Binge eating, in the context of this article, is eating past the point of feeling full, often to discomfort, and usually is accompanied by a sense of loss of control. Binge eating can be the result of many factors, and these factors may not be easy to recognize, but below are some steps and strategies you might implement if you’re struggling with binge eating.
Before we begin, be aware that while some of the steps below may help you identify and address physical, mental, or emotional factors involved in binge eating, they are by no means a substitution for professional help.
If you induce vomiting, take laxatives, or engage in any other kind of purging after binge eating, please stop reading this guide immediately and seek professional help before you hurt yourself. You may think you can beat this on your own, but that route is likely a long one and you may never reach your destination. Seeking help doesn’t make you weak, it makes you smart. If you are worried you may feel embarrassed or ashamed, you don’t have to tell a soul. You aren’t the first and you won’t be the last, so get help.
That said, if you don’t engage in purging, but do regularly binge and then engage in other compensatory activities such as fasting and/or exercising in an attempt at “damage control” out of feelings of guilt, shame, or fear of gaining fat, then you might also seek professional help. Sometimes it’s not necessarily the bing eating itself, but the thought patterns and unhealthy relationship with food behind the binge eating that pose the greatest long-term threat.
First we’ll talk about what to do in the moment of a binge eating urge or episode.
Assess the situation for patterns and triggers
When you recognize the urge to binge coming on, start evaluating what’s going on around you and what you’re thinking, feeling, etc. Ask yourself the following questions and write down the answers if you need to:
- Where am I?
- What time is it?
- What was/am I doing immediately before/during the urge?
- Who am I with?
- What food(s) are the focus point of this urge?
- What are my thoughts and emotions?
- How do I feel physically?
You’ll probably need to do this many times before you can recognize any patterns or triggers. This isn’t a fun process but it’s a very powerful strategy for managing and preventing binge eating. The idea is that you’ll use your observations to develop a long-term strategy.
Develop a long-term strategy
Minimizing temptation and convenience
One of the first things to consider is whether you always binge eat with a certain food. If so, your best bet may be to limit that temptation. The usual suspects are foods that combine salty, fatty, and sugary flavors (think pizza, donuts, trail mix, ice cream, potato chips).
You might also figure out whether you are a moderator – somebody who finds that regular, small indulgences prevent feelings of deprivation – or an abstainer – somebody who finds that it’s easier to completely abstain from certain treats than to have a small taste spiral into an all-out binge.
Identify and address thought patterns and emotions
Some of the most common emotions associated with binge eating are feeling tired, stressed, depressed, lonely, and anxious. Identifying an emotion as a potential trigger is only the first step, though. You’ll need to dig deep to figure out how you might address this feeling with something other than food.
If you are feeling tired, you may need to work on practicing good sleep hygiene, and ask yourself if you are running yourself into the ground with your exercise routine. Take time to rest and recharge, and understand that you don’t need to go 100 MPH, 24/7.
If stress is the issue, work to identify the cause of the stress and practice stress management techniques like meditation (it may sound goofy but it totally works). This will take some time, and the stressors of life will not go away, but you’ll be better equipped to respond to the,.
Depression, loneliness, and anxiety can be tougher nuts to crack, and these feelings indicate that professional help may be a good bet. Here are some questions, though, that may help you get started:
- Are you developing and/or maintaining positive relationships (friends, family, etc.)?
- What interests or hobbies are you pursuing that bring you joy?
- How are your professional, social, and spiritual lives contributing to your sense of satisfaction?
As with the issue of purging and compensation, issues like depression, loneliness, and anxiety might be addressed much more effectively with professional help.
Manage environmental factors
If you find that you are always binge eating around certain people – or alone – or at certain places, ask yourself what is it about these people or places that make you feel the need to binge. This may be tougher and less straight forward than dealing with trigger foods, emotions, or thoughts, but may be a necessary step to breaking the binge pattern. You might consider that it may not necessarily be the people or places themselves that encourage the binge, but the way that these people and places make you feel or the thoughts they bring to mind.
Establish a healthy baseline
Sometimes we binge eat because our bodies are missing some nutrient that it needs. One person may not be eating enough protein, another may not be eating enough fat or possibly carbohydrates.
We all have different needs based on our genetics and activity levels, but one of the most critical and effective steps will be sticking to minimally processed, nutrient dense foods, and not going too long between meals (this is important if ravenous hunger is one of your triggers). If you’re unsure of how much of what you might be missing, below are some general guidelines (not a prescribed plan) that you might use to determine whether something may be missing from your eating habits.
- 20 oz. of water first thing in the morning, and then 2-3 more times throughout the day
- At least 1-2 palm-sized servings of protein with each meal – especially at breakfast
- At least 1-2 thumb-sized portions of healthy fat with each meal
- 1-2 cupped handfuls of minimally processed carbs with lunch and/or dinner
- At least 5 fist-sized servings of colorful leafy veggies every day
Also, it’s important to eat when you’re hungry, eat slowly, and stop eating when 85% full. These steps should help you get back in tune with your hunger signals.
Reassess the role food plays in your life
Often binge eating is associated with (or the result of) dieting, a restriction mindset, or the idea that food is a necessary evil that must be dealt with. This may be why it feels like a “release” or satisfying an addiction.
However, unlike other addictions – such as alcohol, cocaine, or nicotine – food is essential for life. It is imperative that you realize that healthy eating habits are 100% required for you to achieve optimal health.
If you have a history of dieting, you’ll benefit greatly from focusing on food quality (not quantity), eating according to hunger levels (remember to eat slowly), and throwing away your scale (which gives absolutely no indication of your body composition, health, or worth as a human being).
While acute episodes of binge eating might be caused by hunger, the pattern itself is often a result of mental and emotional distress. Your scale is doing nothing to help you in this regard.
Manage urges in the moment
Now that we’ve covered long term strategies you might take to address binge eating, we’ll talk about things you might do in the moment that you feel the urge to binge. As with pretty much everything else in this article, you’ll need to try out different things and figure out what works best for you.
- Go for a walk or find another way to remove yourself from the situation
- Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and wait (you might combine this with number 4)
- Acknowledge the urge, remind yourself that it will eventually pass, and ride it out
- Call a friend or family member (even if just to talk about something completely unrelated)
Finally, if you DO start binge eating, fight let the “f**k it” effect and remind yourself that it’s never “too late” to stop. I understand this is much easier said than done, but practice makes perfect and this is something you’ll probably have to keep working at for a long time.
In conclusion, if you’ve taken the steps above and still struggle with binging, or if you do not want to take any of the steps above because of fear of what might happen (for example, gaining weight), then you might want to seek professional help. Check out your local listings, do some Googling, or look into the resources below:
Remember that you’re not alone, and that you don’t have to fight this forever. Consider the steps above and seek help if need be.
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