paper, and a pen.
Once you have those, draw two lines dividing the piece of paper in half both ways (like a cross in the middle of the page).
This will give you 4 boxes. In each box, you’re going to write different things (which we’ll go through step-by-step, below).
First, in the bottom right hand corner, I’d like you to write down your values, and things that surround those values. Here’s how you can think about this:
- Start by writing down who is important in your life.
- Write down the kind of person you want to be, with regards to health.
- Write down the kind of person you want to be, with regards to fitness.
- Write down the kind of person you want to be in general. Here’s a list of values to help you.
- Write down anything else that’s important to you.
You don’t have to get everything this time. Just take a few minutes and write a few things down. You can repeat this exercise as often as you need.
Here’s how I answered these questions:
- My friends, my family (name specific people here).
- I want to be able to move pain free. I want to be the kind of person who makes nutritional choices that will support my health and make me feel good.
- I want to be strong. I want to train hard (as long as it’s pain free). I want to move in some way every day. I want to feel like an athlete.
- I want to go on adventures, and never stop learning. I want to love the people in my life and make sure they know it. I want to be as compassionate as I can to anyone who crosses paths with me, and help other people rise up on their journey to become the best version of themselves.
Next, in the bottom left hand corner, write down all of the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings you have about your body, eating, nutrition, health, fitness, and any other thoughts that arise.
This is the part where so many of us feel completely alone. When we’re in that frame of mind, we don’t realize it’s actually incredibly common for people to not feel good enough, not feel attractive enough, to feel too fat, or completely unlovable.
We all have different things we feel bad about, and it’s important to remember that it’s totally normal and human to feel bad and have negative self-talk sometimes.
Once you’ve filled this box in, you can move onto the next step.
Thirdly, in the top left corner of the page, write down the actions you take to avoid those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that you wrote down in the last step.
For example, you might numb your emotions with TV, or social media. You might drink three glasses of wine when you’re tired and stressed.
These are the things you do when you’re feeling low energy, stressed, or emotional. It’s the physical actions you take that other people could see, if they were there.
Lastly, write down the actions you take that move you towards the values you wrote down in the first step (the bottom right of the matrix). This is what it looks like to physically do things that are in line with what is meaningful and important to you.
Again, keep this totally in the world of actions (rather than emotions). These are things people could see you do. Some examples might be:
- Stop eating when I’ve had enough
- Cook mostly whole foods
- Go for a walk when I’m stressed
- Train three times a week
- Put my fork down between bites
- Go out to lunch with my friends
- Call my parents
Here’s an example of what your overall matrix might look like:
You might notice that there are different things in the top versus the bottom of the matrix. On the top we have all the actions we take; on the bottom is all the stuff that goes on inside of us.
Many people get caught up in a cycle of uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, which lead to actions to try to avoid those thoughts and emotions.
These “go to” actions often take us away from uncomfortable thoughts and emotions, but don’t take us towards what truly matters to us.
The underlying assumption here is “I want to feel better right now. So once I feel better, then I’ll do what matters to me.”
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach — it isn’t inherently good or bad — but it doesn’t work well for living a life that’s meaningful, or moving towards your goals, values, or what really matters to you.
By using the exercises in this guide, you’re going to be working on being able to have those difficult thoughts, feelings and emotions (which are totally normal and human), and taking actions that are in line with your values anyway.
You’ll learn to create some distance and separation from your thoughts and feelings — just enough so they don’t bully you into certain kinds of actions anymore.
You’ll get to practice taking actions that add meaning and value to your life, no matter how you feel. Remember, at any point in your daily life, you can ask yourself:
- Am I taking actions away from uncomfortable thoughts and emotions?
- Am I taking actions towards values and what matters to me?
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.
To summarize, you learn to trust yourself by:
- Deciding the type of person you want to be.
- Proving it to yourself with small wins.
- Celebrating those wins, every damn time.
Reframe Those Thoughts
“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.” – Henry Ford
Martin Seligman is one of the leading researchers on positive psychology. He found that, after experiencing something negative, a pessimist would view the event as one that was personal, permanent and pervasive.
Example: pessimist eats an entire chocolate cake when they are trying to lose weight.
- Personal: This is part of my core identity, it is non-changeable. I am a failure. I will never lose weight. There is something wrong with me.
- Permanent: This will never go away. I will be fat and weak forever.
- Pervasive: Because I failed to stick to my diet, no one will love me. I’m never going to be successful, I shouldn’t even bother going for that job interview. I am worthless.
Phew. Some very powerful and hurtful thoughts there.
On the other hand, an optimist would view a negative event as temporary, situational and specific.
Example: optimist eats an entire chocolate cake when they are trying to lose weight.
- Temporary: Learning to soften my cravings and listen to my body’s hunger signals is a skill. I haven’t quite learnt it yet, but I’m working on it, and I will get there in time.
- Situational: That was a tough moment. In that moment, I didn’t use the skills I’ve been learning about hunger directed eating and controlling cravings.
- Specific: I’ve been really stressed today and I didn’t have enough sleep. I used food as a method of coping. I’m going to try to meditate and sleep more tonight, and I’ll try again tomorrow.
Interestingly, the opposite is also true! After a positive event, the pessimist views the event as temporary, situational and specific, whereas the optimist views the event as personal, permanent and pervasive.
Example: someone wins a local weightlifting competition
- Optimist: Great things always come to me, in every area of my life. The nicest people always talk to me, I have great health. This kind of thing just always happens to me.
- Pessimist: It’s just this once, it’s a fluke. The other guys must have been having a terrible day. This won’t happen again.
I invite you to write down any personal, permanent and pervasive, negative thoughts you have been having recently, and translate them into temporary, situational, specific ones.
I binged again. I’m such an idiot. Why do I keep doing this to myself? I’m a pathetic failure, and I’m going to be like this forever.
OK, that was a tough moment for me. In that moment, I didn’t use the skills I’m learning about how to deal with my emotions. Although this is painful right now, it will pass. I’m going to use these feelings and this event as a reminder that I don’t want to live this way anymore.
If you find this difficult, think about how you’d speak to a good friend. There’s no way you’d call them a pathetic failure, there’s no way you’d tell them they’ll be like this forever. So don’t speak to yourself like that, either.
With enough time and practice, you won’t need to write these thoughts down, because you’ll be able to change them on-the-fly. If you do this enough times, you’ll default to being an optimist. You’ll develop the self-trust you need to not just ending binge eating, but to excel in every area of your life.
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.
Once you’ve found a diamond and fist pumped 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. Or, maybe, instead of going straight to the cupboards when you get home, 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.
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 well-being in general?
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:
- 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!
- Emulate. How can you clone these diamonds so there are more of them in your life?
Build Momentum Using These 3 Questions
It’s super easy to forget all the good stuff you’ve done during the day, and it’s super easy to forget how far you’ve come in general. To keep on track, no matter what happens, I like to ask myself these questions at the end of the day:
- What am I Proud of?
- What could I Improve?
- What’s my Goal for tomorrow?
I remember this as PIG.
I actually use this in my training journal too. These are great to ask yourself at the end of every session, or at the end of the day. You’re in this, doing the hard stuff. It’s important to remember how far you’ve come, to be proud of yourself, and to look at what you can improve tomorrow — no matter what happened today.
The tiny, illegible handwriting of my training journal.
If you want to read more about mental toughness, Grit by Angela Duckworth is a page-turning, life-changer of a book.
What To Do When You Feel Unmotivated And Shitty
When you feel like shit, your body is normally kind of hunched over, and you’re making yourself small in some way. We all assume the mind influences the body — that my body is in this position because I feel depressed — but there is a tonne of research to show that this also works in the reverse direction. Your body and your behavior can actually influence your thoughts, perceptions and attitude.
You may have already heard about the study showing that holding a pen between your teeth makes you feel happier than holding a pen between your lips, because it forces you to smile. But here’s another amazing study: German students were asked to repeat certain vowels (i, e, o, a, u, ah, ü). They found that when the students repeated e and ah vowels sounds (sounds that require smiling expressions), the students’ blood flow increased and the temperature of their brain decreased, which resulted in a pleasant mood. When repeating the u and ü sounds, the result was the opposite: their blood flow decreased, their brain temperature increased, and they were less happy than before.
This kind of thing blows my mind.
So when you‘re low on energy, you can actually decide to move your body. Be gentle with yourself, sit up a little straighter, stretch your arms out above your head. Maybe even try to smile.
Because while I used to think I had to change my mood before my body would respond, I realize now that it works both ways. I can make myself feel at least a bit better by moving my body, and changing my facial expressions.
So when you feel unmotivated and shitty, I recommend you:
- Think about and visualize what will happen if you don’t take action (see also: Tim Ferriss’s TED talk about the costs of inaction).
- Adopt a “power pose”, such as moving your arms above your head, puffing your chest out, and making yourself as big as possible (learn more about this in Amy Cuddy’s excellent TED talk)
- Make the task so easy you can’t say no.
How To Measure Your Progress Without The Bathroom Scales
Every day, I’d almost cover my eyes, terrified of what the number was going to say. Whether it was “good” or “bad”, it would affect my entire day. And in response to whatever the scale said? That’s right: I’d eat.
The scale is full of emotion for so many people. So maybe it’s time to stop creating a time of day that you brutally judge yourself. Maybe it’s time to stop putting your self-worth into a number. Maybe it’s time to stop using an external measurement to gauge “how you’re doing”.
Stepping off the scale means you can focus on what actually matters: how you feel.
It means that, instead of using an external number, you can adopt a well-being mindset:
I ate in the way I want to take care of this body. I’m sleeping better. I’m seeing my energy and strength go up in the gym. My clothes feel looser. I feel happier, and more at ease in myself.
Personally, I set up a Google form with a series of questions, and emailed it to myself each week. The questions were:
- How light and energetic have I been feeling?
- Have I been eating lots of colourful vegetables?
- How is my overall happiness?
- How is my peace around food?
- How frequently do I feel joy in my life?
- What is the quality of my self-talk?
This way, I could focus on important things while tracking my progress without any of the emotions that are tied into weighing myself. After all, how you’re feeling is what really matters. The number on the scale is meaningless.
TO SUM IT UP:
- Binge eating is actually an attempt to take care of yourself.
- 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. By stopping any food restriction, and making a plan for your kryptonite foods, you can accelerate this feeling of control.
- Be prepared to do some internal work on your emotions: acknowledge how you’re feeling by observing your thoughts (and how they feel in your body), writing them down, or talking to someone.
- Progress isn’t linear. You’re practising something new, and trying to change a behaviour. Change is hard, so forgive yourself, no matter what. Use the event as a reminder of the actions you want to take, and the life you want to lead.
Answers To Common Questions
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’ll be eating exactly what your body needs. 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 performance 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 well-being 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 well-being my goal, my relationship with food was a beautiful side effect.
How do I deal with other people?
Feeling ashamed of binge eating is only going to keep you binge eating. Along with developing self-compassion, the best was to stop feeling ashamed of your actions is to talk to and connect with other people.
If you decide to talk to someone about it, make sure it’s someone you trust. When I was going through this, the first person I told said they were disgusted at me. Since I was also disgusted at myself, I didn’t tell anyone else (until much later when I found people who were also going through similar).
If you decide to tell someone be prepared that — if they haven’t gone through anything like this themselves — they may not understand what you’re going through. If that’s the case, get them to read this guide so they can begin to understand what it’s like. If they care about you, they will take the time to read it and understand what it’s like.
And you can always reach out to me at any time.
Phew. This has been a lot of stuff to take in. The absolute last thing I want for you right now is to feel pressured. I know that in itself can lead to feelings of discomfort, inadequacy, and wanting to binge.
Firstly, be aware that it’s OK to feel however you are feeling. You’re not a failure. I didn’t figure all of this out and implement it in a day, and I don’t expect anyone else to.
Start from the basics. Make a tally chart of the number of times a food thought pops into your head. Write to yourself once a day. Then slowly build more habits from there.
I’ve been a strength athlete since 2011, but I started a gymnastics course recently, and it told me to stand on one leg, with the other leg held out at 90 degrees. Well, at first, I was like wtf? How is this going to help me be awesome? But by turning up every day and doing the tiny habits, before I knew it, I was doing L-sits, handstands, and other cool stuff.
I know, it hurts and you want everything to be different right now. But try to gently lean into that feeling, acknowledge its presence, notice how it feels in your body. Then act in a small, manageable way that will truly nourish you. These small steps add up to something incredible.
Love After Love – Derek Walcott
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you have ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Reading is fun isn’t it? But you know what’s even more fun? Living the life you want to lead.
You can only do that if you put ideas that you’ve read into action.
Leave a message in the comments or email me: What was your favorite technique from the guide, and when you are going to try it out?
References: B. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps Score, pg 55  B. A. van der Kolk, “Clinical Implications of Neuroscience Research in PTSD”, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1071 (2006):277-93  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811916002469  See, for example, Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(5), 1252  Strack, Martin & Stepper, 1988  Zajonc, 1989